Author Archives: Vanessa Plaister

Editing erotica FAQ

As a teaser for her 2018 conference session ‘Introduction to editing erotic fiction’, Maya Berger answered some frequently asked questions.

1. Are erotica authors less receptive to feedback than other authors because the text is more personal to them?

Thankfully, this hasn’t been my experience so far. Anyone who writes a story has some attachment to the characters they create and has written things that personally resonate for them. How receptive an author is to editorial input is more a matter of their understanding of an editor’s remit, their own attitude toward the writing and editing processes, and the strength of the relationship they have with their editor. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with erotic fiction authors, as well as authors of various other genres, who are eager to improve their texts and who engage respectfully with my suggestions and comments even when they disagree with an editing choice that I’ve made.

2. Are these stories more thrilling to edit than texts in other genres?

Honestly, no. I don’t edit erotica because I’m looking for a cheap thrill – I do it because I believe that stories about human sexuality and intimate relationships deserve to have the same high-quality writing as other literature. When I edit any type of fiction, I read a text in a very particular way, even before I start making any changes to the text. I am looking for a coherent narrative, interesting characters that grow and change throughout the story, and a sense of the author’s style and voice. There is enjoyment in my work, but it’s the same enjoyment I’d feel reading about a compelling character, rich setting, exciting plot point or elegantly crafted sentence in any fiction genre.

All that said, when I’m editing a work of romantic or erotic fiction I do look at whether any of the story elements take away from the overall eroticism and whether the story would appeal to its intended audience. I will sometimes suggest changes to create more evocative imagery or remove elements that break a reader’s suspension of disbelief, especially if I am doing structural editing or copy-editing, but also when proofreading if changes can be made at the word or sentence level. This often leads to the removal of…

3. What are some of the most unsexy things you’ve read in a sex scene?

Thankfully, I haven’t yet read anything to rival the hilariously misguided winners of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award, but I have come across sentences that were seemingly constructed using a random adjective generator. In those cases, it’s worth reminding the author that long, meandering sentences filled with flowery descriptions for every person and every action can distract the reader rather than entice them. Sometimes less truly is more, and the author should be confident enough in the characters, setting and narrative to avoid over-describing them with adjectives and adverbs. Verily, I say, heartily and with purposeful intent, such powerfully, mind-blowingly, epically tragic word choices are made at the unwary author’s engorged peril.

The most memorably unsexy word choice I’ve seen, however, has to be the use of the words ‘bowels’ and ‘intestines’ during a lovemaking scene. The author was clearly trying to emphasise the depth of one character’s… er… physical closeness to another, but there is nothing appealing about the word ‘intestines’. Moreover (and not to be too blunt about it), no matter what kind of sex you’re having, if your lovemaking involves those parts of your lover’s anatomy then something’s gone horribly wrong and you should seek medical attention immediately!

Maya BergerMaya Berger is a copy-editor and proofreader specialising in erotic fiction, sci fi and fantasy, YA fiction, and academic texts. Maya can talk for hours about censorship, sex and gender politics, and everything that’s good and bad about Fifty Shades of Grey. www.whatimeantosay.com

 

 

Originally published on the ‘What I Mean To Say‘ blog on 7 September 2016

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

 

What’s your editorial flavour? From bland identity to brand identity

In the first of a series of posts anticipating our 2018 conference in September, Louise Harnby previews her session: ‘What flavour is your business? Building a brilliant editorial brand’.

What’s your favourite chocolate? I like Galaxy. Lindt’s lovely too. Cadbury’s is good but not as good as Galaxy and Lindt! I’ll eat Nestlé if it’s free but I don’t buy it. And Hershey’s? Just no.

There’s nothing wrong or right about any of those types of chocolate. It’s just that chocolate comes in different flavours, which means what we like or don’t like is personal. It’s about fit, about preference, about taste.

Image of delicious chocolates

Building a brand identity for our editorial businesses isn’t so different. And just as there are some types of chocolate that don’t float my gastro boat, so there are some editors who aren’t the perfect fit for a client.

