Fear of Speeches

By Allison Brennan

I love public speaking. I’ve done it many times, not only as an author, but during my previous life in public policy.

But I’m scared to death of having to write a speech. The only thing I can attribute this fear to is my dislike of plotting.

I don’t plot. I don’t plot my books, I don’t plot out my life. I have a vague sense of my career goals just like I have a vague sense of what’s going to happen in my stories. Why plan it all out? As Stephen King says in his book ON WRITING, “Why be such a control freak?”

While I can appreciate and learn from Alex Sokoloff’s fabulous and informative presentations on story structure-and I really love reading craft-related writing books-when if comes to my own writing, I can’t shape it into a structure beforehand. The story comes out one word at a time, and I learn about my characters and what’s happening in the plot pretty much as I write.

Most writers are rather middle-of-the-road when it comes to plotting. They have a rough outline, maybe a few key plot points, perhaps a couple paragraphs about the main characters. They might not have a clear roadmap, but they know the general direction they’re headed and have all the major intersections and turns identified.

Extreme plotters need to start with a detailed outline. They can’t even get behind the wheel unless they know where they’re going, how they are going to get there, and every gas station, restaurant, and hotel on the way. They often have spreadsheets, a detailed scene-by-scene written outline, and sometimes even character charts. They’ll know not only where they are going, but where they’ve been. They can’t even type CHAPTER ONE until that map is complete, and they keep their GPS open and functioning all the time.

I jump into the car, turn the ignition and start driving. Sometimes I go too slow and push myself to speed up; other times I’m in a race for the finish line and have to force myself to slow down. Sometimes I go down the wrong road and have to make a 180; sometimes I go down the wrong side street and find myself in a dark alley with no way out – but then there’s a Dumpster and I jump on it. Pull myself up on a ledge, throw myself onto the fire escape, climb up, leap into an open window and I have no idea where I’m headed, but the journey is more fun than terrifying. (Though there’s a lot of fear as well.)

When I present a writing workshop, I never go in over-prepared. In fact, I rarely go in with more than a couple of bullet points. Every time I give a workshop, it’s completely different-even if it’s the same material I’ve discussed before. That keeps it fun and interesting for me.

Workshops are interactive. They’re personal. I can read expressions in the audience, their body language, figure out whether I’m failing dismally or they’re interested. I ask questions of the audience, try to gauge what they want, play off their questions to me. I’m spontaneous and go off on wild tangents with stories that somewhat relate to the subject. But in the end, they seem to go pretty well-so for me, it works. And they came to my workshop because they wanted to be there. It’s not like I chained them to their chair, right?

But a year ago, I committed to something I’ve never done before. I’m giving the closing speech at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle on Sunday. Speech. Speech implies a plan, words written done on paper that I will read or memorize and quote. Right? This isn’t a toast at a wedding where everyone taps on their champagne glasses and shouts, “Speech! Speech!” and expect you to be spontaneous. This is more like being the pastor and reading correctly from the book otherwise the couple might not actually be married during the reception . . .

I wasn’t worried about this until recently. In fact, I had no intention of writing an actual speech. I figured sure, I needed more than five bullet points–maybe ten–and a couple writing quotes that I can extrapolate on and relate to the writing life. I said as much to my friend Margie Lawson, a fantastic speaker and terrific teacher.

She looked at me and said, “You need a theme.”

I stared blankly. “Theme? What’s a theme? I don’t have themes.”

She laughed. She thought I was joking. “Sure you do. All your books have themes. A speech is no different.”

My books have themes? Really? “They do?”

“Of course they do.” Her smile faltered. I knew that she’d read at least some of my books because she’s used them in her writing classes. So if she thought I had a theme, wow. She probably knew what a theme was. She probably knew what my theme was.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines theme as: 1 a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation

Well. Duh. Who needs a word for it? Of course I have a theme. Once I get to the end of the book, I know what it is. Sort of. If put on the spot. With a knife to my throat. Sure. I got it.

To me, theme is like branding. I have no idea what my “brand” is. I’ve taken FOUR online or workshop classes about branding and still have no idea how to define my brand. When told one instructor that my brand was dark romantic thrillers, she informed me that was my genre, not my brand.

Getting back to Margie . . . so I need a theme. She gave me one (thank you!) She said because I was the closing speaker, I should be motivational, to rally the troops so-to-speak, to send them forth into the world to write!

Great! I had a theme, I was done. I could motivate. I motivate my kids to clean their rooms.

“Clean your room and we’ll go out for ice cream.”


“Clean your room or no video games (or cell phone or television or computer, depending on the kid) for a week.”

The room gets clean. I know how to motivate!

But that wasn’t enough for Margie.

“You have to write a speech.”

