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Hitting the Road

A Session with Ken Goldstein

Twelve Tips for Your Next Book Talk

One of the greatest fears many people will ever confront is public speaking. For many writers accustomed to spending a great deal of time alone perfecting their craft, the anxiety of being in front of even a small group people can be soul crushing. I don’t want you to feel that way. I want you to look forward to the chance to share your story in public. Prior to committing to my writing career, I spent three decades in business both leading teams and giving presentations to small and large audiences. Here are some of the things I have learned that worked well when I went out to promote my first novel, This is Rage.

1) The trick to being extemporaneous is to be prepared!

Do not attempt to wing it. Never, never wing it on purpose. You will almost certainly be thrown a curveball – a question you cannot answer – and then you’ll have to wing it, but the way you’ll get through that is by having run every conceivable scenario you can through your head before you go in front of people. Practice your introduction, practice your reading, practice your Q&A time. Practice in front of your spouse, your friends, your dogs if no one else is home (I always read to my dogs, and they never seem to mind, which is a great confidence builder, even if the feedback can be a little thin). Let the words flow freely from your mouth so you get a comfort level with the content. Then it will seem like you’re winging it, but you know you won’t be.

2) It’s okay to use notes, but other than your selected passages, don’t read your commentary!

You’ve probably heard the expression “Death by PowerPoint.” That’s when someone puts dense slides with lots of text on the wall and reads them in front of the audience word for word. No one likes that, not the person giving the presentation, and no one listening to it. If you do use slides, use pictures, bullets and reference points, but talk, don’t read. If you’re nervous, see item 1 Prepare and rehearse, but please, don’t put your head in your notebook or look at the podium when you’re talking about what inspired you to write your book. Make it personal, make eye contact, look around, smile, emote, be alive, be engaged.

3) Mandate the 3 Bs – Be Brief, Be Brilliant, Begone!

No one likes a talk that drags on, any more than they like a book that that drags on. Of course you want them to know everything about the book you wrote, but hey, that’s their job before or after the book talk. Edit your comments down to the essence, pick passages that are short and self-contained and, as they say in show business, always leave them wanting more!

4) Make it a conversation, not a lecture!

In almost any forum where you’ll be interacting with people, they will be there most likely by choice (unless you’re a teacher and this is your classroom). Don’t make them feel like a captive audience. Even the smallest physical reaction can liven up the room. I often begin with a question: “How many people here have ever been involved in a layoff?” Immediately, the energy in the room changes. The talk is now not about me and my book, it’s about all of us, and an experience we can share. Ask a few questions and you’ll hear people answer softly under their breath, or maybe aloud if you have a good group. Now you are talking with people, not at people, and that’s what you want.

5) You’re funnier than you think you are – just be human, just be you!

A lot of people are terrified that their canned jokes will fall flat. Standup comedians work endless hours to find a joke that works and will then use that for the rest of their careers. You don’t have to do that. Just be you, because your natural humanity will find a chord in others. If you got lost on the way to the book talk, incorporate it into your comments. Everyone can relate to getting lost before an important event, and they will laugh with you, because they will relate to you as a person, not a performer. There is natural humor in everything we have in common that goes awry, so go with it, and leave the one-liners to the pros.

6) Diffuse bad behavior with good behavior!

I was at a panel discussion recently where someone in the audience completely misunderstood a comment that was made and took great offense to it. She stood up in the audience and made a speech attacking the panel for a metaphor they had used. Rather than fire back at her for her mistake, the moderator said, “I can see why you might think that, but perhaps we can clarify the context of the metaphor and you’ll be less upset.” She continued her tirade and walked out. The audience applauded the moderator. The point is, he didn’t throw kerosene on the fire; he was polite and open, and he diffused the anger with good manners. I think a lot of this goes back to Gandhi and Civil Disobedience, but trust me, the more someone is showing bad manners in a public setting, the more you want to show good manners.

7) Learn the Rope-a-Dope from Muhammad Ali!

This is similar to diffusing bad behavior, but one of things The Champ taught us was how to let your opponents wear themselves out taking punches at you, believing their exhaustion is your exhaustion, at which point you can surprise them and snap back. I was recently on a national TV interview show with an aggressive host who wanted me to say something in agreement with him that I didn’t want to say. He came at me again and again, and I just let him keep coming, until we ran out the clock and he actually said the words, “I surrender.” I had made my point by letting him talk himself into a corner, and since he had to back off to save face, I had stood my ground without ever being combative. Once you’re combative, you lose credibility. The audience will find its way to you when the opposing argument is gasping for air.

8) The only thing you’re selling is you, so show them who that is!

Everyone knows you want to sell the book. They’ll buy it if they want. If they just wanted to buy the book, they didn’t have to come to your event or listen to you on the radio. Reveal something about yourself that connects you to them, by being vulnerable in a way they don’t expect. Share a piece of yourself – a hero, a mentor, an anecdote of failure, a kind word someone in your family shared with you – when they least expect it. An author with whom I recently shared a panel was asked a question about how her daughter felt about something. Somehow she managed to text her daughter real time and got the answer back before the talk was over. She shared the very personal message with the audience and got a huge round of applause. She also sold every book on the table without ever mentioning they were for sale.

9) All they remember is the tone of your talk, seldom the words!

Of course you have many points you want to make! You want them to know who you are, why you wrote the book, what the book is trying to say, how interesting the characters are, how extraordinary the plot is. You are going to do all of this in somewhere between three and sixty minutes, depending on the forum. The most they are going to remember is one or two key ideas, maybe! What they will remember is the tenor of your presence. Where you honest? Were you engaging? Did you care about them? Are you committed to certain values? Are you an author worth the time to invest in your book? Worry less about getting every idea precise, and worry more about the whole of it, the feeling you want to create in the room, and if you’re not getting to that, how you can do it better next time?

10) Be an ambassador for the reading community

When I teach a business workshop on brands, I often borrow the phrase from my technology days, “You have to eat your own dog food.” What that means is if you aren’t a personally active champion for what you’re evangelizing, why should anyone else be? You are a writer because you are also a passionate reader, so you can’t go wrong singing the praises of reading and all those who make our industry possible. Thank the independent bookstore for inviting you there and remind your audience to buy their books from the store that put on the event, no matter if the price is full retail. If a radio host is doing a show about books, thank that host for caring about books. Talk about your editor, your publisher, your publicist, the teachers who inspire you, and the gracious readers who make it possible for us to share our ideas. Being part of this whole is beyond cool, and you’ll feel the power in a room you ignite when you make it about way more than you.

11) Try at least one new thing every time!

Once you have a patter that’s working for you – intro, bio, synopsis, set-up, passage one, passage two, Q&A – it becomes easy to go on autopilot. Don’t! If you are giving a canned, formulaic talk, the audience can tell. You’ll get stale much sooner than you expect. Force yourself to stay fresh by mixing up your game. Go in a different order. Read a new passage. One thing I always try to do is find a local news clipping from that day that is relevant to the talk, which right away tells my audience I personalized it for them, a sign of great respect. Also by trying new things you’ll find new bits that work, which lets you get rid of old ones that might be boring you. Seem comfortable, but don’t let yourself get too comfortable.

12) The journey is always the reward!

Enjoy your time in front of people, every second of it, laughing or crying, asking or answering. Do not worry if you sold books that day, worry about being authentic and in the moment. If you didn’t have a great talk, find a way to give another one soon and try again. Just like your writing, it’s not about the final bound product; it’s about the process of bringing the work to life. Sure, there will be days you wished you never went onstage and you might even find yourself tossing your lunch – that is part of the journey, so capture it as a real experience and continue onward. I sign my books with a very specific signature that I try to live by: Earn Each Moment.


Exercise 1) Write an outline for a maximum thirty-minute book talk roughly using this flow: a) Welcome and Introduction, a relevant bridge to this audience (two minutes) b) Your background and motivation to write this book (three minutes) c) Your theme for today, brief synopsis, or main idea you want to share (three minutes) d) Anecdote or two supporting your main idea, maybe from the book, maybe not (three minutes) e) Set up your first reading passage, why you chose it and background if needed (two minutes) f) Read first passage (five minutes) g) Set up your second reading passage, using a similar lead-in framework as your first (two minutes) h) Read second passage (five minutes) i) Mock-answer three questions you anticipate (five minutes)

2) Practice this book talk in front of a very small group of two to three trusted family and friends, but let them ask the questions this time. Now sit down and listen to their honest, constructive feedback.

3) A day or so later, incorporate the feedback you find helpful into another test run with another practice session, this time with a slightly larger group if you can, perhaps four or five people.

4) Keep practicing as often as you can until you feel your confidence being boosted. You will be surprised how fast you get comfortable doing this after the first few times.


Now you’re ready to give it a go in public, perhaps at your local library. Go get ‘em!


About the Author…

Ken Goldstein has served as Chairman & CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, and VP / Executive Publisher of Entertainment & Education for Broderbund Software. He currently advises start-ups and established companies on brands, creative talent, e-commerce, and digital media strategy. Ken is on the boards of Thrift Books LLC and Good Men Media, Inc. His first book, the national bestseller This Is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness, was published in 2013 by The Story Plant, and he has two more in the works. Visit Ken’s blog at

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