Public Speaking

By Allison Brennan

When I was six, my mom’s best friend paid me five dollars if I could be quiet for five minutes. In eighth grade I was voted Most Talkative. The senior prediction in my high school yearbook? “Allison Turner will be silent for ten consecutive minutes.”

Public speaking has never been difficult for me. My thirteen year old daughter points out that in the five minutes it takes for the grocery clerk to ring up $300 worth of food, I can fill him or her in with not only the highlights of the week for me and all my kids, but the upcoming highlights–while also finding out what their plans are for the rest of the week. In school, I regularly participated in conversations. (I’m thrilled that my oldest daughter has inherited the opinionated gene from both her father and mother, and when she voices her opinion the murmurs in the classroom are, “Don’t go against Katie, she’s going to win the debate.”) And my five-year-old son will proudly proclaim to everyone he meets that he is, in fact, five; that his brother plays football and his sister plays soccer, and his oldest sister Katie is going to get her drivers license “really soon.”

I particularly love workshops because preparation is minimal. I talk about something I know, have a couple bullet points in case I freeze, take cues from the audience, and engage in lots of Q&A. I love panels, especially small panels with two or three people. Why? Because if they are people you know well and are comfortable with, you can play off each other. Toni and I have done a couple workshops together and they have been a blast and I think well received by the audience. We did one at RWA called “Smart Women, Short Skirts” with SMP guru Matthew Shear and our agent Kim Whalen. The topic? Strong female characters.

[As an aside, I proposed a similar workshop for ThrillerFest. It, too, was lots of fun and I thought well-received by the audience–I had a terrific panel of people, including my buddy James Rollins and debut author Sophie Littlefield who was hilarious–but to be honest? The title they chose lacked . . . something. The organizers wanted all the titles to be in the form of a question–Jeopardy anyone?–and called it: “Should Women Be on Top?” Ahem. I preferred my original title.]

Last year, I gave my first real speech at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Washington. I like speaking; I don’t like writing speeches. I figured I could wing it–have some bullet points and just go with the flow. Unfortunately, others chastised me not writing a speech or even a theme, so during the flight I began to panic. I wrote a damn speech . . . sort of. But it didn’t sound like me. (I know, that sounds weird. But it sounded like what I thought a speech should sound like–and it was way too formal.) So I kept tweaking it and messing with it and came up with something so-so- . . . but when I gave the speech, I realized it wasn’t working–it was all out of order. So I went off on a tangent and basically winged it, but I was so tied to that damn speech I kept trying to get back to it and grew flustered.

[ASIDE: This is one of the many reasons I don’t plot and I don’t write a detailed synopsis–only the bare minimum necessary when either 1) I need to get paid on proposal or 2) the copy department needs something to write back cover copy. But if I write a long, detailed synopsis, I keep thinking I have to get back to it or something’s wrong, even when I consciously try to forget about it, it’s there gnawing at the back of my brain.]

While the speech wasn’t the worst thing on the planet, I wasn’t too pleased. I decided never to give a speech again. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. I’d already agreed to speak at the New Jersey Romance Writers conference. And that’s now only two weeks away.

I’m speaking at the lunch. I think they expect me to be motivational, or smart, or witty, or all of the above. (Lord, help me. Seriously.) It’s a speech, not a conversation. I can’t do Q&A with the audience, however much I would like to. And I probably need a damn theme that runs through the entire speech, or some such nonsense like that.

I’m presenting two workshops at the conference, and those I’m not sweating. One is my Breaking Rules workshop which I always have fun presenting (almost as much fun as my “No Plotters Allowed” workshop.) The other is on romantic suspense with the fantastic Mariah Stewart (my mom just read her last book, ACTS OF MERCY, and said it was absolutely fantastic.)

So I’m good with those. I even have notes from previous workshops so if I get stuck I have something to refer to.

But the speech? 

An idea–could I possibly call it a theme?–came to me after reading a message from a new RWA member who’s recently joined one of the multitude of loops I’m on. She wrote something like, “I’m so excited to find other writers who also hear the voices of their characters and would rather write than eat! I’m so happy that I’m normal.”

This is nothing new. I’ve heard a variation on this statement for years. Writers popping in, relieved that they are “normal” when they thought they were weird or no one understood them. Thrilled to be in a group of people who understand and accept them.

My theme? “You’re not normal. And why would you want to be normal anyway?”

Okay, maybe that’s not a theme per se, but it’s a place for me to start.

I haven’t written the speech yet, though I will. Because I don’t want that icky feeling of failure that I had last year at the other conference. 

