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Authors Dish on Stage Presence:
“Un-Mic Before You Throw Up”

BY NICHOLE BERNIER

Much is said about the things you’re supposed to do before your first pub date and readings.

But not all that much is said about how to be that charming author at the podium. Someone who glides up with a joke or thoughtful anecdote—perfectly entertaining and informative, no nervous stutter, no perspiration stains spreading like a levee broke under her blouse.

So I put the question to successful authors: How did you come by your stage presence? What tips would you offer debut authors?

Excerpted below are highlights of the group interview online. Many thanks to the authors so generous with their insights and experience.

Sara Gruen: I go out and blather about things that happened while I was writing or researching the book.

The nice thing about just blathering is that you don’t have to look at notes or anything, so you can make eye contact with the audience and really connect. The first time I had to speak in public I thought I was going to die of nerves. But remember, the audience is there because they like you and want to be there!

Ann Napolitano: I was horrifically shy. Before my first book came out I bought leather pants and got glasses (which I barely needed). I thought if I played a part on stage I would be better able to survive. As it happened my grandmother died the day of the first reading, so I was flustered and forgot both the pants and the glasses. And yet I survived.

Claire Cook: I stopped getting nervous once I realized it’s not about ME—it’s about making sure everybody who takes time out of their busy lives to show up has a really good time. My version is to try to connect with each person, chat and joke, tell the stories behind the story of the book, and read just a short snippet. But I think it’s so important for a debut author to feel free to find the style that suits her best.

Robin Black: I usually talk a little bit about how the stories came to be written and what a surprise and gift it is to me that I get to share them now. While writing them, I had convinced myself they could never be a book. I talk a little bit about what a kind of magical thing it is as a writer to see the imagined readers materialize, to engage with people who care about the books they read.

I really think the key to a good reading for me—even when there are very few people there—is consciously remembering what a gift they are giving me by being there. It’s a big deal to set aside an evening and leave the family or just leave the house. If the point of coming to a reading is to have some kind of personal encounter with an author, I want anyone who does that to feel as though that’s happened.

Jenna Blum: I like improv (surprisingly), and I often think if I broke my ankle on the way to a reading, I’d start by saying, Hey, I broke my ankle, cut me some slack and thanks for keeping me company tonight! I LOVE Q&A.

Once the scripted reading is over, I can relax and bounce on my toes and limber up and see what the audience throws at me. Remember: you can’t go wrong because you know all the answers. You wrote the book!

Dani Shapiro: I try to remember that the audience is on my side. They want us to do well! It’s so easy to forget that when you’re looking out into that sea of faces. And speaking off the cuff (or seemingly off the cuff) for a few minutes puts everyone at ease.

I find public speaking much scarier than reading. In a reading, the material feels like a security blanket to me. I can always go back to the book and read a bit more. But that can be a crutch as well.

If all else fails, there are always beta blockers. Seriously. Quite a few writers I know rely on them.

Randy Susan Meyers: I prepared like crazy before my first readings. I went to as many readings as possible, taking notes, seeing how the audience reacted, etc. (And always always bought the author’s book, even if it was about repairing washing machines.) Then I bought and ingested the book Naked At The Podium: The Writer’s Guide To Successful Readings by Kahle and Workhoven.

Most of all, I try to really keep in mind that this is for an audience of readers, and it’s my job to provide something as good as I can make it. Be as unstiff, honest, and, hopefully, entertaining as possible. For the discussion   

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