Business Musings: Public Speaking

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I never meant to become a public speaker, although I did train for it. I was in competitive forensics (public speaking) in 8th and 9th grade, although I transferred over the debate in high school. Even though I went to State both years (once with a poem I wrote myself), I didn’t like memorizing and declaiming. I was much more comfortable with debate—learning a topic and arguing it in front of judges. We went to State for that too, my team and I, and had some adventures that would probably make my parents’ hair stand on end (if they were still alive, and if I would ever have told them).

I learned how to speak in front of groups then because speaking in front of groups terrified me. That tends to be my M.O. If something frightens me, I confront it. If it’s a “silly” fear, like public speaking, I learn how to overcome it—enough.

(I also had a career in radio, but it doesn’t translate: what terrified me was being seen, not the speaking part.)

All that public speaking training came in handy once I became a professional writer. I didn’t know that I would be required to get up on panels and pontificate about things, such as the topics I wrote about or the genres I wrote in. Or on writing itself.

I’ve gone to conferences as a speaker for more than thirty years now. I still remember the terror of the early ones, and something I learned at my second Guest of Honor stint: I’m a better public speaker without a script than I am with one. Now, even if I’m giving a keynote, I get up in front of an audience with notes in boldface of points I want to highlight, not a written piece of paper that I have to read aloud. I suck at that.

I like the eye contact. I like being able to alter my topic on the fly, if the audience looks bored, or too many people start packing up to leave.

One other side effect of being a “famous” author was attending a lot of banquets, many of which had speakers. I had to go to every major event in science fiction when I was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which gave me a heck of a speech-survival instinct (still!). Back then, I could flee a room faster than anyone except Jack Williamson and Robert Silverberg at the very whiff of a bad speaker. (Oh, dear, I would say to my seatmates, I need to hit the restroom. And then I would vanish…until the speaker was done. You see, it’s not polite to return to your seat while a speech is in progress…)

I’ve given speaking a lot more thought than I usually admit. Here’s what I do.

  1. I make sure I know the topic I’m asked to talk about. (You’d be surprised how many folks don’t.)
  2. I make sure I’m as entertaining as I can be. Or as shocking as I can be. (Sometimes I want writers in the audience to think about what I’m discussing.)
  3. I leave time for questions, because that’s often the best part of a presentation. People ask questions about things I’ve never thought of. If I don’t know the answer, I say so. If I do, I pontificate a bit. And often, I end up thinking about that topic for a while thereafter. That’s one reason why I started doing Ask Kris Anything, because I can’t travel, and I miss the questions.

I’m sure I do other things that I can’t remember at the moment, things specific to an event or to a panel. (I try not to eviscerate my fellow panelists…unless they deserve it. And more than once, a racist/sexist/asshole panelist has deserved it.)

One thing I always do, though, is ask for feedback. If I goofed, I want to know. If people like something, I want to know. I’m always trying to improve for the next time.

Fast forward to 2019. I’m attending conferences here in Las Vegas. You’ve heard about two of the conferences/events I’ve attended. I’ve gone to a few others, trying to learn new things. Most of the speakers I’ve heard are good or good enough. Some are inexperienced, but it doesn’t matter, because their subject matter is so interesting.

I saw one man at the Mob Museum who was, frankly, a terrible speaker if you wanted an organized, straightforward, PowerPoint presentation, and yet, he was so utterly fascinating as a person that no one in the room cared.

I saw a beautiful PowerPoint presentation that would have been better without its speaker.

But the thing that prompted this post was a leadership conference I went to not long ago. The conference was an utter bust for me. It was billed as a conference with three tiers: a young professional tier, a management tier, and an executive tier.

It was also billed as a local conference. The executive tier was geared (according to them) to everyone who owned, ran, or was at least at the vice-president level of a company/corporation. The first bad sign was that there was no programming listed a month before the conference, so no way to know if the conference was as billed.

But, I figured, I could network with some locals here, and since the businesses here are high end, I would learn some important things about running a business that I hadn’t considered.

The program was released the day before the conference started, and whoa, was it not what I wanted. Still, I figured, networking.

So I went to the opening keynote, which was very good. The speaker was the first woman to run a major television network, and she was a good speaker. She ran over (a big no-no), so we didn’t get to network, but I didn’t care since everyone at my table was middle management from out of state.

Then I went to a few of the panels and, as the only other business owner I met there (who was from California) said, If I hadn’t learned this stuff already, I wouldn’t have a business. Yeah. Executive, my ass. I could have done a much better job than every “Executive” level speaker they had.

