Your Voice, in Public

The dreaded podium.
photo credit: Brian Herzog
source: Flickr (creative commons license).

Last week, at a local writers’ coffeehouse sponsored by the Philadelphia Liars Club, the topic of pitches came up. Meaning the kind of pitch you do sometimes in an elevator (giving the pitch its name), sometimes in a conference room, and never in a bathroom. The “I’ve finished a novel/autobiography/teleporter,” pitch. The “you’ll remember me, because,” pitch.

Keith Strunk, an actor, author, and Liar (the club linked above, not the activity), in particular said a number of good things about practice. About knowing well what you’re going to say before you need to say it. About speaking with confidence, and being yourself.

Two great tips:

  • Practice saying your own name, aloud. A lot. That way, when you introduce yourself, you don’t mumble it. Don’t rush it.
  • Practice describing your novel/autobiography/teleporter – NOT so that you can corner someone and bludgeon them with the description, but so that, if it comes up in conversation, you can answer the question, “So what are you working on?” as if you know what you’re working on. This is important.

This week, the topic of reading in public came up in a different setting, during a conversation with James D. Macdonald (aka Uncle Jim on Absolute Write) – some tips emerged:

  • Speak slowly and clearly. Read from a printed manuscript – mark emphasis points, if you work that way.
  • Do your best not to hide behind the furniture. Stand before the mast table, podium, etc.
  • Don’t run long. Practice beforehand, with a clock. No one has ever been criticized in the history of ever for ending on time, or even a bit early.
  • Remember to breathe.
  • (updated, from Scott Kennedy’s comment below) Make eye contact. Draw horizontal lines toward the margin of your manuscript. this will remind you to look up, and help you find where you left off.
  • (ibid) Use your friends. Practice in front of them. If you can, test the reading space early by having a friend sit at the back so they can let you know if you’re being loud/articulate enough. If that room fills up with bodies, you’ll need to be a little louder again, as they absorb sound.

Super-easy, right? At some point in the near future* some of you might have the opportunity to see if I can practice what I preach. (Stay tuned…)




  1. Another good tip, if you can wrangle it, is to practice reading some of it aloud before someone else, as the addition of another live human to the room can change one’s breathing, nervousness, etc., and it’s best to encounter that response beforehand.

    If you’re in front of the podium, and holding your manuscript just in your hands rather than having it upon a music stand, make sure you’ve practiced turning the pages as well.

    And an actor who has often had to cold read off scripts at auditions with little preparation, another markup technique is to just draw horizontal lines toward the margin at moments when I know I want to be making eye contact with the audience. That way, when I glance back down at the page again, I can quickly find where I left off.

    If you’re in a room without a microphone, try to get in there beforehand and have a friend sit at the back so they can let you know if you’re being loud/articulate enough. If that room fills up with bodies, you’ll need to be a little louder again, as they absorb sound.

  2. Great tips. I was terrified of speaking in public when I started grad school and (I am not making this up) always did a shot before any oral exposé in class. In those early years, I generally couldn’t even hold paper when speaking due to shaking (and, no, not from the booze).

    Later, for conferences, I always timed papers out by reading them aloud multiple times. In addition to making everyone’s day by not going long, the bonus of doing this was then knowing the text much better and being able to look less like I was reading and connecting more with the audience. Timing is key! It never ceased to amaze me how experienced professors/lecturers didn’t seem to know how many pages = 20 minutes for them.

    I always meticulously planned asides in the margin, which I guess were also my “eye contact” points. Having these comments planned helped me make it much more conversational and relaxed (and, as a result, less fear-inducing for me). People were always amazed to learn later that my “off-the-cuff” remarks were anything but.

    If I knew someone in the audience, I would note down a moment to check with them visually for volume/speed (asking them at the start, of course). Your perspective can definitely change when the room fills up, so it’s nice to have a pre-arranged checkpoint early on.

    • These are awesome tips, Sylvie. Especially the asides, and the timing.

      I totally get doing a shot in grad school. May have done the same before a thesis presentation. Practice works much better!

  3. You appear to have skipped the panic, tremble uncontrollably, and question why you ever thought this was a good idea steps. Also the hide behind the nearest available object/person step. 🙂 I’m intrigued by your TBA/TBD tease…

    • These are understood to be elements of my dramatic performance! And note that I ruled out hiding behind furniture, *not* under it.

      All will be revealed,…

  4. The idea of reading off a prepared manuscript sounds so luxurious. I hate having to string together a story out of images on a power point presentation.
    Also, O.o regarding your mysterious ways and hints.

  5. Informative and entertaining: I’d never considered practicing my name. When I was doing “cold calls” for a national project, I learned just how important proper preparation was. Make certain you have your pitch fully memorized because people WILL throw you curve-balls.

  6. Yes, being concise in your speech is always a good idea. Running over time is not. William Henry Harrison delivered the longest inaugural speech in history, clocking in at over 90 minutes. As it was freezing in Washington, D.C., at the time and he and his audience were outdoors, this was a very bad idea, and about all anyone said regarding his speech was how bloody long it ran. He died a month later as a result of complications from exposure, proving that droning on and on can also be injurious to your health.

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