The Mismatch of Writing and Speaking

I have a new book out, A Short History of Wisconsin, so I’ve been on the speaking circuit once again. Public speaking is never something that has come easily to me, though it has certainly gotten easier with time and experience. Being out on the road, driving to libraries and bookstores across the state, always reminds me of how disparate the skills of writing and speaking really are–and how rare it is the person who can do both and do them well.

As a writer, I think many of us think that we’ll write something and hopefully get it published, all from the safety of our garret. Speak about it? Oh no, that’s why I’m a WRITER. I express myself much better on paper than in the open air.

But then you actually get something published, particularly a book, and you learn that hiding away just isn’t really an option. You must speak and you must learn to do it pretty well to help promote your work and to, hopefully, keep the work coming. I just don’t think that being a good speaker and being a good writer involve the same skill set. So it can cruel indeed to discover that you have to cultivate both of these skills if you want to be a writer. Your readers want to hear you… and see you.

While I’m sure I would vigorously deny it as I’m shaking and sweating in the sidelines before each of my talks, public speaking has been good for me. Talking to readers help make you a better writer because you can get a better sense of the people you are trying to reach through your words. It’s also made me more confident and able to think–and speak–on my feet, a skill that I think can be difficult to learn other than by throwing yourself into the experience you are so desperately trying to avoid.

I’ll never be an amazing speaker. I’m a writer and researcher first. But I am getting better.

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