But I HAVE started “talking out” my speech, alone, in the car, driving to pick up whoever needs picking up. I’m sort of working it through in my head, very similar to how I think through complex plot points trying to figure out what the heck is going on in my book and how to solve problems my characters have created. So I’m getting comfortable with the idea. And if the speech is any good in written form, I’ll post it here in two weeks, the day after I present it.

I don’t think I’m normal. I don’t think most writers are normal. Thank God. Normal is boring. It’s bland. It has no color. We’re all kind of freaky, and we should be pleased we’re not like anyone else.

I was talking to an FBI Agent who said that the dinner conversations with his family generally relate to his work, and that his kids will often bring up current crimes to discuss. A medical scientist I recently met shared that her conversations often get macabre and she doesn’t think twice about it since she socializes with people in her field, but sometimes when she ventures out she’s noticed perplexed expressions when she talks about her business. When I viewed an autopsy last year, I finally understood what it meant to “compartmentalize” violence and look at death objectively in order to learn the truth.

Writers tend to think of about things a little differently than most people, and crime writers are often thinking about murder.

Case in point. One day, I was driving my daughter home from practice. It was late afternoon, but not dark enough for headlights. On the side of the road was a large dark green garbage bag filled with . . . something. The way it was positioned, partly obscured by the shadows of the vineyards, coupled with the size and shape and I immediately thought it looks like there’s a body inside.

As I thought it, my daughter said, “That looks like a body.” Then she added, “Do you want to pull over and check?”

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I went to a private home for dinner with a small group of people, including my husband’s boss and his wife. His wife is a fan, and she asked me about my latest book and research. Talking about research is one of my favorite things to do. But I realized that maybe telling her about the decomposing body I saw during my morgue trip–the one that was found underwater and gave me a great visual for PLAYING DEAD–wasn’t appropriate dinner table conversation.

So . . . wish me luck and help me out. Do you have any stories illustrating how you’re not normal? Any fun writer–or reader–anecdotes that I can use (with credit!) in my speech? Do you think you’re normal and I’m the one off the deep end? 

23 thoughts on “Public Speaking

  1. Ben Sloan

    Good idea for a speech. I have often listened with confusion when someone has told me she wants to be normal. Maybe it’s because I work in retail, but I have yet to find a norm in others that I wish I shared.

    One difference from others I’ve found in myself is that I actively seek out unpleasant experiences. I work in a photo lab, and if someone develops pictures of car wrecks, injuries, deaths, etc., while most of my coworkers shy away from it, I stare with rapt attention. "So THAT’S what a severed arm looks like. I’ll keep it in mind." That kind of thing.

    Maybe it’s more of a macabre than a writerly instinct, but I expect it to be much more common in writers.

    (Not that I want to be a normal writer.)

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  2. Cornelia Read

    I am so with you on not wanting to give formal speeches. I can wing it with the best of them, but having any kind of outline makes me stiff and uncomfortable. I’d much rather wing it, but it’s scary when it’s just you at a podium for an hour.

    I went to Yosemite a couple of summers ago with my sister-in-law’s family, two weeks after I saw George Fong’s Power Point presentation about the serial killer investigation he headed up there for the FBI. My bro-in-law had booked us into the hotel where the first three victims had been staying. None of the family would talk to me about it the entire weekend. When I got home, my friend Sharon from writing group called up and said, "so, how was Yosemite? Did you see the triple-murder hotel?" and I said, "Dude! We STAYED there!!!!" And realized I had found my tribe.

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  3. JD Rhoades

    I have no problems at all with public speaking, probably becuase I’ve been a trial lawyer for 20 years. After you’ve been raked over the coals by a Superior Court judge in front of a roomful of people a few times, facing a polite crowd who actually came to see you voluntarily isn’t so scary any more. Since polls say public speaking is one of the most common and greatest fears people have, I guess that’s one thing that makes me not normal.

