Charlie Cochrane: The Perils of Public Speaking

Charlie Cochrane
Charlie Cochrane

I sometimes get conned – sorry, asked nicely – into chairing author/reader events such as the Festival of Romance or the UK Meet. Now, this is meat and drink to me, seeing as I do some freelance training and facilitating, so standing up to handle panellists and audiences holds few terrors, and acting as a panellist for author events is also right up my street. When Laura asked me to blog about how some of the opportunities came about – and if the skills needed can be learned – I was delighted to oblige.

The Deadly Dames is a classic example of me being in the right place at the right time (story of my publishing life). I got to know Nicola Slade and Eileen Robertson through the local Romantic Novelists Association lunches and, one day, Eileen said, “Would you be interested in doing library talks? You have to join Mystery People first.”I almost knocked her down in my rush to say, “Yes, where do I sign?”

The Deadly Dames
The Deadly Dames

From there the Deadly Dames grew – five “girls” local to the M27 corridor, all of whom write cosy mysteries as well as other things. We devised a name, a logo, a style (black and red clothes) and began our career at Chichester library, discussing how and why we write, where we get inspired, how we do our research and lots of other things. It was a great success, which we’ve followed up with other bookings, some of which we’ve sourced ourselves – cue nabbing librarians and trying to charm them – and some have been sourced by the lovely Lizzie at Mystery People (next up, Bognor!)There are pros and cons to all of this, not least because of unforeseen problems which upset your plans. The DDs had been lined up to do a panel in Windsor but it had been booked to clash with Comic Relief and had to be cancelled. Back into the cupboard the snazzy red and black gear goes… But you have to take the rough with the smooth, and the ‘free’ opportunities – to get our names out on advertising, to engage with potential new readers (whether they buy our books at the event or later or get them from the library) and to present ourselves as interesting, nice people – are not to be sniffed at. Any author at our level in the profession will tell you that books don’t sell themselves and the harder you work and network, the more success you tend to have.

Preparation is key for Deadly Dames events. Not to the nth degree, as you start to sound very flat (you need some bounce in your bungee!) but to have some idea of what you might say. For the Deadly Dames, our panel leader circulates some key questions in advance so we can get our notes ready to tackle those. Those questions change, so people could come to several DD events and not be bored.  I also like to have some answers at least half prepared in my mind for anything tricky someone in the audience might ask. You know the sort of thing. “Why does a straight woman write about gay men?” I want to get the answer to that absolutely right. (Although some of the audience questions, especially about e-books, make such little sense that having an answer ready would be well nigh impossible.)

Extending the discussion to the chairing or facilitating of panels/events, experience and practice undoubtedly help, but the sort of skills involved can be learned and there are plenty of tips to help things go smoothly, such as:

  • Have people in the audience you know you can call on for comments if questions have dried up or are slow getting started. Something like, “Laura, I know you’re interested in vampire fiction. What’s your opinion on ‘Victoria and Albert, love at first bite’?” Once somebody talks, generally others will join in.
  • Make sure you have some questions to ask your panellists if nobody else is doing so. You can always use generic ones, such as, “Is there a classic book you couldn’t finish” or “Is there a book you wish you’d written?”
  • Try to ensure everyone gets to ask their question, even if that means being blunt with floor-hoggers. “Can we come back to you if there’s time? I have a lady in the back row who won’t forgive me if I don’t get her question in.” Smiles and good humour help pour oil on many a troubled water.
  • Don’t be afraid to pull panellists/delegates back on topic. Remember that your core business isn’t to be everyone’s friend, it’s to keep the event running to topic and on time. Oh, and have a clock to hand, and even a whistle. Don’t be afraid to use either of them!

What are your tips for making public appearances go well? And do you want to pick my brains (such as they are) on the subject?

As Charlie Cochrane couldn’t be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice—like managing a rugby team—she writes. She lives in England, but has yet to use her local town Romsey as a setting for her stories.

She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Mystery People, International Thriller Writers Inc and is on the organising team for UK Meet. She regularly appears with The Deadly Dames.

Charlie Cochrane Promises_Made_Under_Fire_final foir LJCharlie’s latest release is Promises Made Under Fire

France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden–his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he’s never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can’t be so open with Frank–he’s attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man’s-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave–and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

Thank you so much for your wonderful advice, Charlie. As Chairperson at the Festival of Romance, you certainly put us at ease for our first panel, and we knew we were in safe hands.

We wish you and your Deadly Dames well.

Laura x

24 thoughts on “Charlie Cochrane: The Perils of Public Speaking

  1. ooh you sound the sort of person I’d like to chair a discussion panel with me on it. Prob the reverse wouldn’t be true though…. great post.

    • I think your fingers have the same problem as mine with typing things correctly! (My brain tells them the right thing but somewhere down the arm it gets scrambled…)


  2. Great post, thanks Charlie.
    As you know, me and public speaking aren’t the best of friends, although our relationship is improving. It is true what everyone keeps saying … it gets easier the more you do it.
    Looking forward to seeing you and the Deadly Dames when you come to the dizzy heights of Bognor 🙂

  3. The Deadly Dames are great fun and we’re hoping to do lots more gigs – if you hear of anyone wanting an entertaining evening, do get in touch with us, please!

    For someone who is actually very shy, I’ve been amazed that I have no qualms at all about public speaking! Perhaps it’s because, as someone suggested, I’m the world expert on my books and my writing. So that’s something to arm yourself with if you feel twitchy! The other thing to do is to act the part. I take a deep breath at the door, remind myself that I’ve been invited to be the speaker and that (sometimes) they’re paying me, and I switch on Nicola the Writer. She’s far more confident than the wimpy Nicky!

    Start with a joke if you can. I once talked to an audience of 50+ people, mostly men. They belonged to a social club for MGB car owners and I began by confessing that I had vaguely assumed their precious cars were Morgans – I thought they were the same thing. That broke the ice and it was plain sailing from then on.
    I also do as Charlie does, though not with a ‘plant’ in the audience, so I’ll turn it round and ask ‘what do you think?’ and kick off another line of discussion.

    Last crumb of advice – dress the part. I’ve attended some talks where the speaker has made no effort at all, (but if you’ve been asked to speak, you’re on stage, and looking reasonably clean and tidy will add to your confidence!

  4. For a speaker (as opposed to the panel leader) the most important thing you should do is to keep to time, I think. Nothing annoys an audience more that not having time to hear the other speakers, or to ask questions, because someone over-ran. And it follows that your advice to panel leaders to “have a clock to hand, and even a whistle”, and not to be afraid to use them, is vital.

    My question – how do you deal with the member of the audience who wants to make a speech rather than ask a question? Is there a way to pre-empt that?

    • Oh, good question. If they start speechifying you just have to jump in and say something like, “Sorry to interrupt the flow, but I need to fit another couple of questions in before the session ends. Time’s winged chariot and all that…”

      In terms of pre-empting if you think they’re going to do it again, you can either fail to notice them or say, “Sorry to be a pain, but I’m going to have to ask you all to keep your questions brief so I can get in as many as possible” before you give them the floor.

      At Festival of Romance I had to cut off a panellist who I felt was inappropriately speechifying – not easy but better one offended panellist than a hacked off audience.

  5. You missed out another piece of advice: ‘have a friend in the audience that you can randomly pick on to answer the daftest questions for you’ 😉

  6. Great points. I should imagine it must be nerve-wracking to do this for the first few times.

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