I speak in public a lot, which is a weird thing for a person with as much social anxiety as I have to do. I mean, I can barely speak in private.
But if you’re going to be a writer in the present century you pretty much have to do it. And the truth is, after hating it and fucking it up 10,000 times – and many of the people reading this blog have probably seen me fuck it up in person — I’ve actually started to like speaking in public. A few weeks ago I interviewed Ray Kurzweil at SXSW, and I figured it would be in some dinky hotel conference room named after some 19th Century sailing vessel, but it turned out to be in an auditorium that sat 3,200 people. And it was mostly full.
And the funny thing is, I think it went fine. I’m pretty sure my head didn’t explode, and that I spoke in English most of the time. (Ray was, as usual, brilliant.) Afterwards going back up to the green room Al Gore was in the same elevator as us, so that’s mostly what I remember about the whole thing. But I’m pretty sure it went OK.
So since I’ve thought about it a lot, I’m going to pass along the lessons that I have so painfully learned in the form of this guide to Public Speaking … the Lev Grossman Way!
Lesson 1: Ignore your autonomic nervous system. At this point I’m so used to my heart racing and my palms sweating during an event, it doesn’t even freak me out anymore. I expect it and let it run its course and know it for the atavistic evolutionary response that it is. I don’t worry about it. In fact if that ever doesn’t happen when I’m in front of an audience, call 911.
Lesson 2: Wear something you like. It’s sort of like the broken-windows policy: if you think you look OK, you may actually start to feel OK.
Lesson 3: Do not, repeat not, look at people’s faces. When I’m speaking I look at the aisles and the doors and the lights and the back wall, but not the people. This is because when people are listening to you speak, they tend to look weird. It’s just a fact. I do this too: you feel like the speaker can’t see you, so you’re free to let your face be totally blank and expressionless. But when the speaker sees that, they think they’re absolutely dying on stage. I try not to read too much into it. At readings people tend to look the same when they’re bored as when they’re totally fascinated. The only way to find out if anybody’s actually paying attention out there is to make a joke. If nobody laughs, yep, you’re dying.
Lesson 4: Massively over-prepare. Unless you’re superhuman, if you want to speak coherently in front of a crowd, without notes, then you have to run through your speech, like, a lot of times. More times than you’d think. It’s like drinking water before you go to bed after a big night out: just force yourself to do it. I don’t write things down, or memorize a specific wording for what I want to say, because then it comes out sounding robotic. But I do practice saying what I’m going to say, in different ways, over and over again.
Lesson 5: Either have a beer or don’t. I’ve tried it both ways. Rule of thumb, if I’m in a bar, and other people are drinking, I’ll have a beer. This may or may not make me a better speaker. But the point is: I like beer.
Lesson 6: Do be funny, if you can manage it. The secret here is, you don’t actually have to be super-funny when you’re speaking in public. Nobody expects you to be Jon Stewart. People are pessimistic; they don’t expect speakers to be funny at all, so a pretty small amount of funniness goes a surprisingly long way. Say the joke as un-nervously as possible, and you can almost psyche people into laughing. Just don’t go too far and laugh at your own joke. I’ve seen perfectly funny jokes be killed in broad daylight that way. Not pretty.
Lesson 7: Pretend you’re having a good time. This is an iron law. It doesn’t really feel like it, but when you’re speaking in public you are effectively throwing a party. You are the host of this particular social function, and it is your sworn duty to convince people that they didn’t make a horrific mistake by showing up. You have no choice: whatever your personal feelings or ideological beliefs are about smiling, you must smile, at least a little.
Lesson 8: Bail out early. If you’re going to err — and everybody errs — err on the side of reading or speaking too short. I don’t care if you’re John Milton him-bloody-self: Nobody wants to hear you read aloud from your work for half an hour. I think 12 minutes is about optimal. Time yourself before-hand. I read a printed page in about 3 minutes, but YMMV.
Step 9: Personally I don’t bother with that thing where you imagine everybody in the audience in their underwear. I don’t know about you, but I do that all the time anyway. It’s how I get through daily life.
If by some bizarre chance you live near Oxford, and you want to see these principles in action, I’ll be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on Friday night.
Next week: How to Make Love … the Lev Grossman Way!