Friday, June 14, 2013

Smile, You're On!

By Laura Spinella 

My first public reading was nothing short of a disaster. Trust me; there was nothing beautiful about it.  The moment was so bad I couldn’t even articulate the aforementioned pun at my own expense. (See Beautiful Disaster, Penguin, 2011) It was a packed library, which I wasn’t expecting. The sight of the room was promptly followed by a panic attack, which I definitely wasn’t expecting. In an aftermath of humiliation, I was left to wonder why such a thing would happen to me. Theater was my passion in high school. I had no problem getting up in front of a packed auditorium to belt out scenes and songs from some of Broadway’s best shows. It’s particularly puzzling when you consider that I am a far better writer than I am a singer. (Should you disagree, no need to email) Yet that awful library moment ties with my five worst publication experiences—thus far. A woman who came to a book club meeting, just to make sure I understood her loathing of romantic Southern set novels, is a close second.
            I would like to file these experiences under live and learn. But with PERFECT TIMING out this fall, my chances of avoiding public speaking and the occasional bitter book club member are a moot point. In fact, I'd probably be wise to garner what I can and make an attempt to learn from it. So, what's up with the public library debacle? A freak incident? Maybe. Was it the awkwardly timed realization that my words were suddenly out there for the world to comment on at large? Could be. Or it might have been this: A character that appears on stage comes with a predetermined script. While I could certainly script my speech, there was no character involved. It was just me… behind a podium…. a very undersized podium from what I recall.
            Many writers wear public speaking like a second skin. They read fluidly from their books, conveying a story as though the audience were a mesmerized group of kindergarteners. Speeches are effortless, drawing in listeners and making them feel comfortable. These authors segue from the written word to spoken the one as if public speaking were their native tongue. To me, it’s a foreign dialect for which I don’t have much natural talent. However, I do excel in group-specific public arenas. I’m great at book clubs, almost entertaining—even if you don’t love romantic Southern fiction. There’s something easy about sitting around with a group of women, even if you don’t know a single one personally, and just chatting. On the other hand, I’m stunned by the idea of getting up in front of that same group and being the targeted center of attention. Targeted center of attention… perhaps therein lies a clue.
            Interestingly, I do have a middle-of-the-road experience when it comes to public gatherings. More than once, I’ve been asked to speak to my college alumni. I wasn’t flawless in these instances, but I was certainly more comfortable than a generic public setting. I suppose it has to do with camaraderie. While the alumni I spoke to were individual strangers, we shared a common bond in having attended the same university. My mind translated this as friendly territory, trickling down to my nerves, which, in turn, did not fray. Had I sought professional help, I’m sure this would have been the diagnosis.
            So tell me Gang members and readers alike, how do you handle these situations? Are some of us just naturally gifted when it comes to public gab? Or is it a skill that evolves over time—like most things. You have captive audience here, please drop me comment on public speaking 101.      

Laura Spinella is the award-winning author of BEAUTIFUL DISASTER and the upcoming novel, PERFECT TIMING. Visit her at  


  1. Laura, I'm good at public speaking, but it's something I've learned over many years. I'm actually a shy introvert who's learned how to don the raiment of the gregarious extrovert. After decades of running a university women's center and giving hundreds of seminars, talks, keynotes, introductions, plus teaching tons of classes and workshops, I can do it pretty easily now, but that was not always the case.

    The way I learned to deal with it was to ask myself, "If I were good at this, what would I do?" and do that, and to learn to equate it with performing as a singer. I was a professional singer when I was quite young (similar to your acting experiences). I learned to find the ways speaking to an audience was similar to singing to one and making that connection. (Scripted talks and good preparation always help, too!) So perhaps some of these techniques might be useful to you? Hope so.

  2. Hi Linda! Thanks for such a thoughtful response! What you say makes complete sense. I think I can do all that, it's just the heart begins to race, the palms turn slimy and it's downhill from there! Well, I suppose the good news is I will get another chance!
    BTW, those are some super impressive accomplishments! Bravo to you!!

  3. Laura,

    I too am a pretty good public speaker, but it wasn't always so either. I think one thing to remember is that most people are kind, and those who take the time to come to your reading or talk are probably interested enough and on your side. I realize you had a bad experience with that one charmer, but overall, I find that if someone takes the time to attend, they want to be there and are actually rooting you on. Maybe keeping that in mind will help it to feel more safe to you?

    If you are having serious panic attacks, then I would recommend speaking with a doctor about how to handle that, whether it be medication or relaxation techniques.

    Best of luck, I am rooting for you for sure!


  4. I'm always nervous before my speech, but once I get going - especially in discussing my books I enjoy myself. I have to have someone call "time" or I'll go on too long. I think my "ease" with speaking started with my first "friends of the library" talk. I was supposed to speak about Evelyn David's first mystery and the road to publication. I had ordered a case of books to sell after the talk. The books arrived two weeks early and sat in my living room. I was prepared. Just before my talk I opened the carton and found that my publisher had sent a box of someone else's book. My first thought was...I can't talk about this other author's book, I haven't read it. I was in a panic but I realized that I had my first "story" to use as an ice breaker in these appearances. Every talk afterwards was easy. Just remind yourself of some disaster and say, "well this talk is going to be better than that!"

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David