Skills to speak/write short

Have you found that it’s easier to speak or write SHORT than LONG? Speakers must be tight with timing to not disadvantage the next presenters. So we edit, prune, prepare, practise. But try 5 minutes! 

When chosen to pitch a manuscript at Byron Bay Writers Festival I determined to give it my all.  And a picture tells 1000 words, right? My PowerPoint presentation shone with photographs and evocative music. I bought my own data projector to avoid tech meltdown, enlisted a techie to help me craft a streamlined presentation. 

Heed advice from experts

At a workshop a few days before, Stephanie, Jill and Lisa critiqued us and gave invaluable advice; it was challenging, honest and brutal where needed. They looked askance when I arrived lugging tech gear and props.

  • No PowerPoint. What if there’s a glitch, you might waste half your precious five minutes. ‘Couldn’t I cut back the slides to just a few?’ (Whimpers) ‘Please?’
  • No, because attention is divided between your face and the screen. Just speak.(Tactful but firm). Hmm, good point.

Learning to let go

They were right. This, my first pitch, was an exercise in letting go, in listening, in faith. I’d be foolish to ignore astute, sound, expert advice, so booked a coaching session with Stephanie. She tolerated my minimalist PowerPoint version, then reached for my laptop. Cut, cut, cut, paste. (‘Can’t I keep that story?’) Cut, add, paste, cut. A tight but flowing version emerged. My style had become staccato in its efforts to save valuable seconds: I had opted for two-syllable words as opposed to four. Her priority was clarity. She brought my pitch to five minutes exact. 

On the day 

I spoke first of five strong contenders. Slow deep breathing beforehand. As I do. Added a few ad libs. So the bell caught me off guard. (With PowerPoint, I note the number of the last slide so I can skip content if necessary.) I’d indicated the usual four-minute mark on my text, but forgot my own advice: 

• ‘Tab sections/sentences that can be dropped if time runs short.’ 

My revised pitch gave freedom to express through verbal, facial and body language. Though not the winner, I emerged positive, wiser and grateful. I value the opportunity to be heard, and to learn in the process. 

Nothing is wasted

I’ve since filmed it into a book trailer that’s up on YouTube. My next presentation for my book-in-progress Burn My Letters allows 30 minutes – ample scope for slides!
It will be at the Institute for Migration in Finland in May.

Prepare to shine

Prepare – get feedback – revise – get coaching – prepare, prepare, prepare. 

I’m available for one-on-one coaching – or I recommend Stephanie!

P.S. Three of my books are available on Amazon kindle including Speak Out.

Do SHAKES rattle your presentation?

What is your deepest, murkiest fear as that presentation, competition or recital looms? Shakes? You’re not alone!

Many performers, whether they present through words or music, have been disconcerted by jitters at some stage. String players dread wobbly bow strokes; vocalists that unintended vocal vibrato. Shaky hands or lips inhibit many instrumentalists. Pity the trumpeters, whose fingers are all too obvious right under their noses! At least public speakers can hide their hands in pockets (NOT a good look, however) or grip the lectern (only minimally better).

It’s all part of the fight/flight adrenalin rush

We cannot rabbit off stage. Avoidance is counter-productive.  Authors may be solitary types, happiest with a pen and paper or a keyboard, but they must face audiences and media on the promo tours.

We need tactics to counter jitters.

SHAKES seem obvious to the performer – small comfort that most listeners are oblivious.

Our society tends to silence problems with pills rather than find a solution.

“Beta-blocker” drugs block the adrenalin reaction and anxiety symptoms by slowing the heart rate to reduce sweating and tremors: they do not stop nerves, but lessen symptoms. Medical prescription is essential as they can be dangerous for people prone to diabetes, certain heart conditions, bronchitis, depression, hay fever and asthma.

Test suitability well before a performance – rather than discover an unsuspected cardiac or asthma condition onstage. Reported side effects include dizziness, light-headedness, nightmares, hallucinations, lethargy, insomnia, visual disturbances, diarrhoea, drowsiness, cold hands and feet.

