I Make Such Pretty Speeches*

SpeechesDo you feel comfortable speaking in public? No? Well if you don’t, you’re not alone. The most common fear, so we’re told, is the fear of speaking in public. But the fact is that nearly all of us have to make a presentation, give a speech or in some other way speak in public at least sometimes. You might think that sleuths, both real and fictional, wouldn’t have to do this but they do. In fact, the ability to speak comfortably in public can make a real difference in a case even if it doesn’t lead to major clues.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers for instance, Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander and his team have a very difficult case on their hands. Johannes and Maria Lövgren have been brutally attacked on their rural farm. Johannes is dead, but Maria lives long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There’s a lot of simmering resentment against foreigners in Sweden and this lurid case will not help matters at all. In fact it leads to another death. So Wallander has to do the best he can to put out the proverbial flames in all of his public comments. He doesn’t relish the prospect of making public speeches; he’d rather be solving the case. But if he doesn’t talk to the press, the anti-immigration hysteria will only get worse, and so will the perception that the police aren’t doing anything to solve the murders. So a couple of  times in this novel, Wallander has to update the media on what the team is doing and at the same time discount the theory that the only solution to the case is to go after foreigners and immigrants.

We see a similar use of public speaking skill in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs.  When the gruesome discovery of a left foot clad in a training shoe is made near the Norwegian town of Stavern, Inspector William Wisting and his team are put on the case. Soon afterwards, another foot is discovered. Then there’s another discovery. Soon, there are several theories about the deaths. One is that a twisted kind of killer is at loose, and that of course makes the locals very uneasy. So one of the jobs that the police have to accomplish is to reassure everyone that people are safe, and that the police are doing everything possible to find out what happened to the victims To that end, Wisting has to give more than one public speech to the press. He’s hardly frightened of doing so, but he is concerned about giving the right impression. So he thinks carefully about what he’s going to tell the media, and he considers his presentations before he gives them. In order to try to find out whom the feet might belong to, Wisting’s team looks at all of the people reported missing in the last year. As it turns out, most of them come from the same elder care home, so the team starts to focus its investigation there. What’s more, most of the people have a connection that goes back to the days of World War II, so there is a possibility that these deaths are connected to some long-ago events. Wisting’s public speaking doesn’t solve the crimes, but it does keep people calm enough to let the police do their jobs.

There’s quite a lot of public speaking in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series. Kilbourn is a political science expert and an academician. So of course as a professor she does her share of public speaking in class, at conferences and so on. But it goes further than that. As the series featuring her goes on, she gets a position at NationTV on a political discussion show. And in A Killing Spring, it’s that forum that allows her to unsettle the killer of a colleague Reed Gallagher enough for that person to admit guilt. She arranges to make it clear to the killer that she knows what happened to Gallagher, and it’s very interesting to see how she uses the very public nature of NationTV to do so. This series also shows how dangerous public speaking can be. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this in case some of you are really nervous about speaking to an audience but in Deadly Apperances, the first of the Joanne Kilbourn novels, her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during an important political speech. Trust me, though; poisoning isn’t common during speeches. Really. It’s not.

One of the hardest things to do – even harder really than simply speaking in public – is to be funny in public. Standup comedians have to do ‘double duty.’ They have to be comfortable speaking in public and they have to think of material that will keep people laughing. That’s what Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes faces in Orloff’s Last Laff series. The Last Laff is a comedy club in Northern Virginia that’s co-owned by Hayes and Artie Worsham. In Killer Routine, one of the comics Heather Dempsey disappears just before she’s supposed to do her routine. At first it looks as though she got too nervous at the last moment and simply fled. But Hayes doesn’t think so. Heather is the sister of Hayes’ fiancée Lauren Dempsey, who was killed in a tragic car accident, so he feels a special need to find Heather and see that she’s all right. It turns out though that he’s not the only one looking for Heather. She’s been keeping some secrets of her own, and Hayes will have to look more closely into her life if he’s going to find out what happened to her. At the same time, he’s been battling back from that same car wreck that killed his fiancée. He’s had to deal with guilt, grief, physical wounds and more, so he’s been very uncomfortable about going on stage again. This novel gives an interesting look at what it’s like for a nervous comic to take (or re-take) the stage.

Even mystery novelists have to do their share of speaking in public. Just ask Martin Canning, whom we meet in Kate Atkinsons’s One Good Turn. He’s a crime fiction writer who’s scheduled to appear as part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning isn’t much of a one at all for public speaking. He’d rather live in the dream world he’s created with his novels than in the real one most of the time. But his agent has convinced him that he’ll benefit greatly from the publicity that comes from making public speeches. So he agrees to go. When he gets to Edinburgh, Canning witnesses a car accident between a blue Honda and silver Peugeot. Both drivers get out of their cars and within seconds they’re arguing. Then, the driver of the Honda wields a baseball bat and tries to attack Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his computer case at the Honda driver and saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound to be sure Bradley is safe, Canning accompanies him to the local hospital. That’s how Canning gets drawn into a case of murder, deception and theft. In the light of the rest of the story, joining in a panel of crime writers, even in public, is not so scary…

But many people do find public speaking quite difficult. Do you? Which novels have you read where it plays a role?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James V. Monaco and Mack Gordon’s I Can’t Begin to Tell You.