It’s not that those editors aren’t fit for market, or that they don’t have excellent qualifications and a ton of experience. It’s rather that none of us can be all things to all clients, and when we try to be, we risk diluting the message to the extent that it’s bland.

Baseline appeals to everyone

It can be tempting to focus on the obvious when we’re presenting ourselves online – this qualification, that training course, this certificate, that award, and other stuff such as being professional, meeting our deadlines, and producing high-quality work.

All of that is important but none of it’s particularly interesting. How many of your colleagues actively advertise themselves as poorly trained editors who produce questionable work and struggle with time-keeping? None, I hope.

And yet many editors focus heavily on these baseline attributes when constructing their websites. My site used to be like that – I was talking to students, authors, businesses, academics and publishers … anyone I thought might hire me. That meant I had to keep the message watered down so as not to put anyone off. And so I focused on the baselines.

The problem with baselines is that they speak to everyone but inspire few. And while that kind of message might generate work leads, it rarely generates ideal work leads.

To move ourselves into a position where we’re attracting the perfect clients – those who are offering us the type of work we crave at the price we’re asking – we need to add flavour.

Communicating the way we taste to our ideal clients is where branding comes in.

Building the flavour of you

If you want to extract the flavour of you and infuse your online presence with it, please join me for ‘What flavour is your business? Building a brilliant editorial brand’.

In the first hour, I’ll show you a brand-building framework – one that explores what makes each of us tick, what’s troubling our clients, and what our nemesis thinks and does.

In the second hour, it’s your turn. You’ll use that framework to begin the process of creating a rich, compelling and unique brand identity that attracts your best-fit clients.

You don’t need any experience of branding or marketing. All I ask is that you come with an open mind and a readiness to be honest with yourself.

Can you keep a secret?

There’s one more thing, but let’s keep this between ourselves … there might just be chocolate. Not the chocolate I like. The chocolate you like.

If you sign up for the session, email me at louise@louiseharnbyproofreader.com and let me know what your favourite choccy is. That way, I can make sure the workshop is a truly flavoursome experience for you!

I look forward to seeing you in Lancaster!

Louise HarnbyLouise Harnby is a fiction line editor, copy-editor and proofreader who specialises in supporting self-publishing authors, particularly crime writers. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) and an Author Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Find out more at www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com.

Don’t fear the forums

Hello, my name is Amy and I am a forum lurker [wave].

I’ve been a member of the SfEP for four years and, while I read the forums almost every day, I am more than a little embarrassed to say that my first forum post was to ask people if they wanted to be interviewed for this article. But in doing so I did break my non-posting streak (yay!).

Chameleon

My lack of contribution is not because I think there’s nothing for me to learn or that I never have any questions. Au contraire: I’ve learned (and continue to learn) some brilliant stuff from the forums. They are an excellent source of support and information in what can often be a solitary profession. I also have questions on a daily basis and quite frankly, my office orchid is a horrible conversationalist.

What has, in the past, stopped me from posting is (a) a basic fear of sounding like a dunderhead or (b) there being a typo or grammatical inaccuracy in my question. I’ve lost count of how many posts I have started and deleted as a direct result of these fears.

Forum fears

From the responses I got to my forum post, I believe there is a robust community of lurkers out there. I also believe there is one overwhelming barrier to contributing to the forums: fear.
There appear to be two types of forum-related fear: (a) of making a fool of yourself with a silly question or a mistake and (b) fear of others’ reactions and tactless replies. While the forums are a rich source of support and insight, it appears they are also a source of much angst for us lurkers.

Ally Oakes, for example, told me that she ‘didn’t dare’ ask anything on the forums for months after joining the Society, partly due to fear and partly due to a feeling of not having anything to say.

Claire Langford has posted in the forums a few times in the last eight months, but still feels hesitant. She says that the limiting factor for her is experience: ‘I very rarely post a response to a question, largely because I don’t yet feel I am enough of an authority to give advice to other proofreaders and copy-editors.’ When she does post, she will ‘check, re-check and check again’ any posts due to an ‘agonising fear’ of there being a spelling mistake or grammatical error.