Surely there are practical, doable and non threatening solutions? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Channel Adrenaline

Diffuse excess adrenaline with Brain Gym’s “Positive Points” technique. Place a hand on your forehead, inhaling deeply. This simple action encourages blood flow to the frontal lobes where rational thought occurs. It curbs fight or flight jitters, releases memory blocks and enables you to walk onto the platform accessing your whole brain. If memory slips intrude mid-performance, simply pause between movements, breathe deeply with a hand to your forehead and regain focus. Also, holding these emotional stress-release neurovascular balance points of the stomach meridian curbs stomach queasiness.

Try the contrary approach

The more we try to control shaking, the worse it gets. Instead, try the paradoxical approach. Rather than fight against shaking, allow yourself to do so. Give yourself permission to shake. “So, you want to shake, fingers. Well, go on – shake.” Some performers consciously make their hands tremble, their knees shake or their palms sweat as a way of trying to produce the symptom rather than conceal it.

Wiggle your toes

Focus your attention elsewhere. On your toes, as did John, a talented organist and clarinetist I coached in an American summer music program. He admitted to suffering every symptom possible when performing. Soon after his session, he performed creditably. I congratulated him on his poise and calm; if he experienced any jitters they  were not obvious. “Oh,” he said, “my hands shook in the beginning, then I remembered what you said and focused on my toes. When they started to shake I brought my attention back onto my hands, and by then the piece was over.”

Work those fingers

Jittery fingers may be a product of tense muscles or of too much energy as a result of the adrenaline rush. Before going on-stage, shake or rub your hands together. Squeeze your fingers into a tight fist, then release.

Move thoughts elsewhere

Another solution is to direct thoughts onto another aspect of your performance. Our minds just cannot think of two things at once.

Choose to focus not on your weaknesses, but on your strengths. 


Handle questions with poise

Question time; “What will they ask me?”

It’s the fear of the unknown, right? Speakers may flinch at the thought of answering Q & A – especially if they’ve seen experienced presenters handle this aspect with loss of poise. You will not have this worry if your speech preparation included noting potential queries and practice of appropriate answers. Here are some more tips from my book Don’t Freak Out – Speak Out.

“Are there any questions?”

These words often are met with bald silence. This does not imply failure. If your presentation was so concise and clear that no clarification is needed, or the audience needs a break after a long presentation, don’t extract unwilling questions. Many people may be shy of speaking out and prodding is counterproductive.

Ice breakers

Perhaps you might plant a colleague in the audience, primed with a preferred question which you can answer with ease. This breaks that uneasy ice and triggers other questions.

You could clear the fog with: “Often I’m asked …”

Listeners use a different part of the brain when absorbing content, so they may be not yet ready to verbalise.

A less threatening prompt is to ask them to “Turn to the person next to you and discuss …” Or you might casually say, “While I drink a glass of water, think if you have any questions to ask me.” That water will also help you to think fast if any curly questions are lobbed from left field! In which case, pause. Reflect. (Perhaps during that moment, ask if a member of the audience may answer the question for you.)

Repeat the question

… not only for the people at the back of the hall – who will appreciate your consideration – but also for the tape if you have agreed to a recording. Rephrase and simplify any convoluted or stumbling questions.

Remember, you’re the expert

You were invited to speak because of acknowledged qualification or experience. You are prepared, up to date on the research. Most of the audience could not match your command of the topic. Although some questions may be tricky, delivered from grandstands or pushed in wheelbarrows, it is rare that they are actually as hostile as they might first seem. An “on-edge” presenter may mis-read an enthusiastic question as an effort to trip him or her.

Compliment useful or stimulating queries to reinforce important points from your presentation: “That’s an excellent question, I’m glad you raised it.” (But don’t enthuse over all questions or you may appear fawning.) Phrases like “As you no doubt know …” “Perhaps you might briefly share your expertise with us …” defer to their knowledge while giving yourself time to marshal your own thoughts.

The floor is yours.

You own the space.

You are the expert.

If you can’t answer

• It’s better to admit it openly than to tangle yourself up in convoluted attempts.

• People appreciate the honesty of “I don’t think I could do justice to that complicated question without further time or research, but I would be happy to follow it up with you later.” Or “I’m not prepared to answer that at present; would someone else like to enlarge on it?”

