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If you're hosting, carefully label your refreshments.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

As a children's-YA author, I'm also a public speaker—a workshop leader, a keynoter, and a frequent panelist.

Despite the fact that I, at age 17, literally ran for the ladies restroom rather than deliver an oral report in AP European History, I’ve become comfortable standing in front of anywhere from one to 800 people and sharing my thoughts. A community college speech class helped me overcome my shyness, and years of experience have helped me hone a style that combines humor with substance, using an uplifting spin.

I prepare. I practice. I come in strong with my tech ready and my comments well timed.

But every few years, for one reason or another, the magic is fumbled.

Here are a few examples, plus my related strategies and advice:

Take a Drink of Water

Fancier than usual, but lemon can help.
I completely blanked while giving a speech at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English.

It was not long after my father had suddenly died, and afterward, I would be continuing to my childhood home for the first time since the funeral.

That realization hit as I was speaking, and my next words literally vanished from my mind. I couldn’t even relocate them on the notes in front of me.

What I did in the moment was pause to pour myself a drink of water, sip, and then resume talking.

A friend in the audience assured me that what seemed like slow, loudly ticking moments transpired in a few seconds and seemed completely natural.

Punt Plan A

At one school visit, it took half of my allocated speaking time to get the students seated and my presentation introduced.

Laptop died on this day; bought & booted a new one in time.
In an effort to stick to my much-rehearsed Power Point presentation, I nearly ran out of time to address my new release at all.

Plus, I was rushing too fast to establish a rapport with my audience.

Would beating myself up over it help?

Not really.

When the second group came in, I started my presentation with a much later slide and got to the question-and-answer part of the presentation with fifteen minutes to spare. The kids asked about what interested them, and being more relaxed, I was able to better connect and provide an overall experience that was more satisfying for everyone.

Make Your Microphone Time Count

Read other authors' books & toss a softball Q to a debut author.
Once in a great while, a co-panelist will monopolize the microphone or say something passive-aggressive to minimize the work of the other featured authors.

It’s the job of the moderator to step in at this point, but that doesn’t always happen, especially if the troublemaker is a big name.

Don’t panic at your lack of participation or allow yourself to get drawn into an unprofessional squabble.

(I’m not saying to avoid lively debate, if it’s appropriate, but there’s a difference between that and lowering your professional standards of behavior.)

Sooner or later, you will get a chance at the microphone, if only for the last roundup of answers before the panel signs off. Be ready. Take some time—in advance of the session—to ask yourself what one or two points you most want to emphasize. Focus on those, be gracious, and cut your losses.

You can always say something to the effect of: “If anyone has additional questions, I’d be happy to answer them at the signing.” (The signing almost always immediately follows, and you might generate more interest that way.)

Pull Up a Chair

Low audience turnout? First, don’t take it personally. There are a ton of factors that go into attendance at an author event. If you’ve made a good faith effort to spread the word, that’s all you can do. It's especially tough in a city where you don't have personal ties and aren't plugged into local media scene. Your biggest fan could live across the street and still have no idea you're right there in the neighborhood.

It's the quality of the audience that matters.
One of the best models I’ve seen for dealing with low turnout was an author who’d recently—as in a week or two before—received a major award and was literally glowing, his career was so hot.

Maybe it was the weather (Austinites panic at rain, or at least our forecasters do). But I was one of only a handful of people who came to his bookstore event.

Rather than bemoan the small crowd, he opened by thanking the independent booksellers and talking about how important they are. Then he pulled up a chair and began visiting the group—still talking about writing and the book—but in an informal way that made us feel like we’d scored the best seats in town. And we had.

I’ve since adopted that strategy on the couple of occasions it’s arisen in my own travels.

At one very new festival, I was scheduled to give several presentations in a day, and while my other talks drew lovely crowds, the first was slotted early in the morning in a remote building on campus.

Only one person showed up.

But she was a jingle dancer, and my first book was Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000). We had such a nice visit. When I look back fondly on that weekend, hers is the face I remember.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

I’ve only been heckled a couple of times, and in both cases, the root of it was the heckler’s assumptions about my intent in writing this or that aspect of one of my novels.

In both cases, they were wildly off-base. When I explained, one immediately realized, laughed at and apologized for her mistake. The other dug in more deeply and took an even more sneering tone.

If you’re asked a leading question, give an honest answer. If you’re stumped as to where to go from there, try “I appreciate your sharing your insights” or “I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree” and then keep moving forward. The rest of the audience will appreciate it.

