Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking

Gregory asks:

I’m curious about your ‘public speaking’ role. I know you have representation and are available for events. I would like to know things like what advice do you have for other folk who don’t do much public speaking? Do you have any formal training? Why should somebody pay to hear you speak? What’s the difference between writing your own speech and hiring a speechwriter? Have you ever written somebody else’s speech? Do you write out your entire presentation or just have an outline?

So, let’s go through some of this quickly and some of it less so.

Yes, I do have representation for public speaking; I’m represented by the Macmillan Speaker’s Bureau (which makes a little bit of sense as Tor, my primary publisher, is a Macmillan imprint) and indeed I am available for events. I don’t have any formal training, I’ve just ended up talking in public a lot and now have been doing it in a professional sense for coming on two decades. The difference between writing one’s own speech and hiring a speechwriter is that I don’t charge myself when I write something for me to say. I’ve written presentations and speeches for other people, sure, but not enough that I would put it on my resume. At events I will occasionally read prepared work, and occasionally work from an outline, and occasionally just get up on a stage and start talking.

As for why someone should pay to hear me speak, well, there are two ways to answer this question.

The first is, hey, when I speak, I’m fairly entertaining. People pay for other forms of entertainment, including books, movies, concerts and other live events. So, why not speaking as well? And certainly authors have done very well with speaking tours over the years, and not just recently. Dickens made a tidy sum on his speaking tours, which was good for him because in the US at the time his books were rampantly pirated. Twain would go on speaking tours when his investments tanked and he needed money. They were by all accounts quite entertaining evenings.

Indeed, there are some authors for whom the books aren’t their major profit center; the speaking tours and events are. The books are their calling cards and the way to help keep their live acts current. Political commentators and downtime politicians are especially likely to punt out a book and then take their act on the rubber chicken circuit, with the speeches and appearances earning them more over a year than they got for the book advance (also, many of these folks have as a rider that a certain number of books must be bought by the organization fronting the event, so it’s a handy way of clearing inventory as well). Sports figures, tech gurus, business wizards and lifestyle advisors also pull this trick — and it’s a pretty nice trick if you can manage it, and either like or at least can tolerate blathering at a hotel lectern for your living.

Note that who pays to have you speak will vary. Most of my paid speaking engagements are for organizations who pay my asking fee; the individuals who come to see me speak generally don’t have to pay (or don’t have to pay extra, if they are at an event that had an entrance fee). Other authors I know set a fee with an organization, which will then turn around and sell individual tickets to an event in the hopes of making a profit over the appearance fee, but generally speaking you have to be a pretty well-known and/or beloved author to pull that one off, and at least for the moment I don’t appear to be that well-known, or (alas) that beloved.

The second reason for why someone should pay to hear me speak is somewhat more transactional, and that is: Because I should be paid for my time. A speaking event isn’t just about the hour (or so) I’m on stage and then the hour to two hours (or so) that I’m signing books. It’s also about the time to the airport, the time on the plane, the time in car from the airport, the time in the hotel, the time meeting with the event organizers and/or the time spent socializing at the pre-event gathering, and back to the hotel, car, plane and the return home. It’s also time I’m not at home, with my wife and child and pets. It’s also time I’m not with friends, or elsewise doing another thing with my time. It’s also generally time taken away from writing, which is, you may, remember, my main gig and the reason people want to see me live in the first place.

As this is all the case, the question is: How much is all that time, and time away, worth to me? The answer is: a fair amount, actually, and that amount is reflected in my speaking and appearance fee. I don’t feel guilty about making that determination of the value of my time, since as I’ve noted before that this is all the time I will ever have in this universe and therefore I should in fact have a good grasp on what my time is worth and expect people to understand that. Also, you know. If you don’t want to pay my fee, then don’t; I’ll stay at home, and happily so.

So, you may ask, is every appearance I do paid for in this manner? Not all of them. Book tour events are handled differently, as are most conventions I attend. I’m on staff for the JoCo Cruise. At this point, however, I don’t do events that end up costing me money to be at, and I don’t do events where I don’t think there’s a blunt transactional benefit to my being there. The only exceptions to this are events I’m attending like a fan, i.e., I’m going to hang out with friends and see people I like. In those cases I pay to show up like anyone else. But if I’m on the clock? Yeah, it has to be worth my time, and also, I’m the one who decides what is worth my time and what is not.

(Also, yes: High-class problems to have! On the other hand, high-class problems are still problems. And also, if you’re a fan of my books, ask yourself whether you want me to spend more time talking, or more time writing. If it’s the latter, then I suspect you might appreciate me making it clear to people who want me to show up to places that my time is valuable.)