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  4. kit

    confession time; I take *notes* in my head, while listening to conversations. I’ve never admitted that before.
    That phrase "it’s all grist for the mill " is really true. I’m listening to my friends or aquaintences relating some incident or some personal tragedy and while one side of my brain is relating to what is being said, the other is taking notes as to expression, tone, ect …all the while thinking "wow, if I could just get that down in written form."
    I feel transitional guilt and like a cold azz bytch, question my personal code of ethics, but I still do it automatically.
    I’ve tried rationalizing it, giving myself a stern talking to, and yet it still happens. I would never like anyone in my circle to feel afraid or insecure about telling me something, with the idea it may wind up in print eventually…yet, that’s how I listen.
    An example of what I am talking about is a friend was relating stories about a previous lifestyle, she doesn’t talk about it much and for very good reason…she had been married to a drug dealer…butta line she said still sticks with me…about a time when it all went to hell fast….."We were just trying to pull off an honest drug deal, but those damn Mexicans got greedy." an honest drug deal??? wth??
    or an ex-con explaining the differences between the different tiers of the prison system…county jail, state and federal time…trying to get the jury to understand the way something could go down and the phrase "the keeper and the kept" not being exactly true in a county jail…it would be false to believe the guards were always in control……that a *playa* could use this false thought to their advantage and they would do it in a nanosecond.
    The lawyer for the plaintiff looked like he wanted to throw his papers up in the air out of sheer frustration…because the person on the stand, though an ex-con, was completely credible and put in terms that even the most brain-dead person could understand.

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  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Interesting – I’m a total plotter when it comes to story. I do outlines, treatments, bullet points, etc. But I’m most comfortable "winging" it on a panel or speech. I love Q and A. I want to involve the audience. I like it when people are engaged. I’ve heard some fantastic speeches at conferences and I tip my hat to the folks who can do that. But I’m most comfortable telling anecdotes that spin off topic. That’s what people usually come to hear, anyway.
    By the way – your family sounds adorable. Your dinners sound like rapid-fire theater-in-the-round.

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  6. Fran

    As I was talking to Alan Jacobson yesterday, and a friend standing nearby, I almost reflexively used hand sanitizer, and stopped, thinking — and then saying — wouldn’t it be evil and vicious and a good story if someone put a virus in hand sanitizer? So that, as more and more people used the stuff to ward off the bug, they were actually getting and spreading it?

    Who THINKS like that? Aside from psychopaths and us?

    About your speech, Allison, yeah, it’s a speech, but why not treat it like a conversation anyway? Everyone’s used to the traditional canned speech — stand up and talk for however-long-it-is. Why not engage your audience? What’s wrong with that? Be brave, be different, be yourself. Theiy’ll remember you for it.

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  7. Paula R.

    Allison, I love the idea you have for your speech. I think you will be fine. When I give speeches, I write them down, but find that I get off topic anyway. I think to lessen the stress, you should write your title and some bullet points for what you want to highlight. It sounds like you will be better for it.

    Now, on the matter of being normal. I think that you are very normal. As a newbie wirter, I find it strange that I don’t have many voices talking in my head, like many of my author friends do. When I was younger, I did, but I didn’t want people to think I was "crazy" so I never talked about it. As I get older…i.e. now…I find myself verbalizing my thougts as if I am having a convo with someone in my head. My students think that it’s hilarious, but I know that it’s okay. I am just trying to work things out in my head. And, come on, who out there doesn’t hear voices in their heads anyway? LOL!

    Good luck with the speech. I believe you will knock these people dead. They might want to ask questions even though you can’t have a Q&A. How could they not? I hope to one day get the chance to sit in on one of your workshops.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

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  8. toni mcgee causey

    Well, as someone who’s seen you wing it, and who’s seen you stay on point while still covering a lot of fascinating ground, I think you’re golden. πŸ˜‰

    I tried writing a speech once and it sucked. I do much better winging it. I’ll know a general point I’d like to make and I’ll sift through various anecdotes and stories, funny or serious, that will lead me to the point, but I don’t try to write them down. The most I’ve done is make a bulleted list of brief phrases (and I type those up in really big print so I can glance without having to scan). But even then, I never use the notes–they just make me feel safer having them.

    kit said: "confession time; I take *notes* in my head, while listening to conversations."

    Um, doesn’t everyone? (well, maybe not non-writers) There’s always two tracks working–the friend/human/side of me who genuinely cares, who is trying to respond despite the predatory writer part who is sliding that bit of knowledge around like a Rubik’s cube, wondering (if altered), if it would fit anywhere. James Thurber’s wife reportedly saw him staring off into space in the middle of dinner conversation and told him to "quit working." I think all writers do this.

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  9. Eika

    I have a friend who’s an EMT. She spent summer before last in basic training, and when she got a break over Christmas we met and talked and she told me all about it, and I quietly took notes. Then, when I saw her a few times this summer after she’d had her EMT training, she talked all about it and I quietly took notes. She’s on a military base in the states now, and whenever we talk on the phone, my brain is quietly taking notes.

