5 Steps to a Killer Book Talk

Every debut author dreams of the moment when she stands up in front of a crowd of admiring fans and talks brilliantly about her new book.

Yet too few of us actually spend enough time planning that talk. Many new authors spend a lot more time on the logistics of their launch events, getting the word out, even shopping for signing pens, than on what they are going to say. In my opinion, that’s a huge mistake.

We’re not only launching our books, we’re launching ourselves as authors. An engaging talk can get you invited to be on panels or radio shows. That’s happened to me a few times. But it takes as much work as writing a guest blog or an op-ed. Almost no one can extemporize well all the time, or even very much of the time. If we try, we’re all going to sound like Donald Trump (hopefully minus the racism).

I will venture an untested statistic: at least 90% of great speakers, from President Obama on down, are really great writers, or have great writers working for them, or both. The more unscripted they sound, the longer they likely worked on what they’re saying. They also have teleprompters and we don’t, so we have to work even harder to get that brilliantly off-the-cuff sound.

Preparation is respectful

I think one thing that keeps authors, especially women authors, from preparing their talks is fear of appearing self-important. It’s easier to think of ourselves giving a party. But people have a lot of choice about what to do with their time. No one is going to resent having to listen to a lively, well-crafted, funny, surprising talk about your book.

People don’t go out to an author event for the reading. If they just want to know what is in the book, they can buy it and enjoy it in the comfort of their easy chairs. They are there for the value added, which is not the mediocre champagne. It’s the story behind the story, the well-chosen information that makes the reading come alive.

Speaking is writing and writing is editing

The other reason people don’t prepare well enough is that we all know our books better than we know our lovers. We talk about them all the time, probably too much.

One of the counterintuitive things I have learned as a radio host is that the better I know the subject, the more I need to prepare. If I don’t know much about a subject, I can just say everything I know. If I know a lot, I have to do a lot of editing. It’s easy to forget that things that seem very basic to me probably aren’t. I need to put myself into the mindset of the listeners who are least familiar with the subject and ask, “What will they want to know?”

If your event is anywhere but in your house, if it was advertised in even one newsletter, you never know who will show up. At one of my readings, there were a couple people who were walking by and the title of my book grabbed them; at another a woman told me she had heard me on the radio two hours earlier and decided to go. Another author I know was shocked that seven people she didn’t know appeared at an out-of-town event because a friend of hers told them about it.

Five steps to a great book talk:

1. Write out what you’re going to say. Write about 10 minutes of talk, 5 mins of reading, 5–10 more minutes of talking and another 5 of reading. Time it. Humor is wonderful but if it’s not your style, don’t use it. Heartfelt is just as good or better.

2. Read your talk out loud over and over until you feel really comfortable with it.

3. Take your written talk and turn it into notes. Write down a few words that will remind you what’s in each paragraph. Get onstage with your notes. Print them out in 16 point type or use an electronic device and enlarge the text.

4. Some beautiful writing is not suitable for reading aloud. Shorter sentences with few dependent clauses work best. Try to read passages that are not packed with description and don’t have too many characters. Dialogue, since it’s speech translated to the page, is generally easy to translate back into speech. Vary the tone of the passages you choose (light, heavier, suspenseful, romantic). Don’t hesitate to edit for easier reading. If you stumble over a word or phrase twice in practice, take it out. Here is what my reading copy looks like:

5. Think about what questions people are most likely to ask and practice your answers. Have a few points you want to make during the Q&A and be prepared to work your way around to those points even if the questions are not asked directly. If you get an off-the-wall question, you can use it as an opportunity to make one of your prepared points.

Recently, I interviewed Claudia Six, author of Erotic Integrity: How to Be True to Yourself Sexually, along with Brooke Warner, author of Greenlight Your Book. I asked them why it takes so long to bring a book into the marketplace, and Brooke talked about the presale and prepublicity process. Then Claudia chimed in, “It’s kind of like having erotic integrity — you’ve got to own that you’ve written this book and you have something to say.”

I thought, “She is going to do well because she can turn any question into a chance to talk about her book.” That’s a great skill to cultivate.

This piece was first published on JaneFriedman.com.

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