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My Say - Phyllis McDuff


My Say gives writers a chance to air their views about writing and the writer's life.

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Speaking For Writers

Phyllis McDuff, author of the bestselling memoir A Story Dreamt Long Ago, published by Random House Australia, writes about why writers need to get out there to talk about their work and gives tips on how to speak effectively.

Once upon a time writers sat in their garrets, placed their silent words on paper and gently dispersed their wisdom to the universe. Readers read with down-turned eyes and did not aspire to look upon the face of God. This was appropriate because most of the writers that we read were long since dead.
Today’s writers are contemporary - current - urgent. Readers are greedy and live in a world of immediate gratification and competing entertainments. These readers want to look God in the eye. They demand God’s personal explanation, and they are used to getting what they want.

Now the garret is empty. Vibrant, living, successful authors have come out into the streets, have faced their public in lecture halls, at festivals, in TV interviews and in the press. They have dressed for the occasion, become celebrities, have sold many many books and have made a great deal of money.

Those of us who hope to follow in their footsteps must stop and question: How?

The successful writers of the new millennium speak.  They have come to terms with their wider artistic role.  They see themselves as performers and accept responsibility for presenting their work, their personality, their history and their wisdom to the public.  They have not cringed from the exposure; rather they have welcomed it, managed it and used it to claim their foothold on the slippery climb to market share.

It is interesting to consider the change in public demand that brings writing to this point.  The great human need for belonging has not diminished.  Quite possibly our lifestyles of absent working parents, TV screen babysitters, depersonalised corner stores, drive-through diners, computerised classrooms, and auto-voice phone systems have focused our deeper need for passionate personal contact.  We now demand this from our entertainers, our stars, our authors.

We want to belong.  We want to be familiar.  We want to know the details.

Writers who spend years compiling carefully constructed manuscripts, following protocols for submissions, studying guidelines, suddenly are asked to speak.  Bravely they launch themselves into the void ¾ that vast black space before the podium.  With trembling untrained hands they clutch an ill-tuned mike and offer up their souls to meet demands of publishers, festival organisers, reviewers and their audience.

For the most part this is done without much preparation, relying on raw innate talent, on some familiarity with words, on the proximity of other panel members.  These writers who would not dream of submitting unedited work to the public, now speak (unedited) and are judged.

A festival organiser, who shall remain nameless, confessed to me, ‘We invite authors who can entertain the audience. We want performers. We want people to come back. An author’s written work has to be a secondary consideration - unless of course the written work has enjoyed considerable success, in which case the audience will want to rub shoulders with success and will forgive ineptitude for speaking … Sometimes.’

Tips to stay on the edge

  • Accept that speaking, privately and publicly, will always be part of your professional artist role.  The cosy garret has gone out with sailing ships.  It is now a nostalgic indulgence for the most successful.
  • Work steadily to develop your voice and to find your style ¾ in the same way you work to find these in your writing. Have videos made of your presentations and review them with your speaking mentor/coach.  Practise, practise, practise.
  • Understand that your platform communication is much more than words ¾ your body stance, gesture, speaking rate, breathing and eye contact will enchant or distance your audience before and after the words are spoken.
  • Learn about the speaking technologies with the same dogged persistence that you have used to learn touch typing, word processing, internet and email.  Microphones, audiotapes, video cameras are all designed with one million ways to destroy the unwary.  You are the only one who really cares how the audience remembers you.  Keep a sharp eye on the knobs and dials.  Ask questions, ‘Can you all hear me?  On this side?  At the back?’
  • Make yourself responsible for audience needs.  Your audience cannot listen if they are too hot, too cold, uncomfortably seated, can’t see you or can’t see your visual displays.  They will lose interest if the presentation goes on past their attention span.  Regardless of who made the inappropriate arrangements your name is the one the audience will remember. Be charming but take charge!
  • Learn the protocols of speaking with the same dedication you study protocols for manuscript presentation.

Three time-honoured protocols - there are many more.

1 Arrive 30 minutes early for your presentation.  This shows respect for the organisers who are always nervous.  It gives you time to make last minute inspections and adjustments to the venue.  For example, pull a blind across a glaring window, close a window to keep external noise out, adjusting lighting so your audience can see you.  (This is not your job, but the egg goes on your face).

2 Never speak over your allocated time.  This intrude into a fellow speaker’s spot and is demeaning and inconsiderate.  It forces other speakers to edit their prepared presentation. Speaking over your allotted time can create problems for organisers with venue hire, catering and transport arrangements. 

Having to tell an invited speaker to ‘Shut up and get off!’ is not easy.  It will not make you popular. Organisers will be careful next time and - you might be invited to stay home.

3 Listen to and analyse presentations you attend.  What could you do differently?  Better?  What were the charming touches?  What can be incorporated into your repertoire?

Finally - enjoy yourself - whatever happens.  Be genuine.  Be You!

Your audience has come to share your life.  They want to take home some particle of your experience and to be enriched.  Psychologically we have not moved beyond collecting relics of the saints.  Be generous and you will be loved and invited back again and again and again …


Visit Phyllis McDuff’s website to read about her workshops and to book her as a speaker and for radio interviews on the topics Speaking for Writers and Writing a Memoir.

You can also find excerpts and a chance to purchase A Story Dreamt Long Ago, about her< extraordinary journey of discovery as she unravelled the secrets of her mysterious mother's life.