Giving Talks

Ok, this is a slight digression.

Today I’ve been writing a speech. Only a little one, but it’s one that has to be good, so I’ve been playing around with words, rereading old speeches and trying out new anecdotes.

I enjoy giving talks. Which author wouldn’t? We get an audience, we get a fee, we get the chance to talk about our favourite subjects and pretty often we get fed, too. Any author will approve of events like that!

The speech I’m writing today is quite focused, because it’s to an audience of publishing professionals. No pressure there, then.

Some gigs are better than others!

Some gigs are better than others!

However, while that may sound flippant, it is crucial to understand your audience.


I have been present at talks where the speaker had no idea what people were going to enter the room – truth to tell, I’ve had that myself on occasion – and it can be a painful experience for all concerned. If possible, learn about the organisation, the people, what is likely to work with them as an audience. Watch existing videos of past talks to the same audience, and measure what gets them interested. Researching the audience is key to any good talk, because if you go in without a good good understanding of what will work, you can come unstuck quickly. I had that once not long ago – I was given a firm briefing, but when I stood up to talk, it was clear that the instructions were plain wrong. That is something to avoid.

With my talk I’m lucky: it’ll be to a group of people who are interested in writing, in words, and in grammar. That puts me on to a stronger wicket.

In the past I’ve often left speeches to the last minute, because the pressure of other work gets in the way, but this week I’m taking no chances: today I planned the main outline of the talk, setting out the main themes in Scapple and on paper, and then moving on to typing up the basics. Tomorrow, I’ll read it through a couple of times, amending as I go, until it sounds and feels natural.

There is no special magic to giving talks. I have attended some hilarious after-dinner speeches in my time – from politicians like Chris Mullen and Gyles Brandreth to comedians and humorous writers.

For me, probably the best was Terry Pratchett. He accepted my invitation to the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards ceremony with enormous humility and was an absolute delight on the day. He spoke with warmth and immense generosity, and I think everyone in the room was enthralled.

Another brilliant speaker for the CWA was Greg Dyke, a short while after he launched his book about being removed from leadership of the BBC. He was funny, shrewd, stimulating and made a lot of friends with his self-deprecating manner.

The main thing about such speakers was, their ability to speak to their audience as though talking to a group of individuals, to be amusing without trying to be a comedian, to engage all the people in the room without allowing any to feel neglected.

In the past I’ve managed a successful career as a speaker by basing my talks on either my knowledge of publishing, my chosen subjects, or by giving anecdotes on my career. There are always plenty of snippets about writing and the life of an author which will entertain listeners.

When talking about some of my specialist subjects, however, I’ve discovered some risks. For example, although I like to talk about persecution and the cruelty that some can inflict on others (it is after all a significant them in all my books about the Templars), I tend to avoid talks about lepers. I used to give regular talks on the disease and its victims after publishing The Leper’s Return, but now I tend not to, because when describing the way that these poor people were treated, how they were described as being ‘dead’, their wives declared widowed, their wills enforced, and how they were forced to go through the last rites and even lie in a grave … well, I used to get so choked that I could not continue. Which is not a great trait for a guest speaker!

So, since then I have tended to focus on the amusing and silly little anecdotes that entertain. I am always very happy to relate silly incidents I’ve been involved in, or the dafter side of the industry (and the daft side is rather large).

I have even been known to wear a suit at speaking engagements!

I have even been known to wear a suit at speaking engagements!

For me, it is the act of reading and rereading the text that makes the talk work well. If you are reading words from a sheet of paper or a screen for the first time, you will not be able to watch out for the tell tale signs of boredom. You will be concentrating so hard on reading that you won’t engage with the listeners.

In the past I’ve dictated into tape players, into digital recorders and telephones, so that as I’ve driven about, walked, or even just as I travelled to the event, I’ve been able to bore myself stupid about my speech. And that’s a good way to be, because it means that you know exactly what you’re going to say at every stage, which gives you the flexibility to go away from your script and digress. And that means the talk is fresh to you and the audience.

Some of the best speakers will practise and then stick rigidly to their words as though they were carved in stone, but that misses the point of a talk. Any talk is an entertainment. The speaker must engage and inform, but do so in a manner that keeps the interest of the audience. If it feels like a lecture, many people will be turned off, but if there’s a strong flavour of spontaneity about it, more and more people are drawn in.

So, for me, the main aspects of giving a talk are: research the audience, plan the talk, write it, edit, and then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

And throw away the script when you stand up!

5 Responses to “Giving Talks”
  1. Gigging myself next Thursday, August 22, Edinburgh Book Festival, 4:30pm. Nobody turned away. No script though, minimal pre-planning, just pure unadulterated anarchy.


  2. Old Trooper says:

    The one thing that annoys me is when a speaker uses analogies that are either inappropriate to the main subject addressed by the speaker and / or they haven’t any knowledge (but think they do) of the area from which they are drawing an analogy. Either way, it puts me off for one begins to wonder if the speaker is of any value at all.


    • It is very hard sometimes when a speaker doesn’t know his/her subject. It’s almost as bad when the audience ignores the speaker and sit having loud conversations with each other – only happened to me once, I hasten to add!


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