“That sounds like plotting.”

“It’s not plotting. It’s writing a speech.”

“I don’t plot.”

“It’s a speech.”

A close version of this conversation took place in June. I’ve been stressed ever since.

Except for a short time during the RWA conference. I gave a speech to the Kiss of Death chapter (those of us writing romantic suspense.) It was a speech. I had five bullet points, no written or practiced speech. It went well, I’ve been told. (Unless they were being kind because I know 1001 ways to kill people. But I’ve never done it personally.)

Then I heard the incomparable Victoria Alexander speak at the luncheon and I knew I could never do that. She was funny, poignant, poised, perfect.

On the Levy bus tour I shared my fear with my good friend Roxanne St. Claire (at least, she was my good friend until she said . . . )

“You have to write a speech.”

“Define write.”

“What’s your theme?”

Aw! That I knew. Margie had given it to me in Colorado. “To motivate.”

She looked at me strangely. That was a theme, I assured her. Something positive and uplifting.

“Okay,” she said. “Write your motivational speech. Edit it. Read it out loud over and over and over until you know it so well you don’t even need to look at it. You’ll be great. Just practice, time it, and then print it out in large font in case you need to look down for a moment to figure out where you are. But you’ll know it so well you won’t even need to look down, as long as you practice.”

“I don’t have the time.” I wasn’t joking.

“I promise you’ll do great if you follow this formula. You’ll do as good as Victoria Alexander. Trust me. She wrote that speech and practiced it.”

And I knew that was true, because I talked to friends of hers who told me they listened to her read the speech over the phone the night before she gave it.

I began to stress again. Not a little tickle of doubt, but brain-numbing panic.

I started my June 09 book last week. It’s been slow going-I wrote and deleted the first chapter four times, but I think I have it down. At least, the opening paragraphs are strong and I’m finally starting in the right place. But I know that part of the reason I’ve been struggling is because I’m scared about the speech I haven’t written.

I need to write it.

I don’t want to write it.

I want to wing it.

Two people I like and trust told me I can’t wing it.

Ironically, I’m not scared of speaking. I stood up at Thrillerfest in July and winged my way through the Awards Ceremony with only the names of my judges that I had torn off a printed email. But I’m scared of writing a speech.

So I’ve decided to do something in between winging and rehearsing. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity, and finish my book by deadline. I spent yesterday pouring over my favorite craft books and pulling out quotes that are motivational and uplifting. I printed out all my motivational lectures from online workshops I’ve given over the last couple of years. I put everything into a folder, stuck it in my laptop case, and am forgetting about it. When I’m on the plane Friday afternoon, I’ll take everything out and (shiver) write talking points. I think I even have a theme, something a bit more focused than “to motivate.” I’m going to talk about fear. I think. At least, that’s the direction the quotes I’m pulling are sending me.

Might have something to do with the fact that I’m scared myself, but I’m still going to Seattle and speaking in front of 250 people.

Because that’s what professionals do. We acknowledge the fear, toss back a shot of tequila (or smoke or pray or all of the above), and perform.

How do you handle your fears?

19 thoughts on “Fear of Speeches

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Sorry I missed your first couple of posts, Allison. They were great pieces.

    This post seems like it could also be used for your written motivational speech. I think you’ve touched on a lot of good points here.

    As far as handling fear, I just try to face it head on. Sometimes too, I find that the fear or anticipation of something is worse than the actual thing.

    As one who is trying to get this novel thing down, I’ve tried the outlining and the no-outline thing. I’m not really sure which works better for me, but I’m leaning toward the latter.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m like you, A – I don’t feel I need to have many notes with me if I’m teaching a class or workshop and feel perfectly fine winging it and adapting to the people in the room – I love that.

    But I absolutely write out speeches in advance and practice them. Being overprepared is the best way I have to deal with fear. Long experience of performance and public speaking and knowing it ALWAYS feels like this (scary) – also helps. It doesn’t diminish the butterflies, but at least I know it’s part of the deal.

    And I save the tequila for AFTER. 😉

  3. Stacey Cochran

    For a speech, I would encourage you to start by considering your audience. If you think of your speech as a conversation you’re having with them, then maybe it’ll help give you focus.

    What are your audience’s expectations? What are their values? How can you meet their expectations by touching on matters that they value?

    Also, ask yourself what is the purpose of the speech? And what is its topic?

    If you start with those 2-3 things and keep them in focus, you’ll do great!

    Audience, purpose, topic.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    I was recently at a convention for nonprofits. Being a campaign year, candidates for governor and state attorney general were asked to speak. I won’t go into details but one thing that stands out for me was of the two attorney general candidates one came prepared and one was winging it and it was obvious. You’re probably way better than that. However, tackle it as you would writing your book: one paragraph at a time. Write one paragraph today and then set it aside. Do this every day. Just like writing a book which has some people just as nervous as you about the speech but you do all the time. If it helps, picture a character making this same speech and write one for her. You’ll be fabulous.

