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Question of the Month: Public Speaking

By Posted on 30 2 m read 656 views

What makes you the most nervous about public speaking? And what helps you get through?


I’ve been doing speaking engagements all month–book clubs, a reading in Brooklyn (with the remarkable writers Jessica Anya Blau and Paula Bomer), and a panel at BookMania in Stuart, Florida.

My fellow panelists at BookMania: Elizabeth Berg (author of THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU and the Oprah Book Club selection, OPEN HOUSE), Joyce Maynard (author of THE GOOD DAUGHTERS and the movie-adapted novel, TO DIE FOR), Michael Morris (author of SLOW WAY HOME), and Martha McPhee (National Book Award finalist and author of DEAR MONEY).

The moderator asked the most engaging questions, and while my hands were shaking with nerves (I clasped them together under the table), I found I’m not as nervous when I think more about the other panelists and their answers than I do about me. I try to think of it as a conversation rather than a performance, and that helps a lot.


In other news, UP FROM THE BLUE is in its 4th printing, and it’s now in Costco…

And this photo is courtesy of the beautiful Kiwi screenwriter, Eileen-Rita Folwell, who snapped a shot in her local New Zealand bookstore…

Thank you to everyone who sent photos. I really appreciate them. And thank you to these wonderful people who reviewed UP FROM THE BLUE this month: The Fabulous Beekman Boys, Sarah-Kate Lynch in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Nicky Pellegrino in the New Zealand Herald News, Marion at Cover Me Book Review, Laura de Leon at Booking It, Michele Harrod at GoodReads, Karen and Gerard at Grab a Book from Our Stack.

Two quick announcements before I go: Many good friends and cherished colleagues have books out now (or coming out soon) and I’ve put together a shout-out over on FaceBook because I’m so proud of them. And on February 18th at B.B. King’s (42nd Street, Times Square), my 9th grader will be performing Pink Floyd’s The Wall with the School of Rock All-Stars. Oh, and The Today Show will be filming it!

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  • Nathalie
    February 7, 2011

    When I started to work I was told that preparation is essential when talking in public, including rehearsal (and timing more often than not). Of course, that’s just about speaking in my professional circles but I feel sure it applies to most cases – although sometimes you can’t prepare (Q&A are an example: you never can guess all the questions).

    Congratulations to your 9 grader!

    • Susan Henderson
      February 7, 2011

      I agree, and I think it even helps to take some guesses at what the questions might be. I change my emphasis based on the audience–if it’s writers, I know they don’t want to hear about my book so much as the process and things they can apply to their own writing. And when I talk to teens, I quickly move into themes about self-esteem, secrets, confidence, and the types of things that let them know they’re not alone.

      My 9th grader has been getting paying gigs at a ridiculous pace. All his hard work is paying off, and I’m proud of him. 🙂

  • Robin Slick
    February 7, 2011

    I need wine to speak in public and if someone offers me a valium or xanax, even better. But when nerves kick in regardless, I always go for cheap laughs, and once I get that, I can be myself and relax.

    Wait. I don’t even know who “myself” is. And I never relax. Sheesh. How could I forget those two small details?

    But enough about me. Susan, all of the wonderful speaking engagements, reviews, and news in general about Up from the Blue is so exciting and so well deserved. Congratulations! And trust me…it’s just the beginning. I’m anxiously awaiting to see what’s next….I know for sure it will be brilliant.


    • Susan Henderson
      February 8, 2011

      I haven’t found wine to help much, but I stay far away from coffee because my teeth start to chatter if I’m nervous and have too much adrenaline.

      The new book is so ridiculously fun to write… I’ll tell you all about it when you come up in March(!!!!!!!).

      • Susan Henderson
        February 8, 2011

        Oh, P.S, Robin, You will seriously love Paula Bomer’s book, BABY. Click on her link.

  • Elizabeth Crane
    February 7, 2011

    For me it really depends on the situation. I’ve learned that I never want to moderate anything ever again – I didn’t really want to do it the one or two times I did it, but I can fake sounding smart a lot more if I’m only talking about my own work than someone else’s. 🙂 I’ve also found, now that I host an occasional reading series here in Austin, that I feel an incredible amount of stress, hoping to please the audience and to make it worthwhile for the readers. But when it’s just me, it’s actually pretty easy. Reading can be a lot of fun, a chance to really connect with the audience, and I have plenty to say on the subject of me. 🙂 I realized I just gave y’all exactly nothing in the way of tips, hopefully maybe you guys can help me!

    • Susan Henderson
      February 8, 2011

      Wow, I never even considered how hard (and different) that might be to moderate. But you’re so right, it’s easier to wing it when people are asking questions about you, your process, and your book.

