I just heard from a friend who attended a conference workshop where a professor droned on endlessly, repeating what was on his elaborate, dull PowerPