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Thoughts on public speaking

For my very first public speaking engagement, my thoughts ran along the lines of “I love talking – surely it can’t be that hard?”. A tad flippant, perhaps, but initially I was proven right and, having forgotten all about that friendly concept, “beginner’s luck”, I jumped to some unfortunate conclusions – i.e. that public speaking was very easy and that I knew what I was doing…

It all began some 7-8 years ago, when I visited Colombia for the first time and loved it. I was there on a foodie press trip, visiting Medellín’s food festival Otro Sabor, as well as various restaurants in both Medellín and Bogotá, with a sneak peek at the Coffee Zone thrown in – a great and exceedingly tasty combination. Upon my return, I was asked whether I’d like to give a talk about my experiences at an event being held at the Colombian embassy in London. Often impulsive (that’s how I’ve got to at least half of my 90+ countries visited), on the spur of the moment I said yes, only feeling that swift sense of panic when faced with the unknown after having agreed.

As it was, although a bit nervous, I had a great time giving the talk and had some lovely feedback from the audience and organisers. Luckily no one told me that the unobtrusive-looking little man, sitting at the front, was the vice president of Colombia until after I’d given the talk – it’s the kind of thing it’s best not to know, I find. On an absolute high and filled with unsubstantiated confidence, I signed up to give a travel talk at a large-scale travel show in London shortly afterwards, thinking I had a brand new, marketable skill to sell. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything, as it turned out.

The travel show, where I was due to give my talk was only in its first, or at most, second year and organisation was a bit of an issue – something I didn’t realise until it was too late. The whole show was open to the public, as well as the travel trade, so that should have meant the possibility of a fairly large audience. Alas, no one seemed to have done any advertising for the individual talks being held. In the end, only some seven people turned up to listen to my talk. I’m grateful there weren’t more, as the equipment completely failed to work and I could not use any of my images. The entire talk was geared towards accompanying said images and made little sense otherwise. Half the audience left before I’d even had a chance to finish and it all turned into a sad shambles that is best forgotten.

Rather than forgetting about it though, I decided to try and learn some important lessons from the mayhem that had ensued. Lesson no.1: always check the equipment! In my defence, I did try to do just that, but was only given 10 minutes to do so before my talk, by which time it was too late…  Had I been a more experienced speaker, I would probably have insisted on checking things earlier, or at least had a back-up plan that meant I could swing together the talk even without images. Nowadays, if an organiser tells me there is no chance of checking the equipment or visiting the place where I’m giving the talk, beforehand, I really think twice about whether to work with them or not.

It took me a little while to rally and try again after my second attempt, but nevertheless I persisted, and was, to my delight, invited to give a talk at the National Geographic Store, also in London, a while later. This time the equipment worked fine, and the talk, for the most part, ran smoothly. There was, however, one tiny, teeny little issue: the topic. I had prepared a light-hearted, entertaining and quite funny talk, again on my experiences in Colombia, thinking I would be giving the talk to the general public. Because of the venue, I assumed it would be open to anyone, but instead the National Geographic Store had been taken over by a private event that evening and I was in fact talking to a bunch of tour operators wanting very specific information on how to sell Colombia, as well as practical details about the country. Oops! Lesson no.2: know your audience!

Daunting though some of these experiences were, they proved a useful, if occasionally painful, way of learning on the job. I was a teacher in “a previous life” for a couple of years and foolhardily assumed that experience would stand me in good stead with this new venture, but public speaking is a very different kettle of fish. Teaching and engaging an audience may have some similarities, but not enough to turn any teacher into a natural public speaker, by any means.

It’s taken a number of attempts in three different countries to date (the UK, Uruguay and Sweden), to build the kind of speaking confidence that means I don’t turn into a bundle of nerves at the start of a talk, when standing in front of an audience. Some of these attempts have definitely meant learning the hard way – but often those are the lessons you remember.

I usually start my talks – regardless of the topic – by telling people I’m not an expert, which might sound odd, but is also true. I know a small amount about a large number of topics and there is little point in pretending I know more than I do. Most of my talks are based on personal experience, be it of travel, gastronomy or culture e.g. and chances are there will be people in the audience who know more about the topic than I do. If the talk is open to the general public, someone out there might be dying to call my bluff, if I act like a know-it-all. Of course, if a talk is open to the public, it’s good to bear in mind that anyone could turn up, including people you were hoping you’d never see again…

Although I’m a writer first and foremost, when it comes to giving talks I’m a great fan of including images – usually my own, but I have been known to source others’, especially food ones, which are not my strength as a (fairly run-of-the-mill) photographer. There is undoubtedly a risk that something may go wrong with the technical equipment, but images can enhance a talk to such an extent, it’s worth the risk. Not all glitches can be anticipated though. During one talk, I found that the organiser had gone in and altered my images, removing one they didn’t like the look of without telling me and I only realised mid-speech, having to make things up as I went along for a little while.

I’m slowly realising just how good a speaker you have to be to make a decent living from it, but the good thing about public speaking, that isn’t as true for writing, is “the recycling of material”. You may spend many hours preparing the material for a talk and practising the talk itself, but that same talk can usually be used multiple times, unless the topic is particularly time-sensitive. If you give talks in different cities, or countries, the risk of somebody turning up twice to listen is very slim, unless you’ve picked up a fan or a stalker.

People in general, and writers in particular, tell me that public speaking is one of their greatest fears, that it’s truly stretching their comfort zones. That may be true, but I think it’s a good stretch. Giving talks can be a wonderful way of connecting to people, sharing stories and also getting your work as a writer “out there”. It’s a way for a writer to connect with an audience in person and actually, physically meet people, stepping out of that quiet solitude that is the essence of writing. Personally, I find it gives my work a good balance between my introvert and extrovert sides. Recently, I very much enjoyed giving a talk in Swedish for the first time – a new challenge after 28 years abroad. I would love to have a go in Spanish next!

Lapland stay

I’m currently spending two months in Swedish Lapland, writing, exploring and doing research for future books. During the month of August I will be living in the small ski resort of Riksgränsen, just a short stroll from Norway, while I’ll be spending September in nearby Abisko, inside the Abisko national park. I’m happy to be contacted by anyone looking for written pieces or images from the area, or locals who know the area well and are interested in chatting to me about the culture and history of these places.