I recognise and empathise with both Ally’s and Claire’s feelings, but wise words from John Espirian, who was fundamental in setting up the forums, help put the fear of forums into perspective:

Even the best editors make mistakes. The forums are a private space away from prying eyes, and the community is supportive enough to overlook these things. So I wouldn’t worry about the odd typo slipping into your text – it happens. Don’t let this fear hold you back from posting questions, as you’ll be missing out on the collective wisdom of hundreds of experienced editorial pros.

This is a sentiment echoed by Claire and Ally, who variously describe the forums as ‘a godsend’ and a source of really useful snippets of information. According to Ally, ‘The fear is natural and isn’t a bad thing; it’s a part of starting something new.’ I too can attest that I have only had very helpful and thoughtful responses to my literal cry for help.

Many members have told me that they feel access to the forums is one of the main perks of SfEP membership. Statistics kindly provided by John show that there are 1,804 forum users, 32% of whom are active, which means they have logged into the forums at least once in the last 30 days. You can then figure out how many fellow lurkers there are when you see that only 231 active users have at least 50 posts. This shows something that we all probably know already, that some users feel more confident posting than others.

Which leads nicely into the second fear – that of replies that may make you feel foolish or upset. Thankfully, these seem to be few and far between, but there are members who have been put off contributing to the forums as a result of an ill-considered response that was perceived to be unhelpful or unkind.

It is worth remembering when replying to a forum post that the contributor may have spent ages writing and rewriting their question or comment, trying to make it perfect. John sums it up nicely: ‘Be kind and clear. Remember that you didn’t always know it all (and you probably don’t even now).’

If you look at the forums you will see questions from people of all membership levels. There are few who believe they have all the answers, and the forums are a space in which to seek advice and information from virtual colleagues. It is an opportunity we should all make the most of.

How can you beat the forum fears?

So how can you beat the forum fear and confidently make your first post? My first piece of advice is not to overthink it. One Advanced Professional Member suggested I ask about the best kind of printer – it doesn’t have to be a complex or high-brow question to get you started.

Secondly, don’t hover over ‘Submit’ for too long. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to press ‘Delete’ instead.

John Espirian also has some tips to help assuage potential first posters’ nerves:

  1. Check out the link at the top of the Newbies page, which gives you a list of hints and tips to get you started.
  2. Make use of the search function before posting. Your topic, or even specific question, may have already been discussed. Even if it’s not exactly the answer you need, it might help you to tailor your question.

Given the calibre of the members of the SfEP, it can be daunting to contribute to a conversation, but my advice is, don’t underestimate the value of what you can add. Even if you are a relative newcomer to the industry, your life experience or unique insight could be really valuable and much appreciated by the community. And a new voice is always welcome. So, when it comes to the forums, in the inimitable words of Dr Susan Jeffers, feel the fear and do it anyway.

Amy ReayAmy Armitage-Reay is an ex-forum lurker and Professional Member of the SfEP. She started her professional life as a reporter and has run Ethos Editing (www.ethosediting.com), which specialises in creating academic content, since 2009.

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP

Restorative niches and the SfEP conference

In a follow-up to her popular blog post last year, Abi Saffrey has some ideas for how introverts can find spaces to breathe to help them avoid being overwhelmed at the SfEP conference.

Coffee cup with pause symbol

Last year, I (with substantial assistance from two fellow introverts) put together A survival guide for introverts, in preparation for the 2016 SfEP conference.

I am, ahem, embarrassed to say that I ignored most of that advice and I came away from the conference exhausted and not wishing to speak to anyone at all about anything at all for a week or so. During the conference, I did take a bit of time out for myself – a walk around the Aston campus and a bag of Minstrels in front of rubbish TV – but not as much as I’d planned. I was having a ball! I learnt stuff, I met so many smart and funny people, I saw a mouse in the dining room, I danced till after midnight, and I attended some inspiring sessions. I was getting energy from those around me; perhaps, very slowly, I am becoming an ambivert (calling myself an extrovert would be extreme).

