Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Public Speaking for Those Who Turn Red When Nervous – By Barbara DiLorenzo

Several years ago, I won a writing contest and had to read my story in front of a small group. The crowd consisted of people connected to the contest, friends and family. These people were happy for me, yet I was so nervous and unprepared. I had my text, and painted accompanying illustrations–so I thought I was prepared. But I had no experience with public speaking. I was TERRIBLE at it. Not only did I not know how to read a children's story to a group and make it interesting, I turned bright red from being nervous, which I could feel as heat on my cheeks, which only made me more nervous, which made me sweat more while my face got redder. I sped up my reading to just get through it, losing opportunities to connect with the audience.


While I'm sure this reading was painful to watch, I learned so much from this experience. I never wanted to let down a crowd again, so I walked into to my local library and asked if I could volunteer to read during story time. The librarians were happy to have extra help, and allowed me to add a watercolor painting activity at the end of the reading. While that may sound interesting, it was really just a way to add to the program without singing songs to the toddlers. I wasn't ready for that yet. 

I watched the children's librarian for a few sessions, and noted how comfortable she was reading to the kids, gently guiding the children when they bent the rules, and her ease in switching the activity to singing and dancing when they got wiggly. She made it look effortless. I was in awe. By the time I got to run the story time on my own, I felt I was letting the toddlers down somehow, taking away their fun librarian and putting a sad substitute in her place. I smiled a lot to make up for it. But they were probably transfixed by the tomato-red that my face turned when I was nervous.

I volunteered for years, until a move prevented me from being able to show up on a regular basis. But the librarians and some of the families stay in touch. The change in my ability to speak was so gradual, I don't think I really noticed anything for a long time. I teach art classes too, but somehow that feels different. A reading needs to be entertaining to keep little ones in their seats. If you are boring, they walk away. Simple as that. Adults don't do that, and I was used to adults. 

Most introverts that create picture books (whether author, illustrator or both) are content when puttering alone in the studio. Nothing feels better than a full day with the family members off at school and work, and hours to yourself to write or paint or study books. Or just daydream.

But here's the tricky part – when the work you created in your cozy studio is finally published, you will need to emerge from your safe space, and speak to the public. For many of us, this transition can feel awkward. The good news is that like anything else on your road to publication, these skills only need to be practiced to be mastered–or at least functional. None of us could jump right into drawing characters on the first day of holding a pencil. Nor could we make an interesting sentence when first learning to write. We had miles of marks to make before we felt confident. So to, we need to stand up in front of people and talk a lot to make the transition from creative introvert to creative public speaker. 

While there will always be speakers that you compare yourself to, keynotes at conferences that move you to laugh one minute, and cry the next, comparison is not helpful here. Of course studying what works for others can help your speaking experiences flow more smoothly. But resist the temptation to tell yourself that that person was born ready to both write award-winning material AND to wow a crowd. Instead, admire that their style must have evolved over many experiences sharing their work in public. Assume everyone started where you feel you are today. 

Similar to writing or drawing, take steps in this journey. No cutting corners or magic pills. And no hiring look-alikes to deliver your speech for you. (I'm sure the most terrified among us have considered this option.) Volunteer at your local library! No matter what, you will learn something while helping others. 

As I gear up for this school year and hopefully a lot of school visits for RENATO AND THE LION (so much history to talk about!) I find myself practicing again. This time, in front of children ages 5-18 in the ArtsExchange program at the Arts Council of Princeton. While I used to lead art lessons with somewhat of a dry lecture, I'm learning that I can be fun in front of a crowd. The last few lessons, I've encouraged the crowd to participate with me on designing characters and joke with me about what I was demonstrating. Last night, I didn't turn red at all after doing a blind contour drawing of the HomeFront coordinator. I was so happy when the room erupted in laughter when I revealed the funny drawing. And that's when I knew, if I can learn to get a crowd of young folks on my side and make them belly laugh, absolutely anyone can.

Watercolor activity after reading RENATO AND THE LION. Apparently I forgot to give Renato a fidget spinner.

QUINCY watercolor activity after reading the book. Children drew Quincy's thoughts on his skin.

Note my face starting to turn red...

People too polite to just get up and walk away like bored toddlers do. Thank you people!

Less red at the Books of Wonder author panel on July 16, 2017.

by Barbara DiLorenzo
Now booking author visits for 2017-2018!

Barbara is represented by Rachel Orr of the Prospect Agency.
Twitter: @wavepaint
Facebook: @BarbaraWillcoxDiLorenzo


  1. Barbara -this is a wonderful and very practical post for all us introverted illustrators & writers. Thanks for the practical tips on how to overcome our fears of public speaking.

  2. Barbara, as soon as I saw this I was like --- yep! Public speaking terror! Of course, I've never done it for a book of mine (since nothing's published), but whenever I have to get up in front of ANY "crowd," I get nervous. Depending on the size of the crowd and who's in it dictates to what degree I may or may not be nervous. In front of family and friends, the nerves aren't really there, maybe because I'm not as concerned about having to entertain or making a fool of myself somehow. I don't turn red, but I'll never forget the worst when I was in high school and I had to sing at a big assembly with a friend while she played guitar. My throat completely tightened up so singing became more than difficult, to say the least.

    I love that you've gotten so much more comfortable. It reminds me of when I first did clown work 20+ years ago. I never truly felt comfortable "performing" when there were adults around (I'm not an "entertainer" by trade), but once you get the positive responses, you DO know what works :D I want to see the sketch that made them laugh! lol

    1. Thank you for sharing–it's good to know other people's stories in regards to public speaking! Clown work sounds fun in that you can hide behind a mask somewhat–either of make-up or a big red nose. Someone took a picture of the drawing, but I gave it to the subject. :-)