Perhaps you might feel challenged of neglecting certain sources or accused of omitting important points. Check that you understand each other before hackles rise. They may be working on similar research. Look for areas on which you can agree.

Counter hostile questions

• Drop your shoulders, take a deep breath and a drink of water.

• Listen carefully, look to agree on some common ground.

• Empathy helps to defuse possible aggression and maintains rapport with the rest of the audience.

• Remain objective and realise the person may be envious of your position on the podium. Understanding their position enables you to respond with compassion.

• Maintain a neutral, even voice and avoid emotive language. Look on this as an excellent opportunity to re-state your position: “Let me clarify my point.” Find a source of agreement: “I understand that you do agree with me on …” Or cut it short with “I value your question but I don’t think it’s applicable to today’s topic. I’m happy to discuss it further if you come and see me later.”

Deal with their point briefly and then call for the next question. Dodge inelegant public power-struggles which will alienate the rest of the audience, who are otherwise on your side.

Most grandstanders will desist once they have their quota of attention. If they try to turn it into a debate, suggest following up the discussion at the end of the session rather than take time from others’ questions.


• Attack those who ask questions, accuse them or call them names

• Dodge answering – it looks shifty

• Fudge answers; audiences can see through this

Keep an eye on the time so your audience does not become restive. Give a brief wrap-up, restate your conclusion and thank them for their interest.

Be prepared, concise and clear. Don’t freak out; speak out!

Ruth’s book is available at

Tips to shine in the spotlight

Whether you present through words or music, try this quick-fix tip to boost public performance for


That sea of faces in an auditorium, or colleagues around a board-room table, or even a confronting one-on-one situation – all can be stressful.


…fronts a mic on the PR trail to read their work at a festival or launch.

The MUSICIAN faces an audition, first night or exam.

When examining,the first thing I do to put nervous players at ease is offer them a glass of water. As well as giving them time to relax and regroup, it makes a surprising difference to accuracy and poise!

Under the spotlight, our systems, multiple signals buzz from brain to body. And the electrical and chemical actions of the brain and the central nervous system are conducted by fluid.

Our bodies are made up of about 70 percent water; this is an excellent conductor of electrical energy, necessary to efficiently pass messages between the central nervous system, brain and sensory organs.

In a “normal” day we need at least eight glasses of water – but this should be increased to see us through periods of stress.

A dehydrated performer’s responses become sluggish if fluid is not maintained.

During challenging times, increased water intake improves:

• concentration

• mental and physical co-ordination

• it alleviates mental fatigue

• increases energy levels

• relaxes for improved communication

• it keeps our brain firing.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking! 

The down-side is frequent visits to the bathroom – another nuisance symptom of performance nerves. Many notice that nerves increase their frequency of urination. Why? The smooth muscle of the genito-urinary system contracts when our sympathetic system is activated. Increased adrenaline rush and resulting cardiac racing can cause diuresis. Such issues are eased if we learn to channel that adrenaline away from such symptoms into energy.

We’re talking HABITS here – the weeks and days before performing

Drink plenty of water earlier in the day, then limit the fluid intake in the hour before performing to avoid the need to go to the bathroom. If necessary, relieve mouth dryness with rinses or gargling. 

from Confident Music Performance

Singers and speakers need to maintain hydration of the vocal folds.

Don’t Freak Out – Speak Out advises:

• Increase water intake. Adopt the singer’s maxim, “pee pale, speak clear”.

• Rehydrate the vocal folds with steam inhalations and a humidifier.

• Humidify your bedroom or work environment, especially during winter.

On-stage, I like to have a water bottle discreetly at hand for a sip between music pieces or movements. This eases another problem that besets performers; dry mouth.


“Water is the only drink for a wise man.” Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

OK, after all your preparation you deserve to unwind with a drink  – after the performance.


You only get one chance…

…To make a first impression. What will that be, positive or negative? Memorable or ho hum? It must be the best we can craft, for it will last.

AS A READER – do you judge a book by its cover?

