Got your first author gig? Giving a speech? That first speech or book signing event can be pretty daunting. *Julius Caesar may have been a great statesman and a gifted orator but we are merely authors. We are not practised in such verbal skills. We rarely employ rhetorical irony to win over our listeners (actually, I take that bit back. Some of the IU team are very gifted in that direction), or are blessed with oratory prowess.
My first speech as an author was to a book club. It took place in an intimidating, sprawling house where the sitting room was the size of my entire bungalow. It consisted of formidable and rather clever ladies who were semi-reluctant to let an upstart like me come and talk to them. I’d prepared what I considered to be a cheerful and upbeat talk.
It didn’t go to plan. Through no fault of my own I turned up late, hot and bothered, to face a crowd of grumpy women who had been sitting around for over half an hour. They had consumed all the fruit cake and coffee assigned for a half-time interval. Now they wanted some entertainment. The problem was, they were a tough crowd, tougher than usual, because they had been kept waiting.
People think if you write humour you are a comic – well, I’m not. I’m a writer. Okay, I can be funny, especially if I have had a glass or two of wine, but in this situation I had been invited to talk about publishing. Not much to joke about there, then. Still, humour is always welcome, no matter what genre you write, so I always try to start off on a positive note.
I attempted to break the ice with a few feeble jokes. (“Thank you for inviting me to your Book Club. It seems far more impressive than my own. My local book club only manages to read wine labels.”) They met with a stony silence. I smiled my winning smile. No response. Undeterred, I launched into why I wrote and what my novels were about. Normally, people immediately associate with that. I’d tried it out several times in conversation with positive results. This time I was met with little but frosty glares and then I heard it…a soft snore. I gulped and continued. The rumbling became louder and gradually others could hear it.
“Well, this is a first. I know I can go on a bit but I haven’t actually made someone doze off within the first ten minutes before,” I announced. The ice shattered with a loud crack. Faces smiled and one or two chuckled. The culprit was discovered. It was a large hairy dog (belonging to the lady of the house) that had dozed off behind a settee. It was plain sailing thereon in and everyone had a jolly fine time. It must have been good because I was invited back and that second talk led to a further engagement – well, actually several engagements.
With each talk my confidence grows. I still spend all night the night before, wide awake, wondering if should add this bit or take out that comment. I try to follow Erma Bombeck’s philosophy. You hook them with something funny and leave them laughing. I always start with an anecdote, then get onto the serious stuff, throw in a few quick sharp humorous comments and end with another quip.
Earlier this year, I launched my latest novel at a well known local venue in my nearest town. The launch received considerable press attention. Leaflets were distributed into every home. Twitter was awash with tweets about the event. I had been interviewed on local radio and it had been promoted by all local newspapers. Even a free local magazine which goes into every house in the area had done a great feature on me, the novel and the launch. It was sure to draw many people.
I worried about my speech for days, no make that for weeks. I wrote it out, practised it, scribbled it out again and rewrote it yet again. I practised in front of a mirror and even videoed myself giving it, to ensure I looked natural.
The big day arrived. I packed up my boxes of books and made for the conference room which was all ready for me. The members of staff were excited about the event and impressed with all the publicity I had secured for it and the venue. Tea, coffee and biscuits had been laid on for the masses.
I got ready in the toilet. Last minute preparation in front of the mirror included checking that there was no spinach stuck in my front teeth and that I hadn’t smeared mascara under my eyes. The clock struck ten and I made my grand entrance into a room of, wait for it, only five people. One of those was a friend who had come to support me, another was a young lady of about twenty who was way too young to even enjoy my book and the front row consisted of three older women. It was a disaster.
Nevertheless, I had promised an entertaining speech and so I attempted to give one. I didn’t let the fact that I’d be lucky to sell three copies of my book bother me.
There is a moral to this story. No matter how bleak things look, don’t give up. The young girl turned out to be a journalist who enjoyed the talk so much she told her editor. As a result I recently featured in a double page spread in a very glossy magazine. Also, one of the ladies in the front row was a member of the Women’s Institute and on the back of that talk I have been booked for several other much grander events.
Whatever the event, seize the opportunity and give a talk. You might, like me, come to love doing them. You never know who is watching you and you never know where it may lead. So, go on, scribble a few lines together and get yourself a gig. You’d be surprised where it may lead you.
*For clarification, the speech beginning “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” is from the funeral oration given by Mark Antony in the play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. He didn’t use much humour in it but it is rich in rhetorical irony.
