The Perils of Public Speaking

Hannah Dennison began her writing career in 1977 as a trainee reporter for a small West Country newspaper in Devon, England. While the English countryside would always be home in her heart, she yearned to see the world on a grander scale. For more than a decade, she traveled the globe working as a flight attendant on private jets, while dreaming of someday landing in Hollywood to pursue a writing career. After an inspiring conversation with Steven Spielberg during a flight to the Middle East, Hannah decided to take his advice and follow her passion. Without a net in sight, she took a leap of faith and moved from England to Los Angeles, with her daughter and their two cats in tow. Once in Hollywood, she worked as a story analyst for several motion picture studios, while producing a hefty stack of her own screenplays. After enrolling in the UCLA Writer’s Program, Hannah decided to focus exclusively on writing long form narrative and began the Vicky Hill mysteries. Her first book, A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! was published in March of 2008 with SCOOP! in March of 2009 – and the third, EXPOSE! will follow in December 2009. Hannah still has a demanding day job. For the past ten years she has worked as an executive assistant to the Chairman of a west coast advertising company. She is married to a fellow writer.

Call me naive, but I had no idea that public speaking would become such a huge part in my life as a published author. It’s one thing pretending to be someone else on stage or playing charades at Christmas, but being myself and trying to be witty and entertaining in front of strangers is mortifying. I can cope with simple book signings where spelling a name is easy enough; I can even handle a five-minute carefully rehearsed introduction, but it’s the bookstore appearances with a lively twenty-minute pitch that gets me hot under the collar. Taking part on a panel is only a tad more bearable because a) I am with kindred spirits and b) with luck, questions will have been sent over in advance—even though the Q & A that follows can sometimes be unpredictable.

You’d think I’d be more confident having published two books in the VICKY HILL mystery series with another coming out in December. I’m certainly better than the very first time I read aloud wearing a skirt above the knee. My husband said the audience was captivated by the speed at which my kneecaps were moving.

The worst is the after-dinner speaker gig that really sets my nerves on edge. My first humiliating experience came when I was guest speaker at a local mystery club with a three-course meal thrown in. No, I didn’t get plastered and fall off the podium in a drunken stupor but I was so anxious, I couldn’t eat a bite. When nervous, I make a habit of taking my eyeglasses on and off. On this particular evening—accompanied by the loud grumblings of an empty tummy—I thought I delivered my speech quite well. People seemed entertained. They were laughing. It was only on my way home that I discovered the large clump of strawberry cheesecake stuck in my hair above my right ear. I’d accidentally put my eyeglasses down in my dessert.

But now all that is about to change.

At a recent Los Angeles chapter meeting of Sisters in Crime, award winning Toastmaster maven, Susan Mayberry, and professional pitch consultant and author, Donna Sozio, gave us some great tips on the art of public speaking.

In a nutshell, it’s very cheering to know that listeners only pay attention to 5% of the actual words spoken, 38% to the tone of the voice and the remaining 55% to the presentation. The key is to be energetic and make eye contact with your audience. My favorite tip when reading aloud from a lectern is to type the excerpt in 18 pt font using only the top third of each sheet of paper. This means a quick downward glance keeps you on track. There is no shaking of papers with trembling hands and you can still maintain the all-important eye contact.

I was so excited by the sound of Toastmasters that I decided to go to a meeting. It was a lot of fun, not remotely daunting and membership will not break the bank. Each week there are assignments that you can take part in or just observe until you feel confident to give it a go. Generally, there are prepared speeches between five and seven minutes and a “table-top” topic (a spontaneous off the cuff presentation) running around two to three minutes.

Each week, members are encouraged to volunteer for various roles. The Wizard of Ahs must pay attention to the number of ah’s, um’s and word repetitions uttered by all speakers; the Grammarian is responsible for grammar and sentence construction; the Timer holds up various colored coded cards to ensure speeches are kept to the correct length and the Master of Chuckles is self-explanatory! Evaluation is offered in a way that I found surprisingly nurturing and supportive.

I signed up immediately. With my next public speaking engagement only a few weeks away, I’m looking forward to reading aloud, wearing a skirt above the knee and devouring everything on the menu.

Hannah Dennison

6 replies
  1. Mare F
    Mare F says:

    Good for you! I can't imagine speaking in front of a large crowd of strangers. I hope that Toastmasters works well for you.

  2. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    Thanks to being PTA president four times in a row oh those many years ago, I'm never had a problem standing up in front of people and talking–as long as I know what I'm talking about.

    Fortunately, I know better than anyone else about my books.

    One thing I've learned is if I'm funny, I'll sell lots of books. It does help, since I'm old and not pretty or shapely.

    When I was teaching I always wore a lot of gawdy jewelry to give the students something to look at.

    Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

  3. Jackie Houchin
    Jackie Houchin says:

    Hannah, I was at the meeting too – and also remember the first time you read at SinC. You did well then, so I know you will be terrific after Toastmasters. I attended a couple TM meetings myself – in order to write them up for a newspaper story. Like you said, they are fun, educational and not at all indimidating. And the "comments & critiques" are indeed nurturing. Good luck. I'd like to be at your next speaking engagement.

  4. Donis Casey
    Donis Casey says:

    I think you're a pretty darn good speaker in the first place, so I can't wait to see how dazzling you will become after a stint in Toastmasters.

  5. Stacy Juba
    Stacy Juba says:

    Boy, am I glad to know that I'm not the only one nervous about speaking events. I have my first mystery coming out and am starting to line up events. Thanks for the great ideas and suggestions.


  6. Grapeshot/Odette
    Grapeshot/Odette says:

    I joined Toastmasters after I had been a so-so panel moderator. Speaking in public is one of the most feared things, right up there with spiders and snakes. It's been such fun, and I've developed more confidence. The Toastmasters lessons have been invaluable, and I've met so many interesting people. Have even sold some books along the way. I highly recommend joining a club.

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