      I want to visit your reading series in Austin soooo bad!

  • Tom Dolan
    February 7, 2011

    It’s always a Conversation. Yes we only hear one side, but the audience is engaging with you. So, thinking as you do, that it’s a Conversation, is an excellent anchor for you. The Performance aspect is important and will develop as your comfort level increases. Movement, if you’re not tethered to a mic, is freeing, adds energy, and further involves your audience. Focusing on the results you want to achieve will help remove the focus from yourself and that’s always good.

    Now writers, don’t hate me, but I believe, teach, and state unequivocally, that you don’t learn to Speak by reading a book. Why? It’s a doing skill, and doing requires doing. Speaking is how you get over the fear, brush past it. Then when you arrive at the point where you want to develop your technique, look into books, cd’s, and dvd’s. In the meantime, Speak whenever, wherever you can. Enjoy the moment and share your thoughts.

    • Susan Henderson
      February 8, 2011

      Tom, Good point about movement. And I’m with you that it’s a skill you need to put time into. Most writers I know aren’t extroverts, but if you have to go in front of a crowd, it’s better to try to put on a good show than simply live through it. What’s helped me is to not depend on the audience response to put on a good show–any audience enthusiasm or wise questions should just be icing on the cake. The nerves set in when I put too much pressure on them to show approval or interest or help pace the event… and I don’t do that anymore.

  • Ellen Meister
    February 8, 2011

    “Oh, and The Today Show will be filming it”

    Oh my god!!! That is HUGE!!! Congrats to you and the darling 9th grader!

    Also, hugs and thanks for the shout-out. 🙂

    As far as public speaking, I used to suffer terrible stage fright. But after doing it several times something happened … I discovered I was pretty good at it. Now I’m usually calm in front of a group, and actually enjoy it.

    • Susan Henderson
      February 8, 2011

      He’s been on such a tear with paying gigs lately and really seeing a payoff with all of his hard work.

      I’ve discovered the same thing… I’m actually really good at public speaking. My issues are all physical right now–I just have a voice that shakes and won’t project, and I wonder if there’s something (that’s not a drug) that would help with that.

  • Susan Henderson
    February 8, 2011

    Sorry for being slow to respond. I’m doing another 40 day writing binge and only allowing myself an hour online each day. My goal is to get Book #2 to “the next level” by the end of it… so far, I’m excited, energized, and flooded with ideas.

  • Elizabeth Crane
    February 8, 2011

    Sue, you’re invited anytime!

  • Karen Harrington
    February 8, 2011

    Public speaking of ANY kind makes me nervous. I’m a former speechwriter and would much rather give words to someone else to speak! Preparation is key. I used to tell my speaking clients that the words on the page were only 3% of the delivery. The rest was up to them. Before even speaking, I urged them to be very familiar with the general flow of the material so they could feel confident and speak conversationally. Also, six deep breaths before speaking. It takes that many deep breaths to engage the para-sympathetic response system that calms the body.

    Oh, and my secret weapon is a turtle-neck to cover the red, nervous splotches that always appear on my neck. 🙂

    • Susan Henderson
      February 8, 2011

      Karen, Are you serious about the six deep breaths thing? And good idea about the turtleneck!

  • Tracy Mays Olmsted
    February 9, 2011

    Hi Susan:

    I just finished Up From The Blue and loved it. I grew up w/ the Hendersons in Singapore and our families have kept in touch through the years. Jan passed on the book to my Mom who sent it to my sister, Katherine, and me. So happy to hear of your success and eagerly await your next book. Our local Costco in Connecticut carries your book which is fabulous!

    Say hello to David for me…it’s been decades!

    Tracy Mays Olmsted

    • Susan Henderson
      February 9, 2011

      Oh wow! I just read this to David, and he guessed the family name before I got to the end of the note. He says hello!

      Thanks so much for getting in touch! Jan’s going to get such a kick out of it! 🙂

  • Jessica Keener
    February 11, 2011

    Sue-I’m kind of laughing about your question because I have one very clear memory of terror about public speaking that dates back to summer camp days. I actually did not return to camp or rather I remember thinking the REASON I didn’t want to return to camp as a full counselor was because I would have to get up in front of the entire camp and give the news of the day for a week. The idea of public speaking ended my camp career. I’m laughing now, and happy to say I don’t have that same terror anymore.

    Adding more congratulations for your New Zealand top #4 rating, your 4th printing, your Costco sales–your expanding success. It’s wonderful to see your hard work, your great work rewarded.

    • Susan Henderson
      February 12, 2011

      Isn’t it amazing the way the world shaped us and we shaped our own world (grew it in some ways and limited it in others) from the beginning? I find that so fascinating the way our passions and fears do this, even now.