Filed under Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Henning Mankell, Jørn Lier Horst, Kate Atkinson

22 responses to “I Make Such Pretty Speeches*

  1. Nicholas Blake’s regular detective, Nigel Strangeways, is a poet (a bit like Adam Dalgleish I suppose) and in the book There’s Trouble Brewing he goes to give a talk on poetry in a small town, as a favour for a friend. Of course, the next thing someone is murdered, and the poetry meeting has been the perfect introduction to all the suspects as well as starting us on the alibi trail. And, of course, Nigel is absolutely fine at public speaking.

    • Moira – What a great example! I like the Nigel Strangeways character and I do see your point about the similarity between him and Dalgliesh when it comes to love of poetry. And you’ve reminded me that I’ve not read one of those books in a while. Time I remedied that.

  2. I have a fear of public speaking. I could never work in a profession that demanded that one speak to the public. You probably don’t have that problem, since you teach.

    A lot of the police procedural novels I read have the police give press conferences to disseminate information, and they often avoid it as much as possible because they know they will get embarrassing questions from the press. And sometimes they use them to try to trap a killer. You see this more on TV, I think.

    • Tracy – You’re by no means the only one who dislikes public speaking. It’s such a common fear and one can see why. It does make one vulnerable. And just because a person speaks in public a lot doesn’t mean it never makes one anxious. Trust me.
      You make an interesting point about police press conferences. Most of the time, the cops would rather just do their jobs than talk to the press. And as you say, they don’t want to ruin a case they’re working by saying the wrong things to the press. But at the same time, they know that the media wants answers. And you’re right; sometimes they use those opportunities to try to catch the criminal. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if you were absolutely right about that sort of thing happening more on TV shows. It’s a very visual kind of thing.

  3. Margot, this post was particularly apt for me because yesterday I gave my first public reading of my novel, The Raffle Baby. It’s unpublished but it was shortlisted for this year’s Unhanged Arthur Award (one of the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Awards.) A series of fortunate contacts, including Anthony Bidulka, put me on the program at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon with Mel Bradshaw who was touring his newest novel, Fire on the Runway.

    I prepared until I could almost recite my material but even so I was nervous. That said the reading was extremely well attended and I received a lot of favourable comments. I only hope my next reading will be from the published work.

    Thanks for your blog. I always enjoy it.

    Ilonka Halsband

    • Ilonka – Oh, congratulations on getting a chance to do a reading for your novel! That’s just absolutely wonderful. And how terrific that you had so much support for it. It’s good to hear that all went so well, and I’m glad you’ve shared the experience with us. It just goes to show you I think that no matter how much you rehearse, no matter how prepared you think you are for a reading, you’re still nervous. I wish you much success with your novel, and thanks for the kind words.

  4. Margot: It is a happy coincidence that I follow a comment from another resident of Saskatchewan. I hope Ilonka can soon find a publisher.

    If you want to be a trial or appellate lawyer you need to be comfortable speaking publicly. Legal mysteries abound with the powerful exhortations of counsel for the prosecution and the defence.

    Your post has inspired me to write a post tonight about legal addresses.

    • Bill – I was very much hoping you’d comment here. Attorneys have to be good at public speaking of course, and in any legal mystery, there are usually several places where members of the jury are addressed. And tere are other times too (such as when speaking to the press) where an attorney has to speak in public. There are so many examples of this in crime fiction that one couldn’t fit them into one post. I’m glad you’ll be adding to this on your own blog. And of course, I wish Ilonka much success too.

  5. kathy d.

    Public speaking: I i mmediately think of Sara Paretsky who not only discusses her V.I. Warshawski novels but addresses the important issue of civil liberties here, free speech, etc. She always includes social issues in her books — and her fans like that — but she is quite outspoken and principled in her own life.
    V.I. Warshawski does some public speaking when it fits the plot.
    And this post is reminding me to read Dregs, which is somehow lost in the book piles around here, which are growing like kudzu.

    • Kathy – You know, there are a lot of real-life examples of authors speaking in public aren’t there? Sara Paretsky is definitely one of them. She is a strong supporter of human rights causes among others, and her talks are inspiring. I’m glad you mentioned her. And I hope that if you read Dregs, you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Hi Margot. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’m getting more comfortable at speaking in public. It’s sort of a requirement for a writer these days, what with booksignings, etc. Two thoughts : is the final gathering-of-the-suspects scene in the Golden Age mystery a kind a speech, as some of them get longwinded? Also, I think of Richard Hannay’s nonsense speech in the movie The Thirty-nine Steps. I’ve not read the novel so I don’t know it appears there as well.

    • Bryan – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. I think one does get more comfortable speaking in public bit by bit as one does it. And you ask an interesting question about that Golden-Age trope of gathering the suspects together. I can see that ‘counting’ as a public speech. Certainly if the sleuth weren’t comfortable speaking to a group of people, those speeches wouldn’t work well. And I’m glad you mentioned that speech in The 30 Steps. It’s a moment in that film, I think. I’m a lot more familiar with the film than I am with the novel, so please, someone who is really familiar with the novel, put me right. But I think the speech appears there too.