  5. Cait London

    Formatted speeches are not my favorite thing either. I do better winging it, by writing out the whole thing, reading it, picking out some words and highlighting those, going for it. Also, I’m bright in the early a.m., say around 5-6a., and whenever I do speak/appear, somehow that’s during my slug afternoon period. The other thing I dislike is my own speaking voice.

  6. Allison Brennan

    RJ, you’re probably right. Every time I sit down to write the speech I’m all tense and can’t focus. I’m anticipating writing a crappy speech and somehow being wed to it and unable to improvise once I put it down on paper.

    As far as plotting, I realized I wasn’t a plotter primarily because every time I planned out a book, I never wrote it. And the one time I DID because it was contracted, the book fell apart and I had major editor revisions.

    Alex, I should KNOW this, right? That every time it’s just as scary. Because that’s how I feel every time I start a new book, even now at the beginning of #11. Maybe because I’ve never written a speech before . . . it’s new. You said exactly what Rocki said, I can’t be over-prepared. But I’m not an actress (Rocki was an actress and television personality with her own talk show before she started writing.) But I still plan to write it on the plane. Otherwise, I won’t get one word written on this new book, and I don’t have the time to take a week off. I already took a week off after I finished the last book. That was my first mistake, I think . . . I should have just dived in.

    Stacey, great advice! Audience: writers seriously pursuing publication, about 2/3 unpublished to 1/3 pubbed, from small press to big houses. The purpose is to motivate. This is the closing speech at the end of a conference, so I’d imagine that everyone there has attended a bunch of workshops and speeches and had agent and editor pitches and they need to believe they can do it, that they can finish the book, polish it, send it out even when they fear rejection. Topic? That I’m not sure about. Is fear a topic? Fear of failure, fear of success. Hmm. I’ll think on that. Thanks! I knew all this, but putting it in context helps.

    PK. Me as a character. I’d be kind of boring 🙂 . . . but this is great advice. I’m scared when I start a new book, but I do it anyway.

    Hi Cait! I’m speaking in the afternoon, too. Fortunately, my prime writing time is about noon to four, so hopefully that’ll translate to prime speaking time! LOL.

    Oh, and Alex, I won’t be drinking the tequila before speaking. Promise 🙂

  7. Mary-Frances Makichen

    Hi Allison,My husband does public speaking and he never writes out a speech. He knows generally what he’s going to say and then wings it. You just have to know your material well enough to wing it. I agree with Stacy think of it as a conversation. Good luck!

  8. j.t. ellison

    It’s so interesting how different aspects of public speaking make us nervous. I love speeches. Winging it makes me nervous. I tend to overprepare, then do like Cait, make sure my major points are highlighted, take the temperature of the audience and go from there. But I’d much rather read than speak extemporaneously, though I’m getting better at that too.

    Allison, having heard you speak, whatever you’re doing, keep it up. If you’re doing something you’re not comfortable with you’ll sound stiff and stilted. Do it YOUR way, and you’ll be fine.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    Apropos of speeches, I’ve given speeches both ways — I’ve written out everything in glorious detail and read it word for word, and I’ve walked in with a few bullet points and a prayer. On one memorable occasion (at a candelight vigil for sexual assault survivors), I didn’t even know I’d be speaking until fifteen minutes before the event. I scrawled four bullet points on an index card, and got a standing ovation.

    As far as facing fears in general…well, for that, I come back to something Amelia Earhart once said: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.” And, in my mind, courage doesn’t mean you’re not afraid/anxious/apprehensive/etc. Courage means that you don’t let your fears and anxieties paralyze you, that you’re able to keep your eye on the ball and keep going even when you’re scared.

    I don’t think one can be a writer (published or aspiring to be) and navigate this crazy business without that kind of courage. I mean, think about it — what does it take to say, “I’m going to write a 70,000 word story that’s going to be good enough to make thousands of strangers plunk down their hard-earned cash to read it”?

    To me, being courageous in the face of adversity, and not a little bit audacious, is part and parcel of what we do.

  10. cj lyons

    Allison, I’ve given a few keynotes and no fear–you know me, I’m also a pantzer and pretty much make it all up as I go along.

    So I approached the speech as a story. I just had to decide which story to tell and how it would interest and motivate the audience.

    I did scrawl it out, very roughly, mainly because I had a limited time frame and couldn’t go over by drifting and wandering about. But I didn’t want to try to memorize it or feel rehearsed so what I die was add visuals.

