If you’re about to query a book-length memoir like I am, perhaps you’ve heard about having a platform—what author Jane Friedman defines as “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.” As I discovered this summer, you can reach more people, and let them know who you are, by speaking at a conference.
The experience of speaking to an audience was at first daunting. Terrifying, even. Nonetheless, it showed me that public speaking is an excellent way for writers to build an audience for their book.
In this post, I’ll share with you my experience speaking at a conference and what I learned from it. I’ll also show you ways in which you could leverage the power of public speaking to create an audience, at the same time offering unique contributions.
Public speaking generally boils down to this: offering something to benefit others, which at the same time reflects your values and personality.
I can make people laugh, I love to read, and I have proven creative skills honed from years in branding and copywriting. I had been talking to and reading about writers online who lamented their inability to come up with titles for their books. “I can help them,” I thought, “and have fun too.”
So, I launched the Title Doctor service, offering it first to those in my GrubStreet Memoir Incubator network. When I received positive feedback, I ventured to other networks and received referrals through word of mouth.
And then last year, I received an email from Donna Talarico, the founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine and Books, where I’m Writing Life editor. She invited me to propose a 10-minute “flash session” for HippoCamp 2020. Bonus: My registration fee was waived.
I’d never spoken at a conference, so ten minutes seemed more reasonable than the usual 60 (though still terrifying). I proposed a session about how to come up with a memoir title, and it was accepted.
To be honest, I was sad but also a bit relieved when COVID caused the 2020 conference to be cancelled. My presentation would have to wait for the following year’s HippoCamp, in August 2021. Therefore, I used the time to work on Title Doctor projects and polish my presentation.
I made sure it fit in the 10-minute time slot. I included the book titles of others speaking at the conference—an effective way to build community and make fellow writers feel seen. I broke steps down and made them actionable. I fact-checked every word and asked permission to mention writers’ projects. I made sure the authors I included represented as many voices as possible. I interviewed writers I knew with dynamic book titles.
Time passed. HippoCamp 2021 arrived. Suddenly, it all became very real.
Since my talk was on the conference’s final day, it allowed me to spend the previous days answering questions and promoting my service with a sticker I had made for the occasion. I handed it out as a business card. Before I’d even presented, others already viewed me as an expert, which generated conversations and business leads.
On the conference’s final morning, I climbed the three steps to the enormous room’s stage and stood at the podium to deliver my talk, “10 Prescriptions for a Kicka** Memoir Title.” I got laughs and once I stepped down, positive feedback. Now that I’m home, I’ll follow up with people interested in Title Doctor services, show off the new website I launched to support it, and savor my new status as conference speaker.
Speaking at a conference had other advantages as well. I was listed on the conference materials as a speaker, which meant my expertise and bio were visible to hundreds.
So, if you think public speaking is not for you, let me prove you wrong. As a writer, you can benefit from public speaking. Let’s see how in more detail.
Just like a memoir is the story only you can tell, when creating a platform, think about what only you can offer. Talking to a friend who graduated from The Second City’s writing program, we realized her humor was her platform, whether she was telling a story on stage or pitching a literary cartoon.
Ask yourself: What makes you, you?
For some, a platform is already integral to their lives. Author Michelle Bowdler had worked in public health and social justice for decades, dealing with the sexual assault cases of college students. She added to that platform by writing essays on that topic and appearing on the news years before her memoir, Is Rape A Crime? was published.
If there’s a social justice issue you feel passionate about, you can volunteer for the cause, start a nonprofit, or work for one as a way to begin building your platform. Something to ask yourself is, what can you offer to benefit others that also reflects your values and personality?
If you have subject matter expertise related to your book, submit a proposal to a conference. If you’re a first-timer, team up with others (my talk was one “lightning round” of six) and submit as a panel.
(Other than myself, for a change.)
Memoirist Anri Wheeler discovered she liked to write book reviews. A mentor encouraged her to join National Book Critics Circle, an organization of nearly 800 members, from critics to authors, literary bloggers to publishing professionals.
When Wheeler publishes a book review, she shares it with this network. The steps she took increased her visibility, and in fall 2021, she’ll present on a panel about book reviewing at the Boston Book Festival. The annual festival’s events and exhibits attract thousands.
Wheeler also runs a consulting business. She leads workshops on identity, race, and equity, including for parents who are looking to be better equipped to have these crucial conversations with their children. The topics are directly related to her memoir, in which motherhood and race are strong themes. Each consulting client is her potential reader.
But, you won’t find your book’s particular customer at every conference.
It is important to research conferences to find venues that are a good fit for your topic and personality. You might not feel ready for the 13,000-attendee juggernaut Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, but a conference in your home city such as the Boston Book Festival is a stellar starting point. For me, HippoCamp 2021 promised a supportive, comfortable atmosphere where I was known as a staff member.
The confidence I gained from speaking motivated me to pitch a panel to AWP 2022 with three fellow writers. I never dreamed I’d speak at a writing conference. I thought I had to have an MFA or a published book. I have neither.
But by positioning myself as an expert in a specific area and promoting that expertise at a trusted venue, I’m on my way to finding my audience—the people who appreciate me and my unique contributions and will buy my book.
You don’t need to reinvent yourself to create your platform. In fact, your strength lies in your weirdly specific singularity. If I can find a way to stand up and be heard, I bet you can too.
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the Writing Life Editor at Hippocampus Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and Creative Nonfiction. Kristen has appeared on The Gita Brown Show and Writing Class Radio podcasts. Her in-progress memoir is To Have and to Hoard: How I Found Treasure in My Husband’s Trash. You can find her on her website or on Twitter @kpnwriter.