So I looked ahead at who was speaking. By lunch, I realized that most everyone was not from Las Vegas, and they were all sent by their corporate overlords. The conference was so basic, I wouldn’t have sent any of my employees to it.

The conference wasn’t for me, and I didn’t need to waste time on top of the money I’d spent to go. (Which was less than those corporations spent with hotel and travel and all that, but was still a big enough fee that I regretted every dime.)

I stepped into the corridor to head home, and ran into that morning’s speaker, the television executive. I told her that I enjoyed her speech. She focused on me and said, “Good. What did you learn?”

Silly me, I thought she was asking for feedback. “Well,” I said, “I own several businesses and I thought your emphasis on—”

“Yes,” she said, clearly impatient, “but what did you learn?

A woman behind me, who had come up during the conversation, repeated the speaker’s stupid (and I do mean stupid) catch phrase.

“Exactly!” the speaker said. Then she pointed at me. “You would do well to learn that.”

And she walked off.

I stood there with my mouth open. I had just been insulted, disrespected, and dismissed.

I had never had that happen to me at any conference I had attended. I generally don’t approach a speaker afterward, though, and if I do say something, it’s usually in passing, as it would have been with this speaker, if she hadn’t engaged.

But she did. She asked a question, and I started to answer it. She didn’t want an answer; she wanted an acolyte.

As I left, I wondered if I had ever unintentionally disrespected someone after a talk I had given. I might have, especially if I was in a hurry, but I don’t think I ever tried to get them to tell me how great I am. (Yes, she was a narcissist, which made put some of her speech in perspective.)

That interaction clinched the experience for me. I fled. I didn’t need that kind of crap.

And that’s when I realized one thing about speaking that I had known, but hadn’t really articulated.

The speaker’s behavior before and after the speech are as important as the speech itself. If she treated me that way, imagine how she treated the organizers. No wonder she was alone in the hallway, without people trying to talk to her.

I always tried to respect the people who invited me, and answer questions from the people who had them afterwards. As I got sicker, the afterwards became harder; I couldn’t concentrate with a migraine or other problems. So I would leave the area as quickly as I could.

When I realized I could no longer be “on stage” long enough to be a good speaker (before, during, and after), I stopped accepting gigs. I’m doing a few here in Vegas, because I live here and I’m not ill (mostly). If I have to travel to an event, though, I can’t be a good speaker at that event. Sigh.

That’s another important part of public speaking: Knowing what you can and cannot do. If you can’t give a PowerPoint, then don’t volunteer. If you can’t fill two hours, don’t volunteer. If you can’t be gracious, don’t go, for heaven’s sake.

The other two speakers I heard at the event were in the mediocre category. One tried to be shocking. She wasn’t. And her story was really out of place at a leadership conference. The other one was a twenty-something trying to talk about how to be confident. (She was there for the young professionals track.) She wasn’t confident. I wanted to pull her aside and tell her to stop body-shaming herself. (Oh, it was sad, the way she kept putting herself down. By the end, I just wanted to give her a hug.)

But I’ve encountered speakers like that before—unsuited to the venue, or really not the expert they claimed to be. The good speaker was the one who taught me something—in the negative.

And she gave me this blog. Because I realized I had never discussed public speaking before on the blog.

I don’t think of public speaking as part of writing, but in the past month, I’ve talked to a lot of my old traditional writer pals who are making a butt-load of money giving speeches to corporations or places like this leadership conference. These writers (mostly) are having trouble selling another novel, but they are making money off their reputations by speaking.

I know some indies who are also using public speaking to make additional sales of their books. These indies have paper copies of the book (ebooks are hard to sell at conferences) on some nearby table, and then the writers do a talk. The thing is: the talk has to be good for this sort of thing to work.

A lot of us do podcasts or video interviews. I’m doing fewer and fewer of these. I simply don’t have the time. I tried to schedule a few hours a month for interviews, and even that isn’t working. One interview, which I enjoyed, will go live in a few weeks from the day I write this, and needed to be redone because of technical failure on their end…and I don’t have time to redo the interview.

While I get exposure from these, I don’t get reimbursed, and in a season where I’m dropping writing projects I want to do, I need to rethink my schedule, which means rethinking podcasts and interviews done for free, no matter how much I want to do them.

That’s one of those time management things we must all examine in our careers. I have so many projects that I’m better off writing than I am talking about writing. And I’m busy here in Las Vegas (as you can tell from the conference above), as I try to learn new things and expand my own worldview.

So…is it necessary for a modern writing career to give speeches, talk on panels, do a Q&A, or participate in a podcast interview?

Naw, you don’t have to. We’re introverts after all, and public speaking is a skill.

