WRITERS AT WORK: Dealing with Speaking Engagements (Part 1)

Hi everyone,

After taking off the month of April, WRITERS AT WORK returns today. Sandy Asher and I have chosen a topic that we think you will enjoy and we hope you’ll share your own thoughts and experiences as we go. Don’t forget that at the end of each month, Sandy posts the complete conversation on America Writes for Kids blog. Here’s the link for that. http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu /

Topic 7: Dealing with Speaking Engagements
Response 1: David
May 3, 2011

Hi Sandy! I missed our weekly chats during April but judging from our calendars, those chats weren’t likely to happen and taking a month off was a necessary idea.

I know that we both have busy Mays as well, but let’s rev up another topic for WRITERS AT WORK – out 7th — and hope for the best. Okay? Away we go. Let’s tackle one of the important side benefits of being a writer. We occasionally receive invitations to speak before live audiences about who we are and what we do. These opportunities can be scary for the unprepared so I’ll tell you about my first one and I’m betting that a lot of our readers will have their own first time experiences to share. Most of us who speak also have some horror tales about being abused and mistreated at the hands of inept festival, school, or conference folks, but I think we ought to save those stories for another episode. No doubt there will be juicy ones to share for that session too!

Sandy, do you remember our visits with Berniece Rabe at the Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri? She’s a fine writer of young adult fiction and in 1973 her first RASS book had just been published. My picture book, LITTLE TURTLE’S BIG ADVENTURE came out four years earlier so we were both pretty new to the trade. The year that RASS came out I was invited to speak at Lindenwood University in O’Fallon, Missouri to a group of students, teachers, and librarians. The invitation came from Nancy Polette, a powerhouse professor of education and advocate of children’s literature. At that time she may also have been director of the lab school on campus. I think she paid me $50 and I was pleased. It was my first check as a speaker.

On the big day I drove to Lindenwood and found myself sitting in the auditorium listening as the speaker before me, Berniece Rabe, was introduced. At that moment I became painfully aware that I had no prepared remarks. Nancy had said to talk about my books and say what came naturally. It seemed like good advice over the phone a few months back. Now I wasn’t so sure.

Berniece walked onto the stage with an engaging smile and made eye contact with everyone in the room. In a charming, confident, poised, prepared, professional voice, she enchanted the audience with the story of her journey as a writer. She then threw herself into long excerpts from RASS in which she became the characters, assuming their voices and acting their parts. As she moved about the stage we were all mesmerized by her performance. She was amazing.

I was toast.

“And now our next speaker, David Harrison . . .”

I’ll spare you the details of what followed. Berniece herself plucked me from the dumps later with her warm encouragement, and Nancy was right there to shore up my defeated ego. Maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Nah, I was. But lessons learned that way do stick with one.

After all these years I’m still flattered when someone invites me to speak. I’m most at home in front of students in a classroom but these days I’m prepared when I stand before a group of any kind. Maybe I’ll never be Berniece Rabe but no one has tossed a tomato either.

Sandy, you are, in addition to all your other talents, an actress. Your voice always comes from somewhere that makes me believe what you are saying and hope for more. I’m still not comfortable with a script because I tend to wander off the page now and then and find myself adlibbing my way back to my point. I can’t do power-point presentations for that reason. What works best for me is to have notes or an outline to follow, think about what I want to talk about before the big day arrives, and then sail forth with all the canvas up.

On formal occasions such as keynotes, commencement addresses, and dedications, I do write out my speech. But before I read a speech to an audience, I read it aloud fifteen or twenty times until I essentially have it memorized. Sandy, I’m eager to hear how you deal with your own speaking engagements. Over to you!