In a book shop a cover or title sparks our eye. We skim-read the back cover, then open at the first page, taste a few pars. This is usually enough to decide if we want to spend time with that author and that story. We lead busy lives and throw aside a boring book.
In my writing, of books, articles and speeches, I seek a tantalising hook.
As a musician, I focus on a wonderful entry of sound.

FOR WRITERS: How to hook publishers and readers

Authors hear horror stories that a publisher may read a precious manuscript for one page – at best – before rejecting it. Make that a paragraph, even the first sentence. Poetic flights of imagination in chapter two are lost if people don’t read that far.

We sweat over our opening phrase, for it has to catch the reader’s eye, prick interest.

My past decade has been absorbed writing a narrative nonfiction around family stories which morphed into memoir. I’ve changed the starting point many times; different chapters took their turn to usher potential readers into my story. My writing buddy switched on a light-bulb when she suggested ‘Play your strongest card first.’ I wrote a new chapter, praying for a ‘killer opening sentence.’ But before submitting to an editor, I still polish these pages, the voice, the tone – to ensure it will be read!


My music student is delighted with her recent exam results – perhaps because her lesson before was one of those frustrating ones. You know the type? The teacher spends half the lesson on the first line of the first movement. ‘What about the modern work, the rhythms and ensembles are so tricky!’ I hear her think. True. But I know that if she can catch the examiner’s ears, start strongly, she will ride through further difficulties on a wave of confidence. For didn’t we spend the past months smoothing out such issues?

AS A PERFORMER: (picking up my clarinet)

Carl Maria von Weber wrote some of the clarinet’s most satisfying repertoire. His second clarinet concerto asks the soloist to make a loud dramatic opening on a top note. In this case, I attack it with the fingering that speaks easy and safe, with no risk of squawk.

Yet Weber asks me to creep in on a subtle pianissimo in his other two works for solo clarinet. To avoid an undertone on this most vulnerable, touchy note, I need just the right angle of instrument and just the right reed. Before a recent performance my practice alternated a dozen reeds, narrowing down to a few in the pre-concert rehearsal in the venue. Obsessive? Possibly. But it pays off, because I know if the first note sings out beautifully, the rest of the performance will flow with ease. I can relax and enjoy the music.


As an adjudicator I see and hear the value of a positive first impression. As I wrote in my book Confident Music Performance:

A positive opening is crucial The first notes or words are very important for your own confidence and the audience’s appraisal of you. If your initial sound is squeezed out with strangled tension or a miscalculated projection, your stomach will plummet. You will think, ‘Oh no, this is going to be a fiasco!’

If that first note or word sings out beautifully modulated with seemingly effortless ease, your confidence will soar with it. First impressions linger in listeners’ appraisals. In most auditions, a few seconds are enough to tell the panel if they are interested in the applicant. When I adjudicate, I notice constantly that a player’s control of their first note or lack of it is usually indicative of their whole performance. On the other hand, if you suffer an initial mishap, don’t give up. Many players warm into their presentations.


When I coach people with their presentation, we may spend two-thirds of the time working on their opening sentence. We reword it for arresting impact and to avoid words that may stutter. We identify crucial words to colour with voice tone; to highlight with a pause and breath. We practise delivery and projection to increase impact.

From Don’t Freak Out – Speak Out: Public speaking with confidence

The public speaker must capture the audience in that first tantalising sentence. Many listeners give undivided attention only at the beginning and end of a speech. Choose your opening gambit with care, condensing into it your most arresting statement or an intriguing question, a quotation or startling fact, or a story. People of all ages love stories, but they must be relevant.
If your take-off is smooth the rest of the flight usually flows with fewer bumps. Navigate your course with a clear focus on the horizon – your audience – rather than dwell inward on your own queasy stomach and sensitive ego. Most fears are self-centred. Keep looking out! Most listeners will empathise with your agonies but would prefer not to suffer along with you. They are there to enjoy themselves, to be enlightened, provoked or touched by your content. Rather than wish you ill, they want you to succeed. Adopt a friendly face from the audience and pretend she is your grandmother in whose eyes you can do no wrong. Speak to her.


Whether we present words or music, read or spoken, never underestimate the power of a positive opening. Our listeners and readers respond to those first moments; if they are arresting, powerful, beautiful, we hold our audience in the palm of our hand.