3 Steps to Crafting Your Public Persona For An Author Speaking Engagement

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Bookstore signings, live lit events and conferences are great ways for authors to meet their readers and connect with their communities. But before you step behind the podium, it’s important to craft your public persona.When I coach authors on the importance of crafting a public persona, most of them cringe. They think of a “persona” as something fake and in-authentic, when in fact, it’s the opposite. Your public persona is made up of the best parts of your authentic self, tailored specifically for your target audience.

Just as you shouldn’t post everything about yourself on social media, you shouldn’t reveal every part of yourself during public appearances. You may spend most of your time working from home in your pajamas or wear a suit and tie to your day job, but your author persona may call for a sport coat and jeans or a colorful dress. You may feel strongly about politics, or religion, or other controversial topics, but unless you write about those topics, they have no place in your speeches or panel talks.

There are three primary factors to consider when crafting your public persona:

Step #1: Determine Your Attire

This is something almost all my authors ask before their first conference or TV appearance: What should I wear? It isn’t surprising, since most authors spend the majority of their lives writing in pajama pants and T-shirts, while others go to day jobs where they dress to the appropriateness of that job.

You may be surprised, but your author uniform will vary based on what genre you’re writing in and for what age group you are writing for. If you look at author photos or see them at conferences, you should be able to identify patterns in what each author is wearing. Mystery and thriller authors opt for jeans and sport coats, and stick to darker colors while romance authors opt for bolder “statement” pieces and brighter colors. Business authors may need to wear suits and ties while sci-fi authors can get away with graphic tees and Chuck Taylors.

Think about what brand you’re trying to establish, and then identify the look that will convey that brand. In my case, I’m a publishing professional, so I want to dress slightly more formally than my author counterparts, but I’m also in PR, so I want to demonstrate my creativity. That’s why I tend to wear bowties, funky socks, and cool shoes. When you walk in front of an audience, you should be conveying your brand through your appearance.

Step #2: Evaluate Your Speech and Tone

Your clothes will make the first impression, but you then need to open your mouth and talk about your book. For some authors, this is the part that comes naturally. They can talk about their writing process, books they love, and their recent release easily, without even thinking about it. Others have a tougher time and need to be coached on their talking points, audience engagement, and delivery. And like your attire, the way you speak to an audience will vary based on your author brand.

Think back to the authors you’ve seen speak over the years, which ones were the most memorable? Why? Did they have an ease about the way they spoke? Or were they blunt and direct? No matter the answers, chances are they are consistent for every group they speak to.

If you’ve never done public speaking before, I encourage you to practice your presentation and video record it. When you play it back, notice which parts are the most engaging, in which parts you are most animated, and which parts you struggle through. Analyze your own speaking style; try to amplify the strong parts and quell the weak ones. If you gesture a lot and get really animated, but sometimes go off on a tangent or lose your train of thought, then focus on staying on point and using those gestures as cues rather than distractions. If you tend to be more deadpan and don’t have a lot of emotion in your voice, then play it up and amplify it by having really engaging content. Comedians like Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan have made a career doing deadpan comedy. It can work.

Above all, your speech and tone should be accessible to your target audience. If you use profanity in your books, it’s okay to curse occasionally when you’re talking to readers, but if you write traditional mysteries or sweet romances with no foul language, then using profanity in your talk will alienate your readers. Language is also important to consider when talking to teens. Clearly, they use profanity and slang, but since you don’t want to position yourself as their peer, it’s a good idea to avoid cursing and slang when speaking to that age group.

Step #3: Consider What You Talk About (and What You Don’t)

Just because you can speak on a topic doesn’t mean you should. Throughout your career, there will be discussions, news stories, and trends that arise that you may be tempted to offer your opinion on. If speaking on these subjects falls in line with your brand, then you should utilize those opportunities, but if the subject matter is outside of that scope, then you should avoid offering your opinion.

For example, we work with many multi-published authors who have won awards, hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, made film deals, switched publishers, and overall, have a lot of experience in the publishing industry. There are many discussions about the future of bookstores, e-books, utilizing social media, and unique marketing efforts. They have a lot of knowledge in these areas and could add a great deal to these discussions.

But they don’t. Because it is not a part of their brand.

In an effort to position these authors as the creative talent, they will speak on the creative process, other books they’re excited about, and what makes a great story, but they won’t speak on the business of publishing or its future. I want them to be known for their books and their writing talent, not their business savvy.

For the most part, I recommend adhering to dinner party rules: no talk about sex, politics, and religion. I know this can be particularly challenging given our current political climate, but no matter what side you’re on, you’ll alienate half (or more) of your audience. Exceptions are made for authors who write about these topics, but if there is no part of your book that addresses these issues, avoid them in all public appearances. If you follow the same guidelines as you do for your social media content, you’ll stay on brand and attract your target audience.

So what do you talk about?

Some bookstore events may be more straightforward: you talk about the book, give a bit of background, and then answer questions. But if you’re asked to deliver a keynote address or lead a workshop, you may need to develop something more. Some ideas include:

  • A funny or interesting anecdote about how you came up with the idea for this particular book
  • A surprising discovery you made while researching the book or a cool thing you did in the interest of research (learn how shoot a bow and arrow, tour an industrial farm in Mexico, etc.)
  • Little known facts about your writing process, and how they changed for this particular book
  • Stories about the actual people you based some of the characters on

While I always recommend tailoring presentations to meet the needs of the audience, it’s a good idea to have a canned presentation or two. This way, you’ll be able to build a reputation and generate word of mouth, not only for the book, but for future speaking engagements as well.