Friday, April 30, 2010

Lend Me Your Ears

By John Gilstrap

Everyone is born with different gifts. I’ll tell you right now that I was at the end of the line when athletic prowess was being bestowed. I can’t hit, throw, kick or dribble worth a lick. Honest to God, in elementary school, the kid with braces on his legs was chosen for teams before I was. I’m not making that up.

I did okay in all things nerdy, though. I’ve been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember, and an aspiring writer since first grade. I still have some of the stories I wrote back in elementary school, and when I read them now, I become ever more appreciative that my parents spared me the truth and encouraged me anyway. At that age, I guess passion counts more than ability.

By the time I got to high school, writing well was about my only talent, granting me a certain measure of nerdy notoriety. Teachers loved me and jocks hated me for screwing up the bell curve in English class. In my sophomore year, I discovered a new talent: public speaking. Trophies in forensics and debate led to coveted roles like emceeing school talent shows. Turns out that public speaking is a great confidence-builder.

Fast forward thirty-five years, and here I am writing this blog entry on a flight to San Diego, where next week I will deliver three separate speeches as part of my big-boy job. I can’t wait. Truthfully, when I read that public speaking ranks among the top five phobias in people’s lives, I just don’t get it. Being in front of an audience is like living at a higher plane.

Which brings me to my point for today’s post:

We’ve spilled significant cyber ink over the past couple of years talking about the horrors and frustrations of book tours and store signings, and Lord knows I’ve lived my share. I hate sitting at that front table while people walk past as if I’m invisible, thoroughly absorbed in their pursuit of Michelle Gagnon’s next book. “We’re both in the G section,” I yell, but they just don’t care. The problem with most in-store signings is that I just don’t sell many books.

Give me a crowd to talk to, though, and I can sell a ton. Earlier this week, I spoke to the Charlottesville Newcomers, a luncheon group of about 100 ladies gathered at the Glenmore Country Club in Keswick, Virginia. I have a number of presentations in my repertoire, but the one I delivered on Tuesday is called “Dare to Dream.” It starts out as a funny look behind the scenes of the book and film businesses, and ends with a great inspirational message for anyone who’s ever been talked out of pursuing their artistic dreams. The audience was terrific. They could not have been more gracious. At the end, the applause rolled on way past polite, and into the range of genuinely appreciative. Several of the attendees told me that I was the best speaker they’d ever had. (At the risk of sounding grotesquely immodest, I get that a lot.)

And I sold a ton of books. More to the point, Barnes & Noble sold a ton of books. I’d arranged to have them bring stock to the luncheon and to set up in the back of the room. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I signed for a good 40 minutes.

It goes this way every time I get to work an audience. The problem is finding the audiences. If book tours were built around a speaking circuit, I’d willingly tour for weeks on end. Hell, lots of people earn serious cash by delivering speeches. How do you break into that market without first surviving a plane crash or being snatched by pirates? What a terrific way to earn a living! (The question is not rhetorical, by the way. If you know how to break into the speaking circuit, please share.)

So, what about you, dear Killzoners? Is the thought of delivering a speech—say, a commencement speech—the stuff of dreams or nightmares?


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoys public speaking. People look at me strange when I say it (more than when I say I love heights and planes too), so I play up the slight nerves that set in just before the first sentence leaves my mouth. Once I get going, though, I love the high, feeling the energy of the audience, getting my ideas across...
    But I'd have to be better to go professional. I talk too fast whenever I have something rehearsed, so I make it up as I go along (which isn't hard when I'm talking about what I've been doing for a living for the past 20 years). My best experiences: a talk in New York in front of 200 of the top scientists in my field, including my arch-nemesis, who attacked me ruthlessly (don't worry, I held my own and swayed most people to my way of thinking); and an audience of about 300 for a fundraiser where I spoke right after Elle McPhearson's mom and got as much applause! That's what it's all about.

  2. I seriously envy you. When I was in school, I got physically ill every time I had to make any kind of speech. I took a lot of sick days.

    I can force myself to speak to people now, but I don't like it.

