In On Writing, a book that balances autobiography with writing tips, Stephen King delivers a lot of great advice. Not all of it holds up, but some of the things he covers are invaluable if you want to be a successful writer. Here are a few of the lessons he shared with us.
1. Write for yourself, not an audience
Pleasing everyone is impossible, and writing crowd pleasers is one of the lowest forms of writing. Don’t try to guess what the market will want when your book is published; focus on the story you want to tell. Write honestly, and don’t worry about the audience, because as Stephen King says,
“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
2. Turn off the TV
“TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
This may have held more merit in 2000 when On Writing was published, but that was before the boom of HBO and original cable programming. In 2014, there’s a lot you can learn about storytelling from some of the stellar television that’s gracing our airwaves, so I don’t think King’s argument holds as much weight here as it once did.
3. Avoid disturbances while writing
Stephen King is not wrong, however, about the importance of keeping the television set off when writing. As he says,
“There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.”
Such distractions will sever you from the story you’re trying to tell. If you need some kind of noise in the background, noninterruptive nature sounds or instrumental music are your best bets.
4. Finish your book in three months
“The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
This is one of Stephen King’s most divisive tips, and one I don’t personally subscribe to. Even if King wrote The Stand in 90 days, which is hard to believe, every author has their own pace. However, King is right to stress that a successful writer doesn’t leave a project lingering too long, lest the author loses their momentum. I just don’t know if three months and one day is the cutoff point.
5. One word at a time
“Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
I love this quote; it’s so true. JRR Tolkien didn’t let himself get overwhelmed while he made progress on his opus. He just kept writing, one word after another, and look how that turned out. Do the same to be a successful writer.
6. Avoid adverbs and passive voice
This is probably King’s most technical advice, and it’s very astute. Adverbs are not your friend, often coming across as excessive to readers, and active voice is almost always a better choice than passive voice.
7. Don’t mimic other styles
“One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”
Everyone’s inspired by what they consume, but if you want to be a successful writer instead of an uninspired one, be careful about wearing your influences too much on your sleeve.
8. Give yourself time to gain perspective
As King says,
“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”
I wait at least a day or two after writing an article to submit it to Lifehack and other outlets. If I just wrote something today, it’s too fresh in my mind for me to recognize its flaws tonight. Set your story aside so that you can have a little more perspective when you’re editing.
9. You’re not writing a research paper
World-building is great, but Stephen King was very astute when he wrote,
“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”
Successful writers make the story their first priority, with world-building a little further down the list.
10. Read a lot, write a lot
“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
Even if someone is working with you one on one, they still won’t be able to instruct you on some subjects as well as you can teach them to yourself. Never be afraid to learn things on your own.
11. Happiness is the goal
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
This might be Stephen King’s most important point. Only a handful of people strike it rich off the words they write, so be a writer for the right reasons.
Not a lot of people are good at public speaking. You could even say that virtually everyone needs to get some practice, and preferably good guidance, before they can learn to stay calm when facing a room full of people. Having all eyes on you is an uncomfortable experience and it takes time to get used to. However, even if you can manage to control your stage fright and stay focused, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your presentation won’t put people to sleep. This is usually the case with long presentations on a very dull subject, with the presenter speaking in a monotone voice and dimming the lights to play a PowerPoint presentation.
You have to work hard to develop the right skills
If you want to be remembered and actually get people engaged, you need to make your presentation fun and enjoyable, without coming off as corny or desperate to please. I know, it doesn’t sound that easy at all! A good presentation during a promotional event or given to an important client can be a game changer for your business, so it is easy to get stressed out and fail to perform all that well. Luckily, giving an interesting lecture is something that can be practiced and perfected. There is plenty of advice out there on the topic, but let’s look at the most important aspects of giving a memorable and fun presentation.
1. Make your presentation short and sweet
With very long, meandering speeches you tend to lose the audience pretty early on, and from then on out it’s just a test of endurance for the few bravest listeners. Not only will people’s attention start to drop rapidly after sitting and listening to you talk for 30 minutes, but you also risk watering down your core ideas and leaving your audience with little in the way of key phrases and important bits of information to take away from the whole ordeal. Famous speakers throughout history have known the importance of condensing the information by using well thought out sentences and short phrases loaded with meaning.
JFK’s famous: ”It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” expresses so much in very few words and gets the audience thinking. Ancient Spartans, for example were famous for their quick, dry wit, often demolishing their opponent’s argument with a single word or phrase. You’ll want to channel that ancient spirit and be as concise as possible when preparing your presentation.