  7. Hi Margot — I thought of the classic whodunnits where the sleuth/investigator gathers all the suspects in one room at the end and talks on and on about the clues and how he solved the case. And then there are the lawyers like Perry Mason…

    For one reason or another, I’ve had to give speeches and presentations all my life…and I’m just now getting comfortable with it.

    • Pat – Oh, those great gather-all-the-suspects speeches! They are such an integral part of the classics aren’t they? And you’re right that doing them well requires that the sleuth be pretty good at public speaking.
      I think it does take time for most of us to get accustomed to speaking in public. I’d say for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally.

  8. I used to hate speaking in public but since I’ve been teaching, I’m a lot more relaxed about it.Press conferences in crime fiction are often a source of anxiety and make a good scene in a novel.

    • Sarah – There’s nothing like teaching to get one accustomed to speaking in public. I’ll bet you’ve gotten good at it. And you’re right about press conferences; they do make people anxious,so they add and interesting level to crime novel, and good scenes.

  9. Col

    Public speaking……not for me, I don’t even like introducing myself to strangers because of confusion over an unusual first name, that people who I’ve known for all of 5 seconds seem to think can’t possibly be my first name and must be my surname! Awkward!!!! (Thanks mum and dad!)
    I’m dreading my two daughter’s marrying and having to do the father of the bride thing, best if they elope I reckon!

    • Col – My son-in-law has an unusual first name too, and I’m sure has had his moments introducing himself to strangers. It certainly doesn’t make the path to speaking to people particularly easy does it? Of course, if your daughters elope, you won’t have to make those speeches, but at the same time, you don’t get to join in the party. Seems a poor bargain, I’m just saying…

  10. So topical Margot! My brother-in-law had to give a speech on Friday at the marriage of his youngest daughter and has been writing and rehearsing the speech for weeks, getting more and more stressed. I tried to help him with tips and ways to relax about it because over the years I’ve done lots of public speaking (sometimes with Q&A too – a different sort of nightmare) and I used to be violently sick and ill before I had to get up and speak, so I had a good idea how this painfully shy man was feeling. Luckily for me I managed to over-come the fear and worry about making an ass of myself in front of a room full of strangers. All the tips for imagining they are cabbages, or all naked, didn’t work for me initially and holding notes made it more stressful. I eventually ended up always speaking off the cuff….it worked for me. Having schooled various artists in interview techniques and so forth I think it must have rubbed off on me in the end and now – apart from the odd flutter – I don’t worry about it. As long as I know what I am on about and can answer most questions, it is fine. If I don’t know or dry up, I admit it. Most people in the room want you to succeed and that is why they are there; they want to hear what you have to say. They are on your side and humour helps. I adore the TV series Wallander and the differences between English and Swedish police and their methods is always fascinating. I’ve never read the books in English however. Several authors who visit our library have to get up and talk about their books and do readings and I often feel for those who blush badly and are obviously out of their comfort zones and I hope we don’t intimidate them. I’d love to be in their shoes, chatting about my best seller….it all seems to be part and parcel of life these days, public speaking rears its ugly head in the strangest of places and a Policeman having to do it must be awful. Not put one in a story yet. Have you had a character give a speech yet? How would you prepare him/her?

    • Jane – I’m sure your brother’s speech went well and that the wedding was lovely. I think you have a very well-taken point that when you give a talk, most people in the room want you to succeed. I’d say there is an exception when, say, the media are interviewing certain politicians or perhaps when media members are interviewing police whom they feel are not forthcoming. But in general I agree completely: people do want to hear what you have to say as a rule. I think that helps more than just about anything. It also does help to know what you’re talking about and try to trust yourself that you can simply talk to your audience. Like you, I’ve found that ‘canned’ speeches are disastrous. It’s much better to simply make notes of the topics you want to cover and then talk about them, trying to keep within your time limit. People respond to that authenticity I think. It takes time and experience to be comfortable doing that though, and I agree that there are a lot of people who get very nervous when they speak in public.
      You asked whether my characters have spoken in public. A lot of my characters are academics, so they’re accustomed to giving lectures and presenting to classes, so they’ve gotten accustomed to speaking in public. But I did have a situation where some characters had to prepare for public musical performances. You want to talk about nerve-wracking! I would say that the best way to prepare for public speeches and performances is to prepare thoroughly, have a few notes ready, and then relax and just talk (or play).

      • Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…..in reply to the above:
        Indeed, because by then it is a bit late to discover you can’t perform or don’t know your subject! Yes Press can be the enemy at times and I am glad I never had to represent a politician…..
        Interesting how our backgrounds come out in our writing; case of write what you know up to a point, though so far I’ve not bumped anyone off – knowingly that is!
        Looking forward to reading more of your work.

        • Jane – It is interesting isn’t it how we tap what we know when we write. Like you, I haven’t actually committed murder, so that’s so far been confined to fiction… You’re right that it would be very difficult to be a politician’s press secretary. No thanks.

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