    My oldest son is the opposite of me. He'll give a speech to anyone--whether they want to hear it or not. Never ask him a history question.

  3. John, like you (similar big boy jobs, me the Environmental Engineer, you the safety professional)I give plenty of presentations and have grown quite comfortable being in front of a room.

    My toughest gig was in Beijing, China for the US Department of Commerce speaking to about 300 Chinese with headsets on while a simultaneous translator tried to keep up. I can't stick to the script, it's boring that way. Try coming up with an opening joke in a language and culture that is so foreign.

    Like you, I do much better at speaking engagements selling books than I do at plain old book signings. My best record was at an old library in the city of St. Louis on a Saturday morning. I was shocked that almost 40 people showed up and more shocked that I sold over 40 books. Put me at a table in a Borders and I get to watch the people pass by trying hard to figure out what you're selling without making eye contact.

  4. I'm not crazy about public speaking, but I do it when necessary. Confession: In high school biology, I took "0"s on the oral reports every quarter (my other grades were so high, I still always had a "A" in the class), and the speech class in college nearly killed me (I managed to squeak out an "A" somehow). I'm still trying to figure out how I became a teacher and a sign language interpreter!

  5. I love public speaking. I can't say that I'm great at it, but I enjoy doing it.

    And I have no idea how you get on the public speaking circuit without nearly dying in a plane crash. Well, I do have some idea. There are organizations (schools, libraries) out there looking for speakers. Some don't pay much, if at all, but if you write to them and they like your topic they might ask you to speak. If you're good, people will remember you and your name will start showing up on the short list for organizations that pay more.

  6. I used to get ridiculously nervous before public speaking events, but now I enjoy them. I still prefer being on a panel to doing a 1-person presentation, though. It doesn't feel quite as pressured.

  7. I'm a ham, so I like public speaking too, if I know what I'm talking about. The other piece of the puzzle that should be mentioned, beyond just a lack of fear, is the ability to speak in an animated fashion. I don't mean speak in exclamation points, but speak with emphasis, rising and falling tones, pauses, etc. I'm often surprised at how people who are animated in everyday conversation can get up on a stage (with no fear) and be monotone and boring--and sometimes seem fake.

  8. I enjoy public speaking...but then I had an initiation of fire - the school I went to from kindergarten to 12th grade was massive and we had a huge auditorium. As the poor schmuck who did debating and public speaking I had to face a sea of teenage faces (all girls mind you)...after that anything was possible:)!

  9. I love to speak, teach, sign books, hobnob and nap (usually in that order)

  10. I don't think I can honestly say I enjoy public speaking. I was even a member of Toastmasters for several years. That helped. I think I do okay with small groups of say not more than 50, but I haven't found what I call the wow factor yet. By wow I mean that ability to really lead an audience and entertain an audience. I think that might be due to teaching some college students classes they really are not interested in, but they have to attend and I have to teach.

    It helps if you can pick your topic. In fact I'm trying to figure out my strengths for blogging right now. How to blog now that I'll have deadlines to meet. And is it worth it? How much, how often? You all know what I mean.

    So John and Jim and anyone still out there. How do you wow your audiences? What's that one thing you can name that really makes it work for you?

  11. Jill, for me it's passion + preparation. I have to find that central point that I really care deeply about, and build my talk around that. Then, I make sure I have organized my material in such a way as to make that passion clear, and leave the audience with something substantial as take away value.

  12. Jill,

    For me, the one critical factor that makes the difference between a "wow" speech and a hum-drum presentation is the presence of a story arc. Even when imparting technical data for my big-boy job, I always do it in the context of a larger story. Vignettes that seem like entertaining throw-aways at the beginning of the speech pay off at the end to drive home a larger, usually dramatic, point.

    To your point about blogging in the presence of a deadline, I highly recommend that you become part of a group blog such as this one. That makes you a voice among several with shared interests, and greatly reduces the stress associated with coughing up material for the blog. I can't begin to imagine how people do these things solo.

    John Gilstrap

  13. I don't mind speaking to large gatherings. I have more trouble with small crowds of people I don't know ...until I've had a bracer. I don't know what that's about.