    I did a slide show of a bunch of pictures that augmented the speech–and were visual triggers for me of where I wanted to go next and they kept me on track time-wise.

    Plus, it was much more fun finding inspirational, beautiful photos than trying to write a speech!

    Good luck!CJ

  11. Stacey Cochran


    Well, you may have already begun to think about this, but I would consider telling them your story of rejection… and acceptance.

    Nothing works for an audience like the one you have for this speech quite like talking about how you failed…. only to finally succeed.

    You might even give the specifics of how your agent contacted you to tell you that you had a book deal…. the emotion that you went through at that moment and then what it was like seeing your books on a bookshelf in a grocery store or bookstore for the first time.

    It sounds like these are people who want to know that they can succeed… they’ve spent their hard-earned money to come to a conference to put themselves on the line. They’re vulnerable and nervous (and probably a little desperate). Your goal should be to tell them that it’s worth it and that success is possible.

    Inspire them to believe in their own stories.

    You’ll do great; what an awesome opportunity. I’d love to be in your shoes, Allison!

  12. Louise Ure

    I vote for the bullet points-and-memorable quotes approach. It will be so much more conversational and real. Some of the worst presenters I’ve ever seen wrote out their speeches in advance and that’s exactly how they came across — like they were reading, rather than talking to me.

  13. pari

    Allison,I love to give speeches and would really welcome the opportunity to do more. What I usually do is write out the things I want to say without editing myself . . . just a flow of ideas and then I pull out the talking points from that.

    For me as a speaker — and in the audience — the important thing is to have some of those points be truly from the heart. They can be anecdotes from parallels between writing and parenting, or one of your hobbies or your time in government — whatever.

    If you’re able to speak a few of those from your heart, the audience will go just about anywhere with you.

    Also, remember that audiences want to be happy with you, they want to know you’re human and that you’ve overcome whatever you’ve overcome. They’re looking for ways to connect; it’s not an adversarial set up at all.

    I know, without a doubt, that you’ll be fabulous.

  14. Allison Brennan

    You guys are all terrific 🙂

    Mary-Frances, thanks for the insight on your husband. I love the conversation analogy. Someone told me once that I write how I talk. Now quite sure how to take that, but maybe in this case it would work!

    Thanks JT. I actually felt a million times better about the whole thing after I wrote the blog last night. It’s sort of like venting to my best friend–whenever something really gets to me and I just need to let lose, there’s a couple people I can call and just rant. They don’t think I’m being a diva, or being stupid, or a control freak or anything–they just listen, commiserate, and when I’m done I feel so, so, so much better that I can deal with whatever I’m facing. Toni’s one of them. Thank God for free long distance!

    You’re right Alex, but I think my problem was WORRYING about writing the speech was impacting my creative writing on my WIP. Now that I’ve put the speech in a compartment, I can open that box on Friday and put together my talking points then.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Great insight, Tammy, and I love the Amelia Earhart quote. And this crazy business? I can write an entire blog about it. Maybe I will in a couple weeks.

    Thanks CJ! I’ve given a power point presentation where I did something like that, it was on breaking the so-called “rules” in order to break-out. It was lots of fun 🙂

    Stacey, great advice. And I think I’ll talk about fear–and with that is fear of rejection that paralyzes people. I’ve known too many people who have written books–some many books–but can’t send them out. They are scared to death, and like Tammy said, this business takes courage. If you are paralyzed, you won’t sell. No reputable publisher I know goes out there knocking on doors asking if you have a book they can publish! I’ve been rejected so many times . . . in fact, I was telling an on-line class I’m teaching that even now, after hitting the NYT list multiple times, with nine books on the shelf and a couple shorts, I was rejected by virtually every publisher in the UK for my deadly sins books. Before I sold, I had over 100 rejections from agents. I said that to someone who was despairing over a rejection, and they were floored, then confessed they’d only sent out one query. One? Geez, I sent out 50 for nearly every book.

    Great advice, Louise, and I’m very comfortable with the bullet points.

    Thanks for your vote of confidence, Pari. I do tend to share my personal stories, because that’s all I know!

    I’ll let you all know how it went 🙂

  16. Lisa Hendrix

    Allison — EC is my one of my two favorite conferences. The folks who attend are terrific– smart, funny, and nice — and by Sunday they’re so full of the joy of writing, they’re eating out of the speaker’s hand. You’re going to come out the other end thinking all this angst was a waste — and it is. You’ll do fine.

  17. Peter Bowler

    Being prepared is the easiest way to dispel a fear of public speaking. Practice and familiarity are also recommended. Unfortunately preparation and practice take time. And that’s the problem. Most of us don’t give ourselves the time for public speaking, so it becomes even more stressful for the presenter and tedious for the audience.


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