Public Speaking — the Lev Grossman Way!

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!

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22 Responses to “Public Speaking — the Lev Grossman Way!”

  1. M says:

    ok it obviously works now. but i dont know about you, i FREAK OUT if my website is down. i think about all the hard work and data i never backed up.

    anyways, i used to wing everything in school because i thought i could.
    then i did this one presentation on mathematics and theology? and my teacher just straight up called me out on it. you didn’t prepare did you! i was like, damn they could tell!

    so i started preparing… so i think im a bit better now.

  2. Jaimie says:

    I love this post. It’s so interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

    I was stupid and majored in communications in college so I had 6 speech classes. And this was a hard college, hard to get A’s. Practice took the fear right out of me. Now I see public speaking as this high.

    One class was 8:00am and the teacher stood up on the first day and said, “My goal for this class is to have every one of you stand up here and talk every time we meet.” 8:00am. And we gave impromptus every day, except the days when we were giving speeches.

    I think the most important lesson I learned when giving speeches is this: People want you to do well. They get so uncomfortable if it becomes obvious that you suck. If you’re passingly mediocre, they will remember you as being just fine — even great. The audience is on your side.

  3. It’s TRUE about people’s faces looking waxed and funny when you’re speaking. Everyone looks stoned, and you think you ought to jump off something high instead of finishing.

  4. goblinbox says:

    I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’: “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” may be one of my very favorite sentences, ever ever evar.

  5. Rita says:

    I loved this!

    I was just telling someone about my college speech teacher’s recommendation that you always practice in front of a room of stuffed animals. I thought that was dumb, so I did my first speech dry and I shook and quivered and embarrassed the hell out of myself. I decided to do that stuffed animal practice run and I shook and quivered and embarrassed the hell out of myself in front of the stuffed animals! But, at least only I knew it. After many practices in front of the most judgmental group of teddy bears, baby lions and fuzzy bunnies I’ve ever known, I just learned to roll with the shaking and quivering. I think eventually I pulled in your lesson #3 as well, because man, those stuffed animals were harsh. They just kept STARING at me.

    However, Lev, I have to add that one thing I noticed during your reading here was the best thing you can do is be yourself. You are totally rocking that Being Lev Grossman thing. You own your weaknesses and your strengths speak for themselves, which is very inspiring. You never looked entirely comfortable while reading, but that was cool, because that’s you and I, personally, appreciated the way you were just you.

    And, it was one of the best readings I’ve been to. I go to kind of a lot of author readings and this was the first one I took my son (and his friend and his friend’s mother) to. We all loved it, but afterwards, I had to tell my son that they aren’t ALL like that. This was an especially good one. Since seeing you, he has seen: Neil Gaiman. So, I think he kind of expects a lot now. But, the Neil Gaiman thing wasn’t really a “reading.” Oh, he read. But, he also sang and did a million other things that you don’t ever see at a reading.

    Anyway, I loved this as someone who hates public speaking (and has to do it) and has seen you do it. As always, it’s really cool to be let into your behind the scenes thought process.

  6. Julie Wu says:

    Great post! My first book’s coming out next year and I’m already freaking out about having to speak in public. Now I will look out at the audience, remember your post, and laugh. Not too hysterically, I hope.

    (I like your tags.)

  7. Great article! All of your tips are down-to-earth and spot on! I’ve been public speaking for 15+ years now (started out as a dog trainer, went to business consulting, and now as an author), but the only one of these that doesn’t still hold true today is the one about eye contact with the audience… as you become more comfortable, making eye contact with the audience is an important part of making them feel connected. The rest? I expect will last forever!

  8. Catherine says:

    This was almighty cool. I am with Julie. My first book is out in April and I already have sweaty hands. I’m sticking to your points about wearing something I adore, looking at the aisles and chugging back a beer.

    Thanks! I also found Jamie’s thoughts comforting.

  9. Church says:

    Next week: How to Make Love … the Lev Grossman Way!

    Lesson 1: Ignore your autonomic nervous system.

    Lesson 2: Wear something you like.

    Lesson 3: Do not, repeat not, look at people’s faces.

    It’s pretty much the same lesson, isn’t it?

  10. [...] Lev Grossman on Public Speaking — the Lev Grossman Way! [...]

  11. Leverus says:

    @Church plus I try to be funny

  12. Heather Head says:

    @Church: Lesson 7 sounds pretty good for the next one, but Lesson 8′s a bit dodgy. And if you need to imagine everyone in underwear while you’re making love, then ur doing it wrong.

  13. D says:

    Good post!

    Over analyzing your every step along the way: palpitations, excessive conscientiousness, realizing you haven’t taken a breath in a while, also realizing nobody can notice your “flight” symptoms in “def-con 5, red sirens blaring, aww…shit…shit!” mode. Ladies and gentlemen: social anxiety!

  14. [...] advice from author Lev Grossman Posted on April 25, 2012 by Christopher X. Shade In a recent blog post, published author Lev Grossman offers sound and entertaining advice on public speaking. He opens it [...]

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  16. Aleks says:

    I’m a little bit suspicious.

  17. orthodontics says:

    First of all I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts prior
    to writing. I have had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
    I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to
    figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
    Thank you!

  18. nick says:

    @orthodontics : this may not work for you but I’ve had good luck getting my juices flowing with the following technique: just write some crap. Any crap. Meaningless, meaningful, throwaway, random free association, nonsensical whatever crap. Get it out of your system and prime your brain for “I’m writing things now. This is what I am doing: writing.”

    And like magic, you’re writing. Worry about the good when you go back and edit. :)

  19. [...] Public speaking the Lev Grossman way [...]

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