Writers in the Storm

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January 31, 2020

Public Speaking in a Foreign Land

by Ellen Buikema

Public Speaking for Authors

If you’ve read my posts here at WITS, you know my husband and I retired to Mexico. Currently we’re in Mazatlán where the large expat community has been a surprise. There is a large English-speaking community here, comprised mostly of Canadians and Americans. One of the last things I expected was to come to a foreign country and do a public talk in English, but that’s what happened earlier this month.

Some background

I was privileged to be included in a cultural event in Mazatlán, sponsored by the Institute of Culture, Tourism, and Art of Mazatlán. This was the first time the expat community has been invited to this annual book festival, and it was a huge honor to be included. I happily volunteered to speak in one of the 45-minute time slots.

A day or so later, I wondered what I’d been thinking. I hadn’t given a talk to a group in quite a few years and felt out of practice (and a bit panicked).

The theme of this event was Leer para la Paz, or Read for Peace. My area of Mexico has its share of violence, most related directly to the cartels. The idea of the festival is to educate the populace, especially the children, about the greater world.

So, on top of a case of nerves, I needed to find a way to create talk that included "reading for peace."

What was I worried about?


First, I worried about getting there on time, although time is rather fluid here in the Land of Mañana. My husband and I do not drive in Mexico. The drivers scare the hell out of me as the driving rules seem to be mere suggestions.

Instead, we took what I refer to as the “bumpity bus.” This isn’t a calm air-conditioned bus. The bumpity bus travels the neighborhoods somewhat like the Knight Bus from Harry Potter but without the magic. While trying to ignore the near sideswipes of pedestrians, motorcycles, and vehicles, I went over my notes for the talk.

We made it with fifteen minutes to spare.

The Discussion

From my experience as a preschool teacher, I am well-versed in miniscule attention spans and quick changes in conversation. I know full well that any one question can completely turn a conversation in another direction.

A list of talking points is my safest plan. If I write down too much, I get stuck in the minutia and stumble over my words. Since I wrote The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon series to encourage empathy in children, I based my talk around that.

Ten or so minutes into the talk I realized that my audience was just not that into me. They were being polite but their body language and faces were not engaged.

Not good.

Luckily, a few people in the audience were beta readers for my current historical fiction manuscript, The Hobo Code. One of them asked a specific question about my book’s research and away we went. Suddenly, the questions flowed like a waterfall.

Other Advice

Toastmasters advises to know your audience.

Keep in mind that, even if you do know your audience, preparing a list of topics is a good idea. You never know when the audience will wander off inside their heads, get antsy, or (heaven forbid) walk away.

I saw my audience get antsy, which is never a good thing. Antsy audiences make me nervous. I wanted them engaged!

So, my addendum to this advice from Toastmasters is to try to have some pals in the audience. I usually have questions prepared to bring people back. This time I was lucky and my beta readers asked questions instead, opening the door for others in the audience to ask their own.

I was wired by the end of the talk, so I sat chatted with the audience, which eased me back to a more relaxed state. An additional bonus: it allowed me to meet more of the expat writing community, and several readers who were interested in what we all write about.

If you decide to speak in front of an audience, and get nervous like I do, here are a few more helpful suggestions:


Try practicing in various locations in the house or other venues. Practice alone, in front of friends, with music going in the background, or with people walking in front of you.

During this particular event in Mazatlán, I actually had people pass between me and my audience. When there were only a few, I waved them on and kept speaking. When a whole crowd from one of the cruise ships walked in front of me, I broke things up by doing a little dance until they were clear of my space.

Funny works. Plus, I learned that I am able to give a talk with more distractions than I thought possible, without losing my place.

Have a joke prepared.

You may never need one, but I find that a little laughter loosens the audience and brings them closer to you. For this talk, that little dance was all I needed.

Do you have any good stories about public speaking? I’d love to hear them down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.


14 comments on “Public Speaking in a Foreign Land”

  1. Your timing couldn't have been better with this post, Ellen. I'm the featured presenter tomorrow for our local writer's group. I know you're very familiar with this bunch, having been an active member before fleeing the county. I also got roped into running the whole show for the day due to the organizer being out of the country (interestingly enough, he's in Mexico...I think you guys are conspiring against me).
    As you know, this crowd likes to ask a lot of questions and gets off the subject. A good agenda and handouts help to keep things moving in the right direction. If everyone knows where the conversation is going, it's much easier to get them back on track. As you've pointed out, humor also helps to regain the group's attention and get them focused on you again.

      1. Sorry, Jenny, no dancing and no video! If I tried to dance, it would horrify the crowd, not make them laugh...

      2. Hahaha, me too! I bet Eldred has great dance moves.

        When I first needed to speak in front of adults (easier with children) I found myself either pacing too much, speaking too fast, or hanging onto a podium for dear life. It takes time to relax into public speaking.

    1. Bob has family in Mexico! He's threatened to come visit me.

      The anchor object is a great tool! I used Sock Puppet Tim for that briefly, and have occasionally used a "worry stone" like a smooth piece of rose quartz.

      You will go well! No worries.

  2. Thank you for the window into a world I've never been to, Ellen! I've done plenty of public speaking and I can attest that Practice and an agenda are key. Also, I am a big fan inserting friendly faces into a new audience if you can.

    Finally, I recommend an "anchor object" for anyone who is nervous about public speaking. It might be pressing your hands into a podium, or holding a closed marker or pen in a certain way. Whatever the object, it is the place to push all your nerves into through your fingertips. Something in your hand, at least in my experience, helps your voice shake less and keeps your back straighter.

    1. Back in the day the podium was my friend. I needed to break from that as now I am less likely to have one to help hold me up.

      A small object in the hand works well.

  3. Every time I speak, its a different experience. The way I view how I do and the feedback that I get are very different. I try to make eye contact and smile as much as I can. I try to engage and get the audience to respond- I always think that it is there time, not mine- so questions are great. It is always interesting where the conversation can lead.

    1. I agree completely, John. Eye contact is important as are the questions from the audience. You never know where thise questions will lead you.

  4. Thank you, Shana! This led to an invite to a critique group in Mazatlán. I belonged to two wonderful groups in Phoenix and miss attending.

  5. I haven't had to do public speaking since I testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. I did it three years in a row.

    For me, I need to remember to pace myself. It's easy to speak fast which isn't what one wants to do in order to capture the audience.


    1. Wow! Talk about intense situations to speak! Pacing is really important. I'm glad you mentioned this. Too fast can cause you to lose your place as well as the audience.

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