Thursday, July 31, 2014

Public Speaking and Promotion

James O. Born

Every writer you speak with now-a-days, especially savvy ones like our own Paul Levine, talk about the need for promotion. It's rare to meet an author who doesn't think the publisher could do more for them even in these times of limited resources. I agree that it's easy to view yourself as the center of the publishing universe, but over time, with experience, I realized that neither Putnam nor McMillan pinned the success of their companies solely on my novels. Whether that was a mistake or not, only time will tell.

I’m no expert on promotion. I do consider myself a good public speaker and that's where I rest most of my promotional energy outside of blogging. I think it's important to seize a crowd immediately whether it's ten people or 1000. And I will admit that this is a skill I gained early on in my police career where the failure to capture someone's attention could literally result in serious injury. Whether it's using my voice or my relative size or telling a joke, I don't want any part of the talk, especially the opening, to not capture the attention of everyone in front of me. I have sat through dozens, perhaps hundreds of talks by writers and police officers as well, where my mind would wander and all I could do was hope it would be over soon. The more of these deadly boring speeches I attend, the more adversely they seem to affect me. Perhaps it's just because I'm getting older or maybe it's a defense mechanism, but now I find I have to use the restroom much more often when I'm listening to a speaker who is reading from a prepared text or is clearly terrified to be in front of the crowd. I'm not judging or condemning, but I would like people to examine their own strengths and weaknesses and decide if this is the best use of their time for promotion. 

There are hundreds of tips for becoming a better public speaker. Search the internet and you’ll see plenty of choices. Here are few simple direct ones from yours truly:
  1. What’s the worst that could happen? The audience probably won’t rise up and kill you. And if they do, they still won’t eat you.
  2. Speak to three audience members, maybe someone you know or take the time to meet before the talk. Preferably have them spaced out in three different areas of the crowd.
  3. Listen to speakers you like. Chances are they don’t throw in a lot of “Ummms” and “Ahhhs.” They also get to the point and try to be entertaining.
  4. Never follow a good speaker. Never. Fake an injury if necessary.
  5. Keep it shorter than you think it should be. Limit questions to six after the talk.
  6. Keep it as conversational as possible.
  7. Evaluate yourself critically afterward.
  8. Do better next time.
  9. Stop complaining about having to speak in public. Either do it or don’t. This isn’t Iran, no one will force you to do anything.
  10. I reiterate:  Is this the best use of your time?

The same goes for all other forms of promotion. You have to ask yourself if it's worth the time it takes away from writing. Is it? If you are expected to produce roughly a novel year, how much time can you spend on the road talking to a few people at a Barnes & Noble or even a crowded library? It all comes down to your own resources and the most valuable one of those is time.

I gave up working on the blog for several years. I have no idea if it is a useful promotional tool. But my friends, or specifically Patty, Paul and Jackie convinced me to give it another shot and I decided to narrow my focus only to the subject of writing and publishing. I do this week in and week out because it is fun. I get something out of it. I couldn't tell you exactly what it is, but I feel good when I've written a blog and I feel relieved when it has been posted on time.

One thing I know for sure is that if you don't try anything at all, you are doomed to fail. There are so many opportunities that have opened up to me because I did something, often against my will, that I wouldn't normally do. I've made contacts from more than one convention that have  helped me with everything from advice on covers to finding an entertainment attorney. By attending meetings at the Mystery Writers of America, I have made friends in the writing community who have been invaluable in talking about my books to others and helping me with a number of different problems.

So the crux of this blog is you do have to perform some kind of promotion. You never know how it's going to turn out. My friend, best-selling author Randy Wayne White, told me that it takes at least two years to see the effects of book talks and other things promoting your book. I told him that sounded like an easy dodge because most authors are done with their career after two or three years. But he's right. Little things like moving on to paid speaking engagements and meeting new friends are side benefits to trying to expand your reading base.

So when the next person asks me why I write for the Naked Authors blog, for the sake of brevity, I will say, it's good for exposure. But you know the truth. I like doing it. At my age there are very few things I will do anymore unless I like doing them.

Today's quotes are from the same, perfect source:

“If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack.” 
 Winston Churchill

“A good speech should be like a woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” 
 Winston Churchill


  1. from Jacqueline: As always, a great post, Jim. And timely, as I come to the end of a 5-week pretty intense book tour, in which I have been doing some four events each week. I like to tell the stories behind the story, so to speak - on this tour I've been talking about food as a flashpoint for emotional nostalgia, particularly for men who went to war in 1914, when the army had little real understanding of the link between food and morale ... see there I go again, starting to tell the story. I have a passion for the themes underpinning my stories, so it's easy to talk about them and to bring people along with me. I think that's a key - talk about the connections in your work that really resonate with you as a human being - and you are sure to touch the other human beings you're talking to. I only ever read for about three or four minutes, to bring a talk to a close.

    1. Wonderful to see you at Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore. I noticed your voice changed as if you were speaking in a character's voice when you read from the book.


  2. James,

    your comments about promotion reminded me of something. Before Facebook, I discovered a new author through a BB or newsgroup and I started reading Penny Warner's Connor Westphal series.

    Facebook is a wonderful way to discover new authors, I also learn about new authors from this blog, among other blogs like Debutante Ball, Jungle Reds, and several others.

    Thank you for another great post as usual,

  3. I've spoken at dozens and dozens of bookstores, libraries and other events but didn't join the Facebook world until about a year ago. It's more fun than I thought it would be. Word of mouth is the most effective way to build a career, or so I'm told. It's one person telling a friend how much they loved your book and so on.