I recently watched a fascinating TEDx talk by Brian R. Little, an extremely introverted university professor specialising in the study of personality and well-being. He talks about how the sensitivity of our neo-cortex is key to whether we display introvert or extrovert tendencies – some of us (introverts) have an optimum level of stimulation way below that of others (extroverts). And often when an introvert and an extrovert meet, they find themselves in a painful impasse where the extrovert tries to raise the level of stimulation and the introvert tries to lower it. As the introvert withdraws, the extrovert talks more, moves more, both of them trying to keep their neo-cortex happy.

One of Professor Little’s key concepts is that of restorative niches, the time out I mentioned above. Everyone needs a restorative niche to bring their neo-cortex back to its optimum level of stimulation: introverts need down time; extroverts may need more interaction and more action. Extroverts may well go from one highly stimulating situation into another – and create one if needs be by turning their music up loud. (I like loud music in my down time, but I’m still not an extrovert.) Introverts are more likely to indulge in meditation, a walk or staring into the middle distance.

Green trees

So, with the 2017 Conference fast approaching, I’m starting to think about the restorative niches I will be able to seek out over those two and a half days. I’m starting the weekend with a visit to the spa at Wyboston Lakes, making the most of the facilities that the conference venue has to offer. This should give me the break I need to transition from day-to-day life to conference mode, and help me cope with the physical tension that does arise when I’m out of my comfort zone.

This will mean that I can’t go to the speed networking session. Extreme introvert part of me is relieved: I’m pretty sure every introvert twitches at those two words. Speed. Networking. Social part of me is sad to miss out on the opportunity to be introduced to peers in a very directed, structured environment. On the SfEP forums, several conference attendees have talked about this session and the personal conflict they have about it – but all have acknowledged that the benefits far outweigh the anxieties. Some have expressed relief that it’s early on in the conference rather than at the end – when their neo-cortex could well be buzzing like ten wasps in a tiny jam jar and they may not be able to do more than nod and perhaps blink.

I’ll also be making the most of the free time in the evenings, and I won’t be rushing down to the bar well ahead of dinner. The accommodation and grounds look lovely, so I’ll probably go for a walk before or after breakfast, and sit in my room and stare at the wall for a while (note to self: pack Minstrels), or put on my headphones and turn up the volume. Or I might just hide in a toilet cubicle for most of a tea break.

All that said, I’m going to take things as they come. Maybe I’ll want to be first at the bar, maybe I’ll even manage a coherent conversation over breakfast. It’s okay to be a pseudo-extrovert for a while, socialising and learning with the tribe. When I get home, I’ll have a couple of days with limited stimulation to help my over-worked neo-cortex to recover, never wanting to talk to anyone ever again. And then I’ll be ready and raring to book my space at next year’s conference.

Abi SaffreyAbi Saffrey is an advanced professional member of the SfEP. She specialises in copy-editing and proofreading economics and social policy content, and anything within the wider social sciences realm. Abi is a social introvert with two young children, and slight addictions to bootcamps and tea.

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP

Lightning talks: snappy, illuminating and gone in a flash

Last week, in our Tips for fearless lightning talkers, Susan Milligan looked at how to prepare and get the most out of presenting a lightning talk at conference. This week we hear from speakers and audience members about what they thought of the experience.

 

Hazel Reid

Hazel ReidI get lightning talks and elevator speeches muddled up. Both are fast, to the point, explanatory and self-revealing. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? To tell us something about yourself that we didn’t know in as short a space of time as possible.

However, these two types of presentation are quite different. Everyone giving a lightning talk is restricted to the same length of time for their address and, certainly for the talks I went to, they are accompanied by PowerPoint slides. Whether that’s to help the listeners or the talker, I’m not sure. Elevator speeches, on the other hand, can vary in length – are you going up (or down) ten imaginary floors or just two? – and they need to answer the who I am, what I do and why kind of questions to give the listener a snapshot of the speaker. They’re useful for networking.