Say no if it makes you uncomfortable. Say no if you can’t be nice when you’re tired or stressed or faced with a vast array of stupid. Say no if you don’t have the time. Say no if you don’t clean up well. Say no if the very idea makes you shiver for days.

If you do say yes, though, then follow my rules above. Be nice, be entertaining, and think about your audience, not yourself. If you aren’t a good public speaker, figure out what you are good at. I prefer to have conversations with the audience, not lecture them or talk to them too much. I will do a reading if I have to, and I’m good at it, but I’m not going to give a canned speech, especially one where I have to hand out the text of the speech ahead of time.

I’m really good on a TelePrompTer, but I hate using them, because I’m always aware I’m being filmed when that happens. (I think the last time I did a TelePrompTer speech was 2011.)

Figure out the circumstance, where you’ll give the talk/speech/Q&A and ask how many people are expected. It’s not worth your time to dress up, leave home, drive two hours, give up an entire day, even if you stay in a hotel, if only five people are expected. (That’s happened to me: basketball finals when the Portland Trail Blazers were in the finals, and I was giving a talk at Powell’s. No one, and I mean no one, was in the store, let alone willing to listen to an author read. Heck, I didn’t want to be there either. I wanted to watch the game.)

If you do want to add public speaking to your repertoire, I would recommend taking some courses in public speaking if you’ve never done it. Universities offer them. So do local business organizations. Get used to standing in front of people. Your local library might be willing to let you experiment on them. Suggest a reading or a talk. See how it goes.

Speaking is like everything else. Practice makes you better.


Whenever you get invited to do something, whether it’s on paper or email, online or in person, remember you’re a writer first, and make the decision with that in mind. Remembering that you’re a writer first really clarifies. It also makes saying no easier, if you’re going to say no.

And if you do say no, be gracious about it. They like your work enough to ask you to do something. They’ve heard of you and think you’re going to bring value to something they’re doing. Thank them for it, whether you can do it or not.

Most of all, have fun. Because it is something different from sitting alone in a room and making things up. And sometimes, different is good.


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“Business Musings: Public Speaking,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.



3 thoughts on “Business Musings: Public Speaking

  1. “Now, even if I’m giving a keynote, I get up in front of an audience with notes in boldface of points I want to highlight, not a written piece of paper that I have to read aloud. I suck at that.

    I like the eye contact. I like being able to alter my topic on the fly, if the audience looks bored, or too many people start packing up to leave.”

    Yeah, you’re reading the audience, engaging, adjusting. Not surprising to me given your teaching background. And requires a much larger skill set than just reading aloud. Talking to an audience instead of at them.
    The audience should feel that they are in a moment in time (like every moment in their life) that is alive and unique, never to be repeated. If the speaker is relating to their speech more than their audience, it feels canned, stale. Even if the speaker is otherwise ‘good.’
    Speakers are there to hold a portal for something — to understand something, change people’s relationship with something, make connections between ideas, offer information people don’t have yet.

    I think people psych themselves out a bit sometimes, when they get asked to speak, especially if they haven’t done it much. There can be a vulnerability to making it about yourself (why did they ask me, I have to be great, etc) but it really isn’t. Not about the speaker, but about what they’re holding for others.

    As soon as I grasped that, 80% of the fear went away. I stopped worrying about what I appeared like, which freed up the bandwidth I needed to see how people are hearing what I’m saying, and how I’m saying something so its clear and most accessible to them.

  2. The point of how one behaves before and after a performance presents a thorn in my side. I do storytelling, and I’m fine standing on stage, lights and all, talking to people. I’m fine before (mic check, green room, getting into my space are all tasks that give me structure) and during (it’s just a story… and they want me to succeed, right?). But the after. Oh, AFTER. That’s when my negative self-talk catches up with me and I become hyper-aware of people actually observing me, taking a measure of me. Seeing something I might be unaware of. Too fat? Voice with too thick an accent? My self-talk is all personal. It’s not ever about the story, it’s about me as a person. In retrospect, it’s all inaccurate, people just want to shake hands or ask a question. They are all kind. However, the mass of human flesh around me feels like I’m swimming across a river and I’ve misjudged the distance. Weird, huh?
    I think that’s why I’ve not been pursuing signings and such.
    Maybe it’s a stupid fear to overcome.

  3. …I get up in front of an audience with notes in boldface of points I want to highlight, not a written piece of paper that I have to read aloud. I suck at that.

    Totally yes for me, too! A list of large-type bold-faced highlights is the only way that feels comfortable for me. I want to feel like I am sharing naturally with my audience, and I can’t do that if I’m reading or reciting something canned.

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