When I was a little sprout, I joined a homeschool public speaking group. I went every week, did all the assignments, and did my best to speak in public, as the class seemed to demand. This was about three years before I began writing seriously, and while I had noodled around with fiction a couple times, it had never gone anywhere for me. I was much more of a reader than a writer.
It showed. I wrote essays and read them in class, calling it public speaking. I wanted to be funny, but the speeches turned out boring. I wanted to be enthusiastic, but the script never sounded as good as it did when I read it over. I wasn’t a bad speaker, all in all, and I learned through the class, but I certainly wasn’t a good speaker.
Fast forward to this year, approximately five years later. I’ve written seven novels. This post is my 665th on this blog. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I write a lot. I’m sure you’ve realized that. This year, I also took a public speaking class, because I’m interested in becoming competent in that area. I can write for an audience, but I also want to speak to an audience— having that skill is important to me. So I took the class.
I quickly discovered I was much better than I had been five years ago. I’m certainly not perfect, but speaking comes almost naturally these days. Stories flow easily. When I write a speech, I can hear myself speaking it. It doesn’t feel the same as something I’d publish here, or hand in as an essay. Writing, I’ve found, doesn’t just help your writing. It doesn’t just help your reading. It helps everything you do that involves words.
Another quirk I’ve developed with public speaking: I tend not to script myself. I speak the same way I write, in general: without notes, without a written outline, just an list in my head of what I want to accomplish. And it works, most of the time. Is it perfect? Goodness, no. But it’s enthusiastic. It’s funny. It’s fun for me to do, and people think I’ve memorized my entire speech and can spout it off without a hitch— that’s not the case at all. I have no idea what I’m doing, but because that’s how I write most of the time, it turns out well.
Another thing I recently discovered is the Moth podcast. It’s a radio program consisting of regular people telling stories from their experience, without notes, without memorizing, in front of a live audience. They practice beforehand a couple times with directors, I’m pretty sure, but other than that, they have no editing or scripting to do. Normal tales from everyday life, sometimes stranger than fiction, but always entertaining.
After each story, the program’s anchor gives a brief bio for the speaker. This person is an engineer. This person is a social worker. This person is a writer— actually, wait, about a third of the people I’ve heard speak have published books, newspaper columns, or other writerly gigs. Most of the anchors I’ve heard for different radio hours are writers as well. It’s pretty amazing, actually, but one thing never fails: if the speaker is a writer, their story is good. No, it’s amazing. It’s hilarious. It’s touching. It’s not a fluke. Oh, of course the guy who writes comics for a living is a funny speaker— well, yes. But the same is true for all the writers. They know how to tell stories, whether they can edit later or not. They know how words work.
It’s nice to know this before going into any sort of public speaking thing. You’re a writer, so you automatically have an edge. You still need to learn a couple things, sure, but you’ve got the ability to create with words— you already know the fundamentals of audience reaction and getting across a point. You have a head start from the very beginning.
And if you don’t write enough, or if you’re more of a speaker than a writer, start writing. What should you write? Whatever you like. Start writing yourself speeches. Start writing essays. Write fiction, or a memoir, or a fictional memoir. Whatever it happens to be, you can increase your head start in public speaking by increasing your association with writing and similar activities.
Practice, in this as with everything else, makes perfect. With speaking, however, you have the ability to cross-train with writing. Speaking helps your writing, and writing helps your speaking. However you work at it, you will grow.