    She’s going to Afghanistan shortly after her birthday- and shortly before mine- in February. From what she’s explained, the odds are incredibly good she won’t be in danger; she’ll be in the equivalent of a hospital and her main duties will be changing bandages. I’m still worried, and have had frequent conversations with God(s? ess?) that I’m not sure exist along the lines of ‘you had better get her out of there alive’ along with lots of self-rationalizing, but there’s also still that little voice in the back of my skull that wants to know what it’s LIKE, and the multitude of phone calls I’ll be giving her will make me feel guilty because I’ll be satisfying that craving.

    There have been times when I’ve WANTED to be tortured- just to see what it’s like. I want to know exactly what it feels like to jump off a building (though even the idea of bunjee jumping is too much for me- heights, no thanks!). I’ve walked in thick fog just so I know what a cloud feels like, I’ve stuffed my bare hand into deep snow, I’ve sledded down hills covered in forest (yes, forest. Big trees and small trees and logs and bushes and all sorts of stuff), I’ve gone camping and white-water rafting and climbed mountains (small ones). I have multiple friends who are legitimately SCARED of me, because I’ve researched so much about brainwashing and thought coercion that I likely could do it. If I had the stomach.

    Did you know that sensory deprivation chambers- great for disorientation and interrogation, has been known to literally drive people left in there too long insane- can be found at some spas? They call them ‘isolation chambers’. A completely dark, sound-proofed tub filled with water exactly body-temperature with enough epsom salt to make you float. It’s not perfect, as you can still smell the salt and presumably taste things if you’d really like to, but still. IMAGINE it. Nothing but your thoughts to distract you. Some people can’t last ten minutes before starting to freak out; others can go days; an hour is considered beneficial by the spa people for relaxation. I want to find a spa with one. I hate the very idea of spas, but I want to try that. I can’t help but imagine what would happen if someone, instead of leaving them alone in the dark, begins- after an hour or two- to pipe in words? Maybe explaining exactly why whatever cause they’re fighting for is wrong? *happy sigh*

    And I’m not even a CRIME WRITER. I deal with YA SFF. If I ever manage to polish my current manuscript enough to get an agent, there’s a series I’d like to propose,which will deal with this stuff. But better.

    (permission given to use me, if you want. Credit it to Alaina Granter.)

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  10. Allison Brennan

    Ben, part of my idea for the speech is to relate being normal to being "average" and then to "voice" which is something I love talking about. No one wants an average "voice" when they write, yet they painstakingly try to fit into molds and follow rules they think exist and de facto their voice blends in with myriad other voices. If your voice doesn’t stand out you can’t sell.

    Louise, it’s not normal but then again what is? I do the same thing . . . sort of. But instead of creating the police investigation in my head, I try to figure out what motivated the suspect. I’ve always been fascinating by human psychology.

    Yep, Cornelia, we’re on the same page πŸ™‚ I was lucky enough to give a presentation with George in SF at the RWA meeting last month. It was an interview (of sorts) and lots of fun. He’s an interesting fellow.

    LOL, Dusty. Actually, I don’t have a fear of public speaking, it’s more the fear of writing a speech. BTW, my daughter had to defend William Goldman (LORD OF THE FLIES) in her honors English class last year and was thinking of becoming a defense attorney until I informed her that it required three additional years of college to be a lawyer. Katie is very smart and has a lot of common sense, but she’s not "book smart" and doesn’t like school much.

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  11. Allison Brennan

    Kit, I totally understand what you’re saying, and it goes down to character. You’re trying to understand other people so like the drug dealer, how they talk and think about what they’re doing–how they justify it–intrigues you so you take notes. Character is so hard, but it’s also something you really have to internalize in order to understand (at least, IMO.) I suppose I take notes in my head as well, but usually I talk to myself. I try to refrain from talking to myself when others are around . . .

    LOL Stephen, dinners are interesting, but we only have family dinners once a week because sports take up so much time and the kids are coming home at different times. The two littlest Brennan’s can’t wait to eat until 7:30 when my son and daughter get home from practice!

    Fran, I’d love to wing it but since I flubbed last time, I’ll write this one out. Whether I actually follow the speech or not is another story.

    (PS I love your hand sanitizer idea!)

    Thanks for your vote of confidence, Paula! Re: the voices in the head, I don’t hear people like audibly, but I do have conversations in my head as I mentally work through dialogue. My daughter thinks it’s funny, BTW, that I talk about my characters as if they are real people, i.e. "But Moira wouldn’t do that," or "Olivia doesn’t swear."

    I need to clone you Toni and put you in my pocket as my good luck charm that keeps telling me I’m golden πŸ™‚

    GREAT stories, Eika, thank you! Though I’m not as brave as you. I don’t need to jump out of airplanes to imagine how it feels to jump out of an airplane. I have a vivid imagination and I can put myself in different situations. I’ve never killed anyone in real life, but I write about it fairly realistically!