In terms of advice for public speaking, the first thing I would say is that if it’s something you don’t enjoy, don’t do it — you won’t be happy, which means that no one else will be happy, either. There are other ways to promote yourself. Find one you like. Beyond that, just prepare: know how much time you have to fill, know what the expectations are for your presentation, do a few run-throughs of your material before you get up on the stage. And then after that, don’t panic — it will work or not. If it works, great! If not, you’ll know better for next time. If you want more details than this, here you go.

I personally like speaking in public and also I don’t get nervous in front of crowds, so most of the time it’s fun for me, which is pretty great, considering how much of it I do. Hopefully I’ll keep getting paid to do it. But if that ever stops happening, well. I still have my day job, I suppose.

21 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking”

  1. For those interested in doing (or learning more about) public speaking –

    My go-to on this subject is Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun

    As someone who has spoken many times, some before this book was published, and some after, I found this a resource that improved my presentation.

    Also, check out groups like Toastmasters to help you with speaking.

    (Full disclosure – I am on the board of a non-profit that sponsors a local Toastmasters chapter.)

  2. Advice on public speaking:
    1) Love your subject and let it show.
    2) Appreciate your audience and let it show.
    3) Don’t be afraid of looking foolish in public and let it show.
    Go for it!

  3. I like Vonne’s comments .. right on as first-of-alls!

    As a high school junior, many years ago, I was in several regional and state wide prepared speech delivery contests. Someone (not me) had written a very topical and effect 5 or 10 minute speech that I memorized and was able to deliver with good results. I came in second at the state level.

    This opened the door for me to run for a state level office in the organization .. a big deal for a HS junior! Part of the election process was for each candidate get up and deliver and extemporaneous short speech on a topic that you were given on the spot. My topic: how had I benefited from my public speaking contests, etc. You guessed it: I found out the hard way that delivering a memorized prepared speech is quite a bit different that an extemporaneous where you have to think and talk ‘on your feet’! I wasn’t elected to the office .. not enough you-poor-sap, sympathy votes!

  4. Like John, I sort of fell into public speaking rather than deliberately making it a career choice. I’m now what I describe as the world’s most extroverted introvert. *G* I do a fair number of conference presentations and training workshops in my areas of expertise (editing, technical writing, scientific communication, information design, and related). Used to do more before the economy tanked and Trumpism curtailed my travel to the U.S.

    Two of the best tools for getting over my original (large!) fears of public speaking were these: First, I don’t speak on subjects I’m not an expert about (or, if drafted to speak on less familiar subjects, clearly admit where my expertise ends and my ignorance begins). That means I can be confident that I know what I’m talking about, and nobody’s going to humiliate me publicly by exposing my ignorance. I’m always happy to acknowledge people who add to or provide correction to what I have to say. Everyone benefits!

    Second, I only speak about subjects I love and am reasonably confident my audience will also love. (Otherwise, why would they leave home and pay money to see me?) I also practice my presentation until I’m comfortable that I will remember it all, then use cues (e.g., the dreaded PowerPoint) to keep me on track. I’m slow (aging brain and declining memory), so it takes me a fair bit of time to get to this point.

    Although I’ve read widely and shallowly about how to do public speaking, I’ve mostly learned from actually doing it. The single best lesson I’ve learned is that if I can treat a presentation as a conversation between people who share my passion, a lot of the fear factor goes away. In my experience, audiences respond warmly to enthusiasm and a sense of being included in the dialogue. I won’t do Web-based training because current technology eliminates the sense of connection and inclusion that is the whole reason I give talks.

    In terms of pay? What John said. I’ve got 30 years of hard-earned expertise in my fields of expertise, and people should be willing to pay for that expertise. A 1-hour talk can take 5 hours to prepare, another 5 to practice and perfect and revise, and a day of travel to the presentation site and back home again. (Plus hotel, food, airfare, etc. etc.) I do a lot of pro bono work, but since I’m not independently wealthy, I need to at least have my costs covered. For nonprofits, I’m often willing to stop at cost recovery. For corporate gigs, I want to actually earn some money for my time, over and above my costs. It’s not always enough money to fully cover my time, but the enjoyment I get from traveling to new places and making new friends provides additional compensation.

  5. Are you credentialled to officiate wedding ceremonies? Has anyone ever requested you through MacMillan for such services?