2. Open up with a good ice breaker
At the beginning, you are new to the audience. There is no rapport, no trust and the atmosphere is fairly neutral. Even if some of the people there know you personally, the concept of you as an authority on a particular matter giving a speech will be foreign to them. The best way to encourage a warm and friendly atmosphere is to get some kind of emotional response out of the audience right at the beginning. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is, you just need to connect with them on a more personal level. It can be shock, curiosity, laughter, knowing smirks, nervousness – whatever gets them out of that initial feeling of indifference. There are different kinds of effective ice-breakers, but generally speaking, the most successful ones utilize one of these tactics:
Tugging on their heart strings
Dropping a bombastic statement
Telling an interesting and relevant anecdote
Using a metaphor or drawing comparisons
You can make a small, self-deprecating comment, stir the presentation one way and then suddenly surprise the audience, use sarcasm, open up with a short childhood story that taught you a lesson, quote a famous person and elaborate on it from personal experience, use an inspirational anecdote or hit them with a bit of nostalgia. Just remember to keep it short and move on once you’ve gotten a reaction.
3. Keep things simple and to the point
Once you’re done warming up the crowd you can ease them into the core concepts and important ideas that you will be presenting. Keep the same presentation style thoughout. If you’ve started off a bit ironic, using dry wit, you can’t just jump into a boring monologue. If you’ve started off with a bang, telling a couple of great little jokes and getting the crowd riled up, you have to keep them happy by throwing in little jokes here and there and being generally positive and energetic during the presentation. You need a certain structure that you won’t deviate too far from at any point. A good game plan consists of several important points that need to be addressed efficiently. This means moving on from one point to another in a logical manner, coming to a sound conclusion and making sure to accentuate the key information.
4. Use a healthy dose of humor
Some of the best speeches and presentations in the world, which have been heard and viewed by millions, all feature plenty of humor. No matter the subject, a great speaker will use natural charisma, humor and beautiful language to convey their points and get the crowd excited about what they are saying. A great example of building rapport with the audience through the use of humor is Barrack Obama talking about the government building Iron Man.
It is silly and fun, and absolutely not something that you would expect from a man in a position of power speaking in such a serious setting – and it’s exactly why it works. The more serious the situation and the bigger the accent on proper social behavior, the harder your jokes will hit.
5. Try to tell a story instead of ranting
Some people can do all of the above things right and still manage to turn their short and fun little presentation into a chaotic mess of information. You don’t want your speech to look like you just threw a bunch of information in a blender in no particular order. To avoid rambling, create a strong structure. Start with the ice breaker, introduce the core concepts and your goals briefly, elaborate on the various points in a bit more detail, draw logical conclusions and leave your audience with a clear takeaway message. You want to flow naturally from one part to the next like you are telling a big story chapter by chapter.
6. Practice your delivery
Standing in front of the mirror and practicing a speech or presentation is a technique as old as mirrors – well, come to think of it, as old as human speech, since you can see yourself reflected in any clear and calm body of water – and that means that it is tried and true. The theory is incredibly simple, yet the real problem is actually putting in the effort day in and day out. Work on your posture, your tone of voice, accent, pauses between sentences and facial expressions. The most important thing is to talk slowly and loudly enough to be heard and understood clearly. Many famous speakers, such as Demosthenes and King George VI, overcame speech impediments through hard work.
7. Move around and use your hands
Although you won’t instill confidence in your project if you are very jittery, moving around erratically, not knowing what to do with your hands and making fast movements, standing dead still can be just as bad. You shouldn’t be afraid to use your arms and hands when talking as it makes you seem more passionate and confident. The same goes for moving around and taking up some space. However, try to make slower, calculated and deliberate movements. You want your movements to seem powerful, yet effortless. You can achieve this through practice.
8. Engage the audience by making them relate
Sometimes you will lose the audience somewhat in techno-babble, numbers, graphs and abstract ideas. At that point it is important to reel them back in using some good, old-fashioned storytelling. Make comparisons to events from everyday life that most people are more than familiar with. By making things look simple, not only will you help your audience get a better understanding of the subject by enabling them to visualize the information more clearly, you will also draw a connection between you. After all, you are all just regular people with similar experience, you just happen to be performing different roles at the moment.
9. Use funny images in your slides
Although slides are not really necessary at all times, if you do need them to make your point and present your information more effectively, it’s best to liven them up. They say that facts aren’t always black and white, and your presentation should reflect this. Add a bit of color, make the information stand out and use an interesting animation to switch from slide to slide. You can use the slides to add some more humor, both in terms of the text and the images. An image that is used to elicit a positive response needs to be funny within the context of what you are discussing. For example, if you are discussing the topic of authority, an image of Eric Cartman from South Park in a police uniform, demanding that you respect his “authoritah,” is a nice way to have a bit of fun and lighten things up.
10. End on a more serious note
When all is said and done you will want the audience to remember the core concepts and keep thinking about what you have said after the presentation is over. This is why you should let things naturally calm down and end with an important idea, quote or even a question. Plant a seed in their mind and make them think. Let us turn to Patrick Henry for a great way to end a speech: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
As you can see, there is quite a bit to learn when it comes to giving a good presentation, one that is both memorable and fun. Be sure to work on your skills tirelessly and follow in the footsteps of great orators.