Lightning talks are ‘snappy, illuminating and gone in a flash (the clue’s in the name)’. They are also seen as an opportunity ‘for novice public speakers to have a go in front of a friendly crowd’. I’m quoting here from the ‘bumf’ from the SfEP 2015 conference, which is the last, and I think, only time I’ve heard them. I don’t remember ‘snappy’ or ‘flashy’, but illuminating, yes, definitely. Of the two lightning talkers who stand out in my memory, both were SfEP members and I knew each of them to speak to.

One, I’m mentioning no names, spoke about a former career as a sub-editor on a busy daily paper, an interesting and oblique slant on editing compared with ‘our’ version of the practice. That talk was good fun: there was humour and warmth, and perhaps a tinge (but only a tinge) of regret for the busy lifestyle and close companionship of a sub-editor’s day, now left behind.

The other speaker? Well, I confess that from here, two years later, I can’t remember anything about the content of the speech – which is not meant as the criticism it sounds like – 2015 was a bad time for me and my thoughts were often not where they should have been at any given moment. But I do have a clear memory of feelings. There was laughter, yes, and a ready wit, with those wonderful snappy, dry-humour sound bites that I wish I could master. (See, there you are, it was snappy after all.) There was also a feeling of surprise, a dawning realisation of something I had not previously been aware of, and then a strong sympathy or empathy that this person who I knew as witty, confident, clever, was actually, underneath it all, vulnerable.

So, lightning talks: as a listener, a good way to find out what makes someone tick, which can be fun, which can be sad, and which, I would think, must take a chunk of courage for someone to undertake, standing there in front of everyone. Exposed, as it were. For the listener, it’s entertaining, informative and sometimes surprising. For the speaker? Well, that’s something altogether different, I would think; wouldn’t you?

Sara Donaldson

Sara Donaldson Two years ago I attended my first ever SfEP conference. And two years ago I was asked to give a lightning talk at my first ever SfEP conference. Was I mad? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I do it again? Hell yes.

Now, let’s be honest here. I was petrified. I hadn’t given a talk for years. The last time I really stood up in front of an audience was when I taught a night-class, and that was uncomfortable every single time. But when Lucy asked me to give a lightning talk I said yes because it was only five minutes, and how bad can that be, right? Famous last words.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but I sorted myself out, dug out PowerPoint, made slides and wrote up a slightly tongue-in-cheek talk about superpowers. It was the only way to go as I felt I had no right to stand up in front of a bunch of editors and talk to them about my limited editorial experience.

What's your superpower?

When the time came, Kat and I sat together waiting as if for the call to the scaffold. It was her first time too. I can’t speak for her, but I was a nervous wreck. There was a room full of people. All looking at the speaker. All of them. Looking.

But you know what, when I stood up there, despite sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium, I think it went ok. People laughed (when they were supposed to). They paid attention. And no one walked out. I was in a room full of professionals and no one heckled, I didn’t pass out and the tech mostly worked.

I won’t say it was fun. It wasn’t at the time; it was an adrenaline rush, which is something completely different. But it was a worthwhile experience, and as a newbie it actually got people approaching me afterwards. People said they enjoyed my talk, they liked my blog … they actually knew who I was!

From first walking into the room and realising just how many people were in there (I honestly thought there would only be about ten people in the audience) to walking back to my seat afterwards, it was terrifying. But that’s a natural response for a slightly socially awkward, imposter-syndrome-suffering newbie. When I had time to reflect, I realised just how much I’d actually enjoyed it and how useful it was for my professional progression. I’ve done it now, I can do it again and it will be less scary.

What surprised me was just how diverse everyone’s talks were. When you are new you don’t know what to expect, but with everyone only having five minutes, the talks crammed in an awful lot of information. It wasn’t boring in the slightest, or preachy, or heavy. Everyone gave an interesting, informative talk without having to pad it out to reach the time limit, and the audience seemed to enjoy the variety.

What did I learn that was unexpected? I learnt that I can actually do this. Despite being out of practice, feeling that I didn’t know anything interesting, and being literally scared stiff, I learnt that anyone can get up there and give a short talk. Editors are a lovely bunch who are supportive and attentive, and even the conference organisers and main speakers get nervous.

