One Writer’s Journey: Stepping Outside of my Comfort Zone

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689.

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689.

I’m one of those people who can talk to anybody—at least for a few minutes—and given my background as a freelance writer/journalist, I can also sound reasonably intelligent on a wide variety of unrelated subjects. So you’d think someone who’s comfortable chatting with perfect strangers would think nothing of getting up and speaking in front of a group of them.

Wrong. Maybe it goes back to my first public speaking experience. Grade 6. My assigned topic was Sir Isaac Newton, the scientist who discovered gravity, among other things. If I’d been more flamboyant and had a better memory, I might have come prepared with an apple for a prop, and memorized my speech. Instead, I stood at the front of the class with my carefully printed index cards, and mumbled my way through the words, never once making eye contact with the “audience.”  My only consolation was Herbie (last name withheld to protect the innocent—or is that the guilty?), who, poor lad, was even more dismal than me. I don’t remember what Herbie’s topic was, but I do remember him standing there wearing lederhosen (seriously, what kind of parents send their 12-year-old son to public school in lederhosen?), his snot-filled nose dripping like a tap, and his left foot lifting up and stomping back down to the ground after every sentence.

Thankfully, I’ve always picked professions that didn’t require presentations. Credit and collections manager. Sales and marketing coordinator. Freelance writer. Editor. Writer.

You’re probably thinking that I should have realized that authors often make presentations and participate in author readings and events, and I probably did. But that didn’t make me want to do it.

My first experience was at Bouchercon 2015, Raleigh, NC, where I had 6o seconds to pitch my book at the Debut Author’s Breakfast. I wasn’t flawless, but at least I made eye contact!

My second experience was at the Wasaga Beach Public Library, where I shared an event with author Timothy Weatherall. Tim does presentations as part of his day job, and was brilliant. I was much less so and in fact, chickened out and had the librarian read for me. It was while she was reading that I knew that in future I would have to suck it up and do it myself. To have someone else read for me just didn’t cut it.

Fast forward to Thursday, January 28th, where, as a member of Crime Writers of Canada, I was invited to the Ontario Library Association Superconference in Toronto. There, 20 members of CWC would have the opportunity to pitch our book to the 50+ librarians in attendance—in two minutes or less. Vicki Delany, president of CWC, was the moderator with a timing trumpet. Anyone who ran over was summarily given the horn.

Gibbs listens to my speech.

Gibbs listens to my speech.

I wrote my blurb. Practiced it in front of Gibbs, my three-month-old Golden Retriever. Thought up reasons why I’d have to bail at the last minute (flu? bad cold? family emergency?). But Thursday morning came, I made my way to the GO Train station, and headed into the city. After all, there was an Expo, other authors to meet and greet with. This was a tremendous opportunity, and I had to seize it.

Thankfully, Vicki Delany slotted me mid-pack, so I had an opportunity to observe others. Many authors, among them Gail Bowen, Janet Bolin and Rosemary McCracken offered encouragement. And Vaughn Thurman, the branch manager at my local library in Alliston, was in the audience cheering me on.

I wasn’t perfect, and I did have to read some of it (still don’t have that memorizing thing down), but I can honestly say I didn’t feel nervous once I got going. Rosemary tells me that one day I’ll get to the point where I’ll have fun with it. Not sure if that will ever be the case, but one thing is certain: Gibbs is in for a lot more readings. And I’m never going to write or speak about about Sir Isaac Newton again.

Coming Friday, February 19th: An interview with Lourdes Venard, editor, and author of Publishing for Beginners. Lourdes will discuss common pitfalls that most beginning writers make, and how to avoid them.

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10 responses to “One Writer’s Journey: Stepping Outside of my Comfort Zone

  1. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Tim, please send tips! I’ll do a follow up post (maybe after my library event in April, where I’ll test your tips). Some people I find are naturals. My husband, Mike, is one of the most solitary guys you’ll ever met. Has no time for large groups, parties etc. Much prefers his own company and fishing/kayaking/hiking. But when he was working he would talk in front of 500 people without batting an eye. His thing is, “if you know your stuff, why be nervous?”

  2. Awesome blog Judy. Very interesting insight into the day we met. I have done a lot of public speaking and taken some courses on it as well. I’d love to share some tips with you. I always get slatted to speak last at work because speaking after me is something that tends to make people even less comfortable (Sorry I didn’t know you were nervous). I’m sure you know your phobia if you call it that is all in your head, it’s a confidence thing and it’s curable. Think about that same day at Wasaga library. When you answered questions, spoke about your book, or your cover design you spoke brilliantly. It was only when that “speech/reading” context was introduced that you got nervous. You have all the tools, (intelligence, clear voice) you just need confidence. I’ll message you some tricks if you would like. You could even share them with others if you want. Also for the record I still get so nervous I feel sick from time to time. It’s not about not getting scared, it’s about being able to push past it.

  3. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Great tip, Sheri, thank you!

  4. Hi Judy, I used to feel the same way. Use the same speech and information each time. I outlined only the main points I wanted to say, and winged the information. It finally becomes part of you. Now when I speak my brain leads me through my speech, and it flows out without thinking! It does get easier- PRACTICE! out loud in front of the mirror and have Gibbs listening! You’ll be great!

  5. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks Susan. I have a reading coming up in April at a multi-author event in a library. I will do just that!

  6. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Great comment John! I didn’t remember that we had to use index cards, but I remember them well. Too funny about your devious experience.

  7. Hi, Judy, You are exactly like the high school and college students who sat in my communications/speech classes. Three words that might be helpful: overpreparation and practice.

  8. As a comment on your blog of this morning, the reason one used cue cards for ‘Public Speaking’ was that the teacher told you this was how it was done by all accomplished speakers, and if you didn’t use cue cards you lost marks. It was the same with writing. On English exams you were supposed to put your draft essay material on the left hand side of the exam booklet, and your finished work on the right hand side. I just wrote the finished product on the right hand side and got marked down because the left page was blank and therefore I hadn’t used the proper writing process. For the next exam, I wrote my final product on the right hand side and then used it to fabricate planning notes on the left hand pages. The teacher pointed out that I had a much better article by using his process – even though he didn’t know that the ‘planning notes’ were merely a by-product. It is by such experiences that we learn to be devious and play the game!

  9. Judy Penz Sheluk

    It is nice to have a captive audience who doesn’t judge you!

  10. Kristina Stanley

    I make my dog listen to my presentations too. The tail wag always encourages me.

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