  6. I’m in the group that wants you to spend more time writing. There’s not that much time left before I return to just nothing. I’d like for there to be many more new Scalzi books in this time, so, the less time speaking and the more time writing the better my time is going to be.

  7. Adam Haar:

    I have done a couple dozen weddings, but no, I don’t do them through Macmillan or for just anyone. I’ve almost entirely married off friends.

  8. @ Jim: One caveat — apparently Toastmasters groups vary widely. I’ve heard some people say that being in the group helped them a lot, and others say that they found it to be a hostile environment. So if you try them, don’t be afraid to back out if your local group’s attitudes don’t work for you.

  9. I was a shy and timid kid. Couldn’t give a presentation in front a 30 student classroom without getting red-faced and tight in the chest. The breakthrough came years later at work when I realized it’s very easy to speak in front of hundreds of people when you know what you’re talking about. Makes sense because I as a student I was a slacker and barely paid attention in class. Point is – public speaking has to be practiced, but the learning curve is in your favor when you know what the hell it is you’re talking about.

  10. “the reason people want to see me live in the first place”
    I misread that as short “i” live, not long “i” live. So, I had a moment of thinking “are people so selfish that they want a writer to die if they aren’t still putting words on paper?”.

  11. You officiating a wedding might be a good auction prize for a worthy cause someday!

  12. murmbeetle:

    I wouldn’t be interested in that. I don’t want to be a special effect at the wedding of someone I don’t know.

  13. Having seen you speak you’re enjoyable entertainment and worth every dollar you get paid. Do you get to do some volunteer events? From having seen you on tour a couple times, you seem like the type who would have enjoyed going to school w/ your daughter on Careers Day.

  14. I get asked to keynote a lot of conferences, but they’re all small (low hundreds of attendees, usually). I struggle with where is the threshold for going from asking for all travel expenses (which I do now) and asking for compensation on top of that (which I haven’t done yet). Would you be willing to share any details about at what point in your career you decided to make that transition?

  15. [Deleted because not on topic. Don’t try to carry tweets over to comment threads, folks. It doesn’t make sense — JS]

  16. Avdi Grimm:

    I did it when I joined the speaker’s bureau and let them handle it. That way I didn’t have to struggle with it — that was their job (also their job: hooking me up with speaking gigs I might not otherwise know about).


    I occasionally will appear pro bono, but usually not if it requires more than ten miles of travel or a couple hours of my time.

  17. On the tangentially related issue of anxiety over public speaking, I’ve never had those problems and for a long time wondered why not. Eventually I realized that I’m so socially retarded that it doesn’t occur to me that I should be nervous. It’s like a wraparound bug or something; if social skills go far enough into the low end of the continuum, sometimes the result is extreme confidence.

  18. Jim: I heartily endorse your recommendation of Toastmasters. I was a member for a number of years in my late 20s. I learned so much more than public speaking and was even club president for a term. I found when I was done with that experience, I moved on, but brought those skills with me and use them in even the most relaxed of business situations daily.

    Lee: I appreciate that perspective as well. Having led a club (~25-30 members), and having visited many other clubs as a guest, I found the feeling from club to club varied greatly. It’s like so many thing: shop around until you find one that fits. Or, you can do what my brother did: he started a club at his employer (or, a church, senior center, park, and so on).

    Finally, as much as I got from the experience, the best thing about Toastmasters was watching someone come to their first meeting quavering with fear, then sticking with it and, soon, blossoming. It’s a privilege to behold.

  19. On a related note, I saw David Sedaris this week. Last time he came here he said nobody ever asked him what he made to do these things, so this time my friend asked. Answer: $44k to come to our little burg, $84k to do the Kennedy Center. Make of that what you will.

    Generally sounds like nice work except for all the traveling.

  20. The first commenter, Jim Adcock, mentions Toastmasters and Berkun’s book. I own it, a part of it was once excerpted in the Toastmasters monthly magazine.

    Some folks have commented on Toastmasters, while Gary has said he failed at “extemporaneous talking on his feet.” Such “off the cuff” speaking is a totally separate skill from preparing in advance, of course, and the nice thing about Toastmasters is you get to practise both types.

    It is nice for self confidence to know you can answer a sudden public question at a convention panel, or a sudden job interview question.

    Both types of speaking are acquired at a rate you are happily aware of, and can therefore feel motivated as you are learning, not like, say, spending many hours on a certain sport and only increasing your score by a decimal point.

    I encourage guests to try out other clubs. If they return to mine, I say, then they are making a choice and not just gambling that it is the best fit for them.

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