When I was a debut author, I was scared of a lot of things. (Okay, I’m still scared of a lot of things.) But one thought that really rattled me was public speaking, which, for a lot of us, is part of the job of being an author. Answering questions on panels. Saying anything with any level of authority. At least with written interviews and blog posts, I had the opportunity to revise my answers and cut all of my circling the point until I finally reached it. But going out in front of people — nope. No delete button. No re-recording a video until I don’t hate the way my voice sounds. Nothing. Just live-me.
Here’s something that really helped, though, and I still do over six years into my career: I answer other people’s questions.
I mean, I don’t answer their questions for them. Hah, no. But the first thing I did, when I realized I’d be speaking in front of strangers, was search for author events on YouTube and study the way they talked about their work and careers. I combed through interviews given to other authors, moved questions over into my own document, and started answering them myself. And now that I attend more events, I pay attention to the questions people ask other authors and come up with answers of my own.
One thing most authors find is that we get asked the same questions over and over. “Where did you get your idea for this book?” and “How long does it take you to write a novel?” and other things people always want to know. We get used to answering those, and over time we refine the stories to be more entertaining or succinct or whatever.
But sometimes, people ask questions that are really unusual or even inappropriate for the occasion. “What Disney character would your protagonist be?” totally stumped me earlier this year. I mean, it’s a fun question, but not one I had thought about! I stumbled over it for an embarrassing amount of time before I figured out the (very obvious, sigh!) answer.
And then there are the personal questions (“Do you plan to have children?”** and others) that you don’t actually want to talk about in public. But a lot of us have been trained to be polite, and it seems like there’s no graceful way of saying, “That’s actually private,” without hurting the asker’s feelings, especially if they’re young.
It’s hard to answer those questions. Saying it’s private can seem like a rebuke, especially if you’re surprised and your tone shows that. But the truth may be too revealing or personal or painful, and if you answer quickly you might stumble, or try to answer the question without actually answering. Either of those things could lead to miscommunications and people making assumptions.
This is where practice comes back in. Every time I hear a friend talk about uncomfortable questions they got, I imagine how I would respond. Often, I fall on the side of hoping I’d be able to manage saying, “That’s not something I want to talk about in public” with a smile so the asker knows I’m not upset with them for being curious. That kind of answer works for a lot of different situations and sets a firm boundary and reminder that authors get to have private lives, too, even in the age of social media.
We may never feel like we answer all questions perfectly, but practice does help. Whether you’re still trying to get published, or a debut, or established, it’s always helpful to keep considering your responses, even if it seems unlikely you’ll ever be in a specific situation.
One other thing, while I have your attention: be kind to yourself. We all stumble and freeze and wonder if there was a better way to word something. Alas, there’s no rewinding and trying again in real life. When you’ve messed up, forgive yourself. (If you need to apologize to someone, do.) And honestly? Chances are no one is going to notice when you can’t figure out which Disney character your protagonist would be, so go easy on yourself. Public speaking is hard, but it does get easier with practice.
**This is an example question. I’m sure plenty of authors have been asked this, but this example isn’t based on a specific experience.
Comments? Additions? I’d love to hear your tips for public speaking.