If you are asked to give a lightning talk, for heaven’s sake say yes. If you say no you’ll never realise just what you can do, and a few minutes of the adrenaline rush is so worth it. Don’t let the fear take hold.

For those wondering whether to go and see the lightning talks, I’d say give it a whirl. The diversity of talks is stimulating, never dull and often informative. You’re bound to learn something new and it’s a great way to be introduced to new things and new speakers, without committing a whole hour to one subject.

Katherine Trail

Katherine Trail Five minutes sounds like a long time to talk uninterrupted, with a whole roomful of eyes fixed upon you (and not just any old eyes, the beady eyes of editors and proofreaders at that). I was surprised, therefore, when I timed my lightning talk, telling my partner to interrupt me at the five-minute mark. I was rudely interrupted just as I was getting into the flow of things.

‘What?’ I snapped.

‘Time’s up,’ he said, gesturing at his stopwatch.

As I looked down at the whole side of A4 I hadn’t got to yet, I realised then that preparing a lightning talk was not a case of trying to fill five minutes, but rather of trying not to exceed five minutes.

When I was first approached about doing a lightning talk, I signed up with the airy confidence of someone who is signing up for something months in advance and hasn’t really thought about the implications. As it grew nearer, I became uncomfortably aware that soon, very soon, I would be standing at the front of a room attempting to keep the attention of a rather intimidating number of colleagues. As an editor, I’m no stranger to hacking and slashing things, but as we all know, it’s difficult when it’s your own work. Preparing for my lightning talk forced me to be utterly ruthless – and I actually think it was a nice little challenge in editing too. I slashed and cut and binned and tweaked until I was within the five-minute mark with a few seconds spare. I chose to use a PowerPoint presentation to give my talk some visual context (and only slightly because the thought of everyone looking only at me for five whole minutes gave me palpitations) and tried to make the tone informative but entertaining.

Of course, I needn’t have been anxious. As with everything I have done regarding the SfEP, the people were gracious, welcoming and enthusiastic. And what a superb icebreaker when the speaker before me unknowingly used a rather amusing mistake I’d let through in my former life as a newspaper chief-sub as an example of sentences with a double meaning! For the rest of the weekend, I was amazed at the number of people who went out of their way to find me and tell me how much they had enjoyed my talk (which was about my career in newspapers and the challenges of editing a large daily paper). I was also amazed by the diversity of topics discussed by the other speakers, and the different approaches and methods each speaker chose to deliver their lightning talk. One thing was consistent with all of them, though – they spoke with a passion which was infectious and genuine.

For me, doing a lightning talk was a fantastic challenge, speaking both as an editor and just in terms of character building. I won’t deny I was nervous, but the sense of accomplishment after more than made up for any nerves. I can’t wait to hear what this year’s speakers have in store for us!

Julia Sandford-Cooke

Julia Sandford-Cooke There’s always a conference session that I wish I hadn’t missed, and the first lightning talks was one. I forget why I missed it – I’m sure the session I did attend was excellent (as, of course, all SfEP conference sessions are) and maybe I thought I’d seen it all before. I’d first watched lightning talks at a writers’ conference and was struck by this miraculous resurrection of ‘death by PowerPoint’ – each slide was a photo or very short text, bringing the emphasis back to the content and making more of an impact than a string of bullet points ever could. But how would editors handle the challenge?

Well, I found out the following year when, somehow, I found myself giving such a talk and discovered it’s where the cool kids hang out. Stylishly compered by Lucy Ridout and Robin Black, it was the highlight of my weekend – after all, who could resist short, enthusiastic talks about subjects as diverse and of as much interest to editorial professionals as Barbara Pym novels, the ubiquity of Aristotle and life as a newspaper sub?

My own talk covered my disastrous attempt to learn British Sign Language (spoiler: I failed the exam). I don’t remember being nervous as it was so much fun –  more fun than learning sign language, anyway. Here’s a tip for prospective speakers: it’s amazing how fast time goes so I set each slide on a timer to avoid the talk overrunning.

