The cloistered life of a writer can take a toll on your social skills. As an author, we all spend a lot of time in our own heads as opposed to interacting with other people. Social media doesn’t count. I mean the kind of people you actually might have to go outside your house to encounter. Real people—like the ones you see on television. The ones on television don’t count either.
Sooner or later, you will need those social skills because at some point, you will be asked to do a presentation of some sort. Perhaps you will be asked to speak before a book club, or at a library function, or (as in my case) to ask people in the grocery store if they’d like to try a sample of today’s cheese. Maybe you labor under the illusion that your social skills are still intact. After all, you can still (theoretically) ride a bicycle. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help assess whether you might need a little brushing up before an appearance:
1. Do you ever find yourself tongue-tied when a grocery clerk asks you, “How’s it going?”
2. Have you ever experienced a panic attack if someone asks you the time of day?
3. The last time you went outside your home, did you find all that bright light annoying?
4. Does the absence of robust litter box aroma make you think there is something wrong with the air outside?
If your answer to any of these questions was yes, or you are currently hiding under your desk, you will want to work on feeling more comfortable around people. The good news is that it is not really so hard as it might seem. After all, before you became a writer, you used to be a person. There are bound to be a few residual skills upon which you can build.
First, let’s dispense with some long held and cherished myths. Foremost among these is that the way to feel more relaxed and comfortable when speaking to a crowd of people is to imagine them naked. Now seriously, what kind of person feels more relaxed in a room full of naked people?
Another piece of advice you occasionally worry about is to dress accordingly with the venue. Screw that. If you’re an indie author, you probably have a wardrobe choice between the clean flannel shirt and the dirty flannel shirt. You are the star attraction. People should be dressing like you, not the other way around.
There are only two things you need to remember about yourself: First, whatever books you have written are mere slivers of your imagination, a mere fraction of the eloquence and intellectual acumen brimming below your sad crusty disheveled outward appearance; and second, make sure your pants are zipped up before taking the stage.
The key to putting yourself at ease before a crowd is to remember they did not write a book and you did. That makes you better than them. Sure, some of them have better clothing, clearly have some folding cash and many may look like they even bathe regularly, but they are there to see you. Because YOU are an author, dammit! So, take charge. Don’t just sit there and await their judgment. Challenge them. Open with a question like, “How many people here have read my book, A Summer at Hampfordshire?”
If no hands go up, shake your head disapprovingly, then start asking questions: “You there! What do you suppose is the signal event in the life of a one-legged Portuguese sailor who learns to paint only to ultimately face the irreversible and gradual loss of his vision when he finds his wife has run away with his monkey?”
Alternately, if one or two hands do go up, ask a few very vague or overly specific questions. These might be something like, “How would you characterize the overarching themes of the book?” or “What did you think of Romero wearing the red necktie to Lorenzo’s funeral?” This kind of question can really provoke discussion, especially if there was no such scene in your book. Either way, the point is, you shouldn’t have to do all the work. The key is to make the presentation interactive.
Be aware that things do not always go according to plan. See here and here for some rather frightful mishaps, but remember neither of these authors were defenestrated. Nonetheless, this is why my personal motto is: all plans are an irresistible invitation to failure. The sooner you get to the point where you realize you are the show, the better you’ll feel about it. There won’t be bothersome checklists to go through, no speeches to memorize or stacks of books to inadvertently leave behind. It is all you.
Once you realize you are large and in charge, you will find your confidence growing and will actually look forward to additional opportunities to show off your presentation skills.