19 thoughts on ““Friends Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…””
Carol: Great post, and good advice. Like writing, speaking becomes easier the more of it you you do.
Thanks Charles. I quite agree. I still get nerves before a talk but that’s good and each time it gets easier. I now thoroughly enjoy it. Almost as much as I do writing.
Great, Carol. I have had mixed reactions, too, but mostly the end up OK. Maybe I need to inject more humour, even though it’s not really my style. Thank goodness for the dog, though. lol
Thank you Yvonne. Humour always goes down well, unless it is a speech at a funeral. However, at my dad’s funeral I still managed to make people smile when I gave my speech. It’s what he would have wanted and people always remember funny comments more than sad ones.
Bless that dog – he saved the day.
Thanks for the tips, Carol! (madly scribbles down Erma Bombeck’s formula)
LOL Lynne – I think you’d manage fine without it .
Great stuff Carol,
You are so right about not knowing who is in the crowd. I always say there are no small audiences, just small minds. Give you best in every situation and the universe takes care of the rest.
You’ve given us all a little more confidence.
How true Jim. I always believe in being polite and generous. It;s paid off so far.
Grab every opportunity…you never know where it may lead you.
Great post, Carol! Humor definitely disarms (as does humour) difficult situations and tough rooms. I once spoke as part of a panel discussion. The moderator had skipped right over me. When she realized her error and fumblingly came back to me, I said that the invisibility cloak indeed works. Thank you for the tips, and I do hope my next event includes a sleeping dog. 😉
Ah that invisibility cloak…I appear to wear it a lot too, particularly in shops or in the middle of a street when several people are approaching and walk into me.
Your line was great. I might have to keep it in mind for the future. Always have a couple of jokes up your sleeves of your invisibility cloak too – you may need them. (Or a spare dog.)
Marvellous post, Carol, and very encouraging to those who find it difficult to “just say a few words”. Do you know the book of that title by the late, great Bob Monkhouse? I’ve been relying on his speaking gags to get me through the times I’ve had to speak to people, and it’s invaluable.
Thanks Chris. I’ve been looking for such a book Chris, you genius. I am also on the lookout for a book of jokes – one liners…maybe a bit more punchy than dear Bob’s sense of humour. Got to get those girls of the WI chuckling soon.
Can’t recommend it enough “Just say a few words” is the title. You’ll find all his tricks for keeping a live audience engaged, and he explains how a one-liner works and what makes it funny. On and off, I’ve done the occasional stage show for 10 or so years (nothing too drastic, usually running a game show or other event at my firm’s Xmas party) and his openers are ideal for relaxing the crowd and yourself. They go from safe to raunchy. I’ll give you two examples, both of which I used in front of about 100 people, and both of which scored well:
1. [Safe] Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. As Henry the eighth said to each of his six wives in turn… I won’t keep you long.
2. [Raunchy] Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, what a wonderful welcome. You know, appaulse like that is better than sex… and in my case… [check wristwatch], it lasts longer, too.
The effect of openers like these is to convince the audience that you know what you’re doing, that you’re in charge, but you don’t have an attitude about it. These and his other lines like them are massively useful if at such events you’re a sweat-dripping, dry-mouthed nervous wreck like me 🙂
Absolutely brilliant. It’s exactly what I’ve been attempting to do (must have come form all those 1970 shows I watched as a child.) but haven’t had enough material.
I always start with a few one-llners but they are getting tired now and some people have seen me before. Some days I wonder if I am a writer or a stand-up comic.
My favourite joke I used while touring France is Q:What do you call a French Man in sandals? A: Phillippe Felop. You have to work that one in though.
If you have any more funny ones could you email them to me please. I think you and I have more in common than just writing – we should do a double act.
You’re terrific. Thanks for this.
Good tips and an excellent post!
Thank you very much Eva.
So you didn’t have to imagine them int heir skivvies, like they tell you to do in any speech class? Another great post Carol, nothing like some Roman oration to bring out the best in people…lol. Between you and Chris, I don’t know who’s funnier…:)
Hi Alessandra – I have tried that technique. I was told to imagine people sitting naked in front of me or in their undies but when I spoke at a convention of, let’s call them ladies in their twilight years, I couldn’t even begin to go there – imagine all the grey bloomers from M&S?
Chris is definitely funnier. XX .
I actually love speaking engagements. It’s the reaching out to get the engagement that make me an anxiety-ridden mess. So I’ll look forward to your next column on that! =)
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