      New Zealand has been an unexpected gift, and I’m so thrilled with the way they’re treating this book.

      Hope you post on your blog again, soon. I’m addicted to your home-stories!

  • Billy Bones
    February 17, 2011

    Mr. Lincoln always flubs the first five minuets or so. Quite similar to the way a juggler drops a few balls so the rest of the performance looks good.

  • Rachel Kramer Bussel
    February 21, 2011

    Everything about public speaking makes me nervous but I think it’s vital for writers to do it anyway. You hear so many pauses, so much uncertainty, so many ways your writing and courage can be improved, plus you connect with people in a way that, no matter how much I love the written word, you just can’t do on the page alone.

    Susan, I’m getting an error when I try to get your Facebook note – not to make more work from you, but can you post those book shoutouts in the comments here too? Not that I need more books, but I love your recommendations. Am about to order The Other Life now!

    • Susan Henderson
      February 21, 2011

      Rachel, hi!

      And what a great point you make about courage and connection. Sorry that link isn’t working for you. Here’s the note, though I don’t think the photos or links will come through…

      by Susan Henderson on Saturday, February 5, 2011 at 4:18pm
      A number of close friends and colleagues have new books out, and I wanted to give them a shout-out….

      Ellen Meister, THE OTHER LIFE

      What if you could leave your current life by stepping through a portal where the you who made other choices lives? This is the temptation for one mother, pregnant with a terribly deformed child, who has learned there is a world where she lives with a different man, a different career, and where her mother is still alive.

      Roy Kesey, PACAZO

      Kesey is a young Cormac McCarthy, here writing about The Three L’s: love, loss, and lizards.


      Jim taught me how to write. Here he is reading from his new book: I’m crazy about his Tenured Guy series and the Monopoly poem.

      Summer Wood, WRECKER

      A young boy with a short fuse and a reckless nature needs a home when his single mom is sent to prison. WRECKER is a story about the aftershocks of abandonment, the hunger for connection, and the surprise in store for the untraditional family who dares to take him in.

      Greg Olear, FATHERMUCKER

      With candor and wit, Greg Olear takes the reader to the most uncomfortable truths of marriage and parenthood—and yet FATHERMUCKER oozes with vulnerability and love. I burst into tears several times while reading this novel, and was beyond moved by the anguished acceptance of young Roland’s autism. Compassionate, insightful, and laugh-out-loud funny.

      Jessica Anya Blau, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME

      Imagine a home with a nudist mother, a bird that perches on the living room curtain rod and shits on the couch, and an empty pool in the backyard filled with bikes. Imagine growing up in this home and then returning as an adult to the hospital bedside of this nudist mother. A gloriously rich portrait of three adult children who discover the tensions and hurts they still have between them are inextractable from the laughter and love. (I know, I know, inextractable isn’t a word, but it feels like the one I needed!)

      Rebecca Rasmussen, THE BIRD SISTERS

      With a poet’s ear and a wisdom about the subtleties of the heart, Rebecca Rasmussen delivers an unforgettable debut that takes its reader to the depths of love, fidelity, and a sense of belonging. From the opening image of one sister gently placing a wounded bird inside her pocket, I was hooked.

      Caroline Leavitt, PICTURES OF YOU

      This is a deeply satisfying read that shows the many facets of love. Examining the survivors of a fatal car crash, Leavitt explores grief, guilt, secrets, and disappointments in a cast of sympathetic characters who become so entangled, it’s not clear to anyone what decisions are the right ones to make. I highly recommend this book, which feels like an easy read and yet works profoundly on the soul.


      Space alien coming-of-age, where humans are not only abducted but impregnated by aliens—all giving rise to social commentary about illegal aliens, hiring others to raise your kids, defining family and home.


      What if there was a radio talk show devoted to real-time murder? Would you listen? Would you call in? Would you participate?

      So this is a shout-out for friends who’ve been especially good to me or to LitPark. But please add to this list with your own books, or those of your friends…don’t be shy!

  • Susan Woodring
    March 3, 2011

    Public speaking makes me crazy. My hands shake and everyone watches my hands, afraid I’m going to faint or something, and then I watch everyone watch my hands and will them to stop shaking. Which never works.

    But, when I do get a chance to read my work, I also appreciate it deeply. Here is my chance! Others listening to my story!! It’s nice to feel the room listening. That part I like.

    • Susan Henderson
      March 6, 2011

      Susan, This is actually what I love most about writers and seeing them live. I like the push and pull–the desire to be heard and to connect, along with the shyness, both about public speaking and just about sharing something so intimate, in general. It’s very endearing to me.

Susan Henderson