How to Give a Great Book Talk

Posted Thursday June 23rd 2011 by Jen Angel

A few weeks ago, I attended four book readings in a row, at four different locations. It was a lot.

Here’s what I said after seeing a talk by Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red:

Will was the consummate presenter. He started with a story about why he wrote the book (he was visited by the FBI after leafleting with an animal rights group), he had & repeated his talking points (that this oppression has been advanced through legal, legislative, and extra-legal means), and ended what could be a depressing talk on an up note (that there is a fine line between anger and fear, and that anger is a great motivating factor). He was unhurried and deliberate, had notes, and spoke for about 40 minutes.

It got me thinking about how a lot of great authors and writers are just not great speakers. But, you know, you can overcome a lot of that by being prepared, practicing, and going into it with confidence – after all, people willingly came to hear you when they could have been down the street at the pub instead. Seriously – don’t underestimate how big a deal it is that someone is giving you even an hour of his or her time.

The best advice: go see a lot of other speakers and think about what you like and don’t like about their talks.

Once you've done that, the most important thing is to HAVE A PLAN. Unless you have done the same talk 100 times, really, have a plan.

Here’s a quick and dirty outline of a talk: 

  • While it’s OK to read an excerpt of the book, understand that people can just buy the book. The reason they are at the reading is to get something they can’t get from the book. We recommend starting with a story or anecdote about why you wrote the book or the process of writing it.
  • Know who is going to be in your audience. Think about what 2 or 3 things you want to say to them – what are the most important things that you want them to know about your book? These are your talking points. Introduce them briefly, then explain each more in depth.
  • Maybe read a short excerpt.
  • Repeat your talking points briefly at the end.
  • End with a story or a lesson learned through the project, or some of the response you’ve already received from readers.

Expect to talk for about 30 minutes and then answer questions. Bookstores usually aren’t set up for slideshows, but if you have other visuals, bring them. Other tips? Wear comfortable shoes and clothes you won’t fidget in. Make sure you have water to drink even if you don’t think you’ll need it, and if you have business cards or a promotional postcard, don’t forget to fill your pockets with them.

We love Terry Teachout’s “How Not to Sound Like an Idiot” from the Arts Journal. The piece has many great tips, including:

  • Don’t read from a printed copy of the book.
  • When you can, look at the audience.
  • Never apologize for being nervous.
  • Make sure the audience knows when you’re through.

In our booklet, “Get Noticed: How to Publicize Your Book or Film,” we have a whole section on how to prepare for different kind of events like bookstore talks, lectures at universities, or a salon/house party at someone’s home.

And finally, that's the amazing Deanna Zandt pictured up there! You can check out her roster page here.