Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writer As Speaker

Mostly we talk about books here. But I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that much of the content I deliver each year is through presentations. In some years, it takes up about half my time; in others about a quarter of my time. In the last two years, the speaking thing has gotten woollier and wilder, with presentations to audiences I have never addressed before. Early childhood educator conferences. Math teacher conferences. Botanical gardens. Science conferences. Regional writing coach workshops. Author-in-residence programs.

So it seems like a good time to ponder a bit about preparing presentations. I’m interested in hearing from others. Because I’m guessing, that like the writing process, this process has as many colors, stripes, and formulas as there are writers. (Have a better way to do this? I’m all ears!)

The labor begins with an innocent "YES, I'd love to come speak to a workshop of math teachers in Mongolia!" (Example only. Have not been to Mongolia. But I love to travel so, yes, I'd probably do it at the drop of a yak.)

The actual process of creating the talk is a massive brain dump, a pulling together of inspiration, sound, video, images from all over my experience/my life. I never write down the actual words or speak from a script. Some people can do that. I'm incapable of faithfully following a script or, for that matter, a soup recipe. Creating a talk is more like reorganizing a storage room: first comes utter mess, bother, and confusion; later—satisfaction.

When people ask me for a talk description ahead of an event, I experience both annoyance and panic. Yes, yes, I realize that something must be in the program brochure. But really, the event is months from now. How can I say today what will be in my heart/mind then? What passion, idea, epiphany will be present and ready that day? What new scientific tidbit, discovery, spark will be in the air?

When the day approaches I find myself looking back on whatever description I gave that day and somehow fitting what is presented to that form.The problem is that a Keynote/powerpoint does not feel done until a couple of days (okay occasional a few minutes/hours) before the actual speech time. It doesn't matter if I work on it for a year or a week, it will always take until that time.

For this reason, I do not allow myself to work full time on a speech until it's within a couple weeks of the actual event. Months ahead of time, I'll begin thinking, note taking, gathering. I plop photos, videos, sounds, and thought snippets in a file. But I literally stop myself from going any further. Because the last week before a presentation, at least, will be spent working full time on the talk. If I do too much ahead of time, I just change, rebuild, discard what I did before.

It does not matter how I am paid for the talk or if it is over Skype/Ichat. There is no way for me to do a half job, lesser job, or a little bit. It must have everything I can give to that subject. I have learned I am not capable of putting in the amount of effort appropriate for the event, audience size, or pay. This is not a particularly helpful quality for a small business person and I bet there are lots of nonfiction authors out there who have this same issue.

It takes about ten times longer for me to figure out what to say in six minutes versus sixty minutes. Then, if it’s a panel talk, I’ll doubtless pitch everything I have planned to the winds and adapt fluidly to what is happening.

The awful part is that final pull, the shaving away of extraneous material.(Hmm...sounds a lot like the editing process for a recent book.) I can clearly see sections emerging. But I have no idea how it will all come together. What is the overarching organizational element? How will it flow? I know there’s good stuff there. But won’t people who like organization, the folks who take your outline and mentally tick it off as you speak, be thrown for a loop by all this material? Yup. I dig in and organize.

I shift pieces for logical content progression, but also for flow. Fast sections. Inspirational sections. Humorous sections. Meaty but important sections. Then I try to insert some wide concept, some slam dunk at at the end. For years, I’ve used the Trout Chant, which I have memorized and can deliver very quickly as almost a rap, for the final piece. It expresses my joy about nature and language.

I use Mac’s Keynote program and it’s effortless to drag in video, slides, sounds, and movie-like transitions. But I'd advise folks not to get too drunk on the transitions and builds. Sure you can have letters type in, burst with color, turn to fireworks, and swing like swings. But these gee whiz aspects slurp time—time that can be used to actually make an important point. They’re also downright distracting if overused. They need to make sense, to match the tone of whatever you are presenting.

Speaking and writing certainly have a synergy. Doing talks allows me to gather and crystallize ideas, to adjust them according to audience response during and after a speech. In the meantime, I reflect. What if I had scrolling credits, like a PBS show, or wore a Nascar-like jacket covered with sponsorship for school visits and speeches? The credits, especially for school visits and young author conferences would say things like this:

Author brought to you by

countless parents in Parent Teacher Associations

passionate editors/publishers who partnered to create authors’ books

6 weeks of a tired teacher selling port-a-pit chicken coupons

a grant from a river gambling boat

dues paid by hardworking teachers

an anonymous grant from a donor in rural Indiana

auctioning off a primo parking space at the front of a school

dozens of autumn carnivals, complete with homemade games made by tired parents too late at night

sales of magazine subscriptions

grants from regional education organizations

money from Title I funds

money from gifted and talented programs

money personally given by staff

When this is what goes into bringing authors into a place to give a speech, how can we do less than put all that we can offer into a talk?


David Schwartz said...

Thank you for sharing those thoughts, April. Like you, I have a hard time committing to my future words before they're practically out of my mouth. I let the ideas churn around in my brain for a long time but I don't really know which of them I will use, or how I will use them until... sometimes not until I have already begun my talk. I have often concluded that my most successful presentations are the ones I began without a clear notion of where it was going.

And here's another matter about which I'd like to hear your view (April) and that of other speakers. I cannot, simply cannot, turn over a Powerpoint to someone else to put in his or her computer and then just take a remote control unit and click through the slides while I talk. I must control my own computer so I can skip around as I go along. I put my slides into thematic groups, each in a different file. In an hourlong talk I may use five or six different files, but rarely all of the files I have opened so they are ready to go. I need that flexibility and it can be a real problem when the projector is mounted in a faraway booth and there is no cable long enough to reach where I'm standing. For this reason I carry a 25' VGA cable and a "gender bender" connector that lets me connect it to an existing cable. This equipment has saved my (speaking) life a few times.

Peggy T said...

I am so happy to hear about your process in writing a speech. I, too, cringe when I look back at the brochure blurb I gave months before a speaking engagement. It is the same feeling I get when I look at the initial book proposal that was accepted more than a year ago. I know I can do so much better because now I know so much more.

And I am going to go out and get myself a 25' VGA cable with a gender bender connector becaause I hate the constrictions of power point and will use David's idea of keeping several files open, so my talks can flow and morph rather than be cookie-cutter identical.

And, April, I am looking forward to meeting you at NSTA and sitting in on your talk.
See you tomorrow,
Peggy Thomas

April Pulley Sayre said...

Hi, David. I sympathize. For school talks, and occasionally for conference workshops, I often flip back and forth between several open keynotes/powerpoints according to audience questions, interest, energy level, and so on. I connect my computer to their projector if not my own. Only once have I had the problem you mention...of not being able to get to my laptop during a talk. I do have a remote, attached to the laptop, so I can walk around and click slides. But, alas, that does not allow me to switch programs without going back to touch the mouse.