Play Ball

More about my latest release. U.S. Cover.
Event planners occasionally misstep. They choose a venue that has you staring into direct sunlight or shielding your eyes against blowing dust. The tech goes wonky, or the book order falls through.

So what? Really, in the course of your career, how important is this particular challenge?

And that’s what it is—a challenge. So rise to it.

If it’s logistically plausible, ask to arrange the chairs (or whatever) so your eyes won’t water. But don't hijack the event. You're the guest, not the host, and The Powers That Be may have their own reasons and limitations to contend with.

Safest bets: Bring your own laptop and projector as backup. Or simply do the best you can with what you’re dealt.


Say thank you, no matter what. The vast majority of children’s-YA book event planners are volunteers and among the most formidable champions of your field.

They are sweethearts. They are awesome. They’re doing the best they can with what they have, and—just like you—they’re allowed to have a bad day.

The Big Picture

I could offer more examples and solutions, but I think you get the general idea.
Follow me at Twitter & Facebook.

  • Be prepared.
  • Be gracious.
  • Take a team approach.
  • Follow your host's/moderator's lead.
  • Do your best.
  • Don’t beat yourself up.
  • Forgive easily.
  • Find the fun.
  • Laugh and smile.
  • Keep moving forward.
  • Say "thank you!"
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Try to do even better next time.

You’re living the dream. This is part of it.


Cynsational Notes

New from Walker Books in the U.K.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical and Tantalize: Kieren's Story (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name--for which she was named a Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers--(all HarperCollins) and Holler Loudly (Dutton). She looks forward to the 2013 release of Eternal: Zachary's Story and Feral Nights (Book One in the Feral series)(Candlewick). Cynthia's books also have been published in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, France, Poland, and Turkey.

Her website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column. A former member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA faculty in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Cynthia has lived in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Illinois, and she now calls Austin, Texas home.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 28th, 2012 10:34 am (UTC)
Fabulous post!

When Cowboy Camp first came out, a library invited me to do a storytime event. I dragged in a stack of books and all sorts of fun cowboy activities for my crowd.

One kiddo showed up. So I read to her. We crafted. We chatted.

At the end, the little girl's grandma bought her a copy of Cowboy Camp. This was the only time 100% of my audience left with a book. :)
Aug. 28th, 2012 11:32 am (UTC)
Thank you! And I love this:
>>This was the only time 100% of my audience left with a book. :)

What a lucky young reader! I'm sure she'll never forget it!
Aug. 28th, 2012 10:49 am (UTC)
This is invaluable. Thank you!!
Aug. 28th, 2012 11:32 am (UTC)
My pleasure--hope all's well in your world!
Aug. 28th, 2012 11:08 am (UTC)
Thank you!
This is such a great list. It's also good to know you used to be terrified of public speaking but now do it with grace and ease.
Aug. 28th, 2012 11:33 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you!
So glad you liked it! And yes, I was a sight to behold (or not, as I much preferred hiding!).
Aug. 28th, 2012 02:59 pm (UTC)
Excellent advice
It feels like you have to fill up every minute of your speaking time with sound but silence can be a great way to engage your audience. People need a second or two to digest what you're saying.

And I've learned the hard way, always to have water with me when I speak.

Most of all, I've learned to go listen to authors talk as often as possible no matter what the genre, even if I don't care for the book, just to see what works at the podium and what doesn't.
Aug. 28th, 2012 03:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Excellent advice
Wonderful points! Especially when I was a beginner, I went early and often to author talks and studied the masters.
Aug. 28th, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
What a helpful post! Thanks!
Aug. 29th, 2012 09:29 am (UTC)
Thanks for surfing by!
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 29th, 2012 09:30 am (UTC)
Yes, exactly! I'd also vote for a shorter scene--the younger the generation, the shorter the attention span. Unless you're reading a fully illustrated picture book (and even them, you may want to abridge it), three minutes or fewer.
Sep. 3rd, 2012 08:57 am (UTC)
What a great find
Thanks for writing this post. I have a few readings coming up, and this list was a great reminder that the hosts are the reason we are guests.
Sep. 3rd, 2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
Re: What a great find
My pleasure! Good luck with your upcoming readings!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

about me & cynsations

Cynthia is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of fiction for young readers. Graphic novelist. Fond of cats, comics, and cocoa.

Cynsations is a source for conversations, publishing information, literacy and free speech advocacy, writer resources, inspiration, news in children's and teen literature, and author outreach.

Note: via various means and mirror sites, Cynsations has about 6,000 regular subscribers and averages 80,000 page views a month.

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