A Love Note (& Battle Strategies) for Author-Speakers

If you’re hosting, carefully label your refreshments.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

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

Laptop died on this day; bought & booted a new one in time.

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

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 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 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.

19 thoughts on “A Love Note (& Battle Strategies) for Author-Speakers

  1. Thank you for this lovely post, Cyn! I think you covered it all. Often my best presentations have come from those unexpected moments, or the moments when I decided to change it up midstream.

  2. One of the best readings I ever gave was to a single reader. She was so engaged and intent, that I read like she was the only reader who mattered … because she was.

    The magic doesn't always require a crowd. And that person who comes when maybe no one else does is precious and worthy of our time.

  3. Excellent tips. And I think one of the best things that shy/introverted people can hear when they are preparing for their first speaking engagements is that it does get easier! I would never have imagined 20 years ago that I'd be comfortable giving presentations to groups of all sizes, but I am now.

  4. Love this post, Cynthia. I'm leading my first workshop at the Florida SCBWI winter conference in January, and these tips are going to come in really handy. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks, Cynthia, this is so timely for me, I'll be doing my first big author speech at RUCCL this year and I have started to line up author events for 2013. I have always loved public speaking, but I still need a lot of pointers!

  6. Such great tips Cynthia. Even though I'm an attorney, the public speaking part of being an author terrifies me. I'm so scared of being a bore. Or of no one coming. Your tips are really helpful.

  7. Thanks for some great pointers Cynthia. I can never relax until I know my tech works–but now I see it isn't the end of the world if it doesn't!

  8. Such a good post that I decided to tweet it. I hate public speaking a whole lot, but there may come a day when it's wise for me to do so. I appreciate these tips because I'd have hated to learn these things the hard way.

  9. This great post came just in time! I'm scheduled to do my first big author trip to South Carolina in two weeks and giving a 20 minute talk in front of 2,000 high school kids. Gulp. I'm taking LOTS of water with me!

  10. Thanks for this great advice, Cyn. I've just said yes to a couple of events where I have NO IDEA what to expect. But I've been hit with all these things you mentioned (plus a blizzard that shut down a school and sent the kids home halfway through my author visit). So, really, like you said–so what? :>)

  11. Thanks for the great post, Cynthia! As both a presenter and an event planner (SCBWI RA), I appreciate the gracious comments on how event planners sometimes mess up too and still deserve a thank you. Whenever a presenter goes out of their way to be wonderful, we Regional Advisors gush to each other about it and recommend them them as presenters to other regions.

  12. This is a great post – a much more personal look at public speaking than most of the other ones I've searched for on the web. Making sure to remember not to take the audience's reaction personally is huge – after all, I have no idea what they're thinking or what's going on in their lives. Maybe they just look bored because they're tired! I will definitely try to remember that next time I'm speaking. Thanks!

    – Gary from Ellis Strategies

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