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  12. Pammy D

    Interesting post, Allison.

    I too went to those isolation tanks. I’d always fall asleep, and wake up to some spa attendant saying, "Um excuse me Ms., but your time is up."

    Last night at a small dinner party including a kid, I couldn’t shut my mouth while telling the story of how Hitler’s skull, found in the fiery ashes outside the bunker and confiscated by the Soviets,complete with the bullet hole has been proven to be that of a forty year old WOMAN.

    I. Simply. Couldn’t. Shut. Up. I tried to back off on the fiery ashes thing. But to me, who LOVES mysteries, after all these years, that’s the germ for the mother of conspiracy theories.

    Just not good dinner conversation. Ahem.

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  13. JT Ellison

    If I had a dime for every horrified look I’ve gotten when I say "I write psychological thrillers. Serial killer stuff. It’s a lot of fun." I’d be very, very rich.

    I’m finding the best casual speeches I do ware bullet points, but for major events, I’m happy to have a script. I get too tangential sometimes…

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  14. PK the Bookeemonster

    You said: "Ben, part of my idea for the speech is to relate being normal to being "average" and then to "voice" which is something I love talking about. No one wants an average "voice" when they write, yet they painstakingly try to fit into molds and follow rules they think exist and de facto their voice blends in with myriad other voices. If your voice doesn’t stand out you can’t sell."
    *********************
    Then I have to ask you why you’re trying to fit into a cookie cutter mold of a speech giver? You’d be *doing* the exact opposite of what you’re talking about and encouraging, IMHO. Let it go and be you. It’s okay. Trust me as a fan: they’re not there for the tablets being brought down from the mountain, they just want to spend some time with YOU.

    As for being "normal", I’ve learned I’m not a writer; I’m a reader but maybe not a "normal: one. And no, as I reader I don’t have conversations with characters of books I’m reading but I do sort of feel like Golum with my "Precious" when I think of what I’m reading and have coming up next. For example, I just finished the last Steig Larsson Millenium Trilogy and still experience aftershocks of that experience, currently reading the new Michael Connelly NINE DRAGONS, but I have up next WOLF HALL a historical of Henry VIII and then a new historical mystery author to try and at least five regular series reading authors in the batter’s box. See, I’m obsessed and gleeful about this. It’s like naming rocks, fergoodnesssakes.

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  15. Allison Brennan

    PK, you bring up an excellent point about practicing what I preach. But even I HAVE to write a synopsis for the copy department.

    I started a speech tonight and decided that I’m just going to write it once, all the way through (I’m almost done–I kinda got on a roll) and then use it if I need to. I think I’m more paranoid about standing up in front of 400 people and not knowing what to say. I doubt that WILL happen because I’m rarely at a loss for words (ha!) but . . . I’ll call it a security blanket. I’ll let you all know what happens. I’m speaking Saturday the 24th and blogging on the 25th . . .

    Thanks so much Cathy–BIAW was like a workshop, and that’s definitely in my comfort zone!

    JT, my agent tells me she has to assure people that I’m really a very nice person, no matter what I write . . . .

    ROFLOL, Pammy, I’ve found myself in those situations. Like two years ago I was speaking at the high school. A Christian high school. And I went off the cuff like I normally do, but I guess I kind of forgot where I was because to this day my daughter still gets comments about how I said "shit" in Mr. Reyes’ English class . . . but it gets worse. Once I said it, I couldn’t stop. I said excuse me, won’t do it again, and not two minutes later the word escaped my lips again. No wonder I haven’t been invited back . . .

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  16. Eika

    Allison, I don’t have the nerve to do these things. But… I can write them, I can imagine them, but I can’t help but feel it’d be better if I’d done it. I was one of those kids who wasn’t happy knowing it was hot sauce, I had to know how hot, and then I’d snatch a handful (I hate spicy food!). Or- my mother’s personal favorite story- when I was three, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get on the merry-go-round when there were empty horses, despite us being near the back of the line… so I broke free and ran for it. For the record, if you’re three and you try to get on a moving merry-go-round, you can expect stitches.

    I was the kid who asked too many questions and was never happy with the answers, and I’m still trying to learn what ‘green’ tastes like. Oh well.

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  17. Bibi Lemans

    Ha! Great piece. It’s funny you say that about your daughter, because it is usually those among us who are the most comfortable talking all the time who become the most effective keynote speakers. I just love that you have such a passion for it!

    Maybe some fellow posters could share their own stories about getting up in front of an audience and sharing a big address?

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