Would I do it again? Certainly one day, although I’m already committed to running another session this year. But I am already looking forward to the latest crop of lightning talks, so do join me in the audience, eagerly soaking up our colleagues’ wit, skills and knowledge.


Sounds like fun?  If you’re interested in doing a talk, please email your proposed title and a one-line summary to editor@lucyridout.co.uk by 28 June. This year we’re looking for talks around the conference theme Context is key: Why the answer to most questions is ‘It depends’. Or perhaps you just want to watch? That’s ok too. See you there?

Tips for fearless lightning talkers

By popular demand, lightning talks are making a comeback to conference in September. At a lightning-talk session each person speaks for five minutes, and five minutes only – there will be a timer! The talks tend to present surprisingly personal revelations and excellent advice, along with a few hilarious and blush-inducing ‘confessions’. They are received with warmth and appreciation, and a lot of laughter. What’s not to like?

In our next blog post we will be looking at how it feels to be a lightning talker and what it’s like to be in the audience [spoiler: it’s great fun]. But first, Susan Milligan offers her insight and some tips for fearless lightning talkers.

Lightning talks are snappy five-minute presentations meant to enlighten and entertain

Lightning talks are snappy five-minute presentations meant to enlighten and entertain

Why be a lightning talker?

So you’re thinking about answering the call to give a lightning talk at conference. What an excellent idea – you will make a contribution, share your knowledge or one of your passions, and rise to a challenge – and you only have to keep your audience’s attention for five minutes.

Such was my thinking when I agreed to give a lightning talk at a recent conference. And so it came about that I found myself watching with detached interest a pair of shaking hands – apparently joined to my arms and holding my postcard notes but otherwise curiously remote from my person.

I not only survived the experience – I actually quite enjoyed it. Trying out new and scary things is good for your confidence. Getting your message across within a strictly limited format is a very interesting exercise and teaches you more about concise and effective language than any number of workshops.

So here are my five tips for fearless lightning talkers:

  • Write out in advance what you are going to say. How many words do you think you can speak in five minutes? A lot less than you can read. I was surprised to find that around 850 words was my limit, unless I wanted to do an impression of an express train. Even if you are not going to read out your talk – and you’re really not – this will give you a sobering insight into how much you’re going to have to leave out.
  • Practise your talk until you are familiar with it, and time yourself so that you know you can do it in five minutes. Do this before you leave home. Don’t assume you will find time to do it in your room after you arrive – time at conferences has a habit of vanishing faster than the ice in a warm G&T.
  • Supply yourself with notes in a format that will keep you discreetly on track. I used postcards onto which I had glued the paragraphs of my talk, and I used colours for cues to change slide. Postcards are good as they don’t flap about like a sheet of paper (see trembling hands above). Don’t just rely on your memory, which on the day may leave you in the lurch and go off to a different session, and don’t rely on your slides to prompt you as this will give your brain an unnecessary extra task.
  • Speaking of slides, get in as many pictures as you can. Audiences react more to an image than to words on a screen. You can be inventive and not necessarily too literal.
  • Stand up straight, take a deep breath, look your audience in the eye and smile warmly at them. You’ve already got them on your side and you haven’t opened your mouth yet. (Except to smile.) Keep looking at them and smiling as you give your talk. You will give the impression that you are enjoying it and this will suggest itself to the audience as the natural thing for them to do too.

What, is that it over already? That really wasn’t too difficult. Now you can sit back and enjoy the rest of the talks. And the feeling that you really have achieved something today.

Susan MilliganSusan Milligan joined the SfEP in 2000. She works mainly for educational and academic publishers, academic institutions and administrative bodies. She enjoys involvement in the SfEP Glasgow group, which she helped to start up, and is a mentor in proofreading for the SfEP.

Has Susan inspired you?

If you’re interested in doing a talk, please email your proposed title and a one-line summary to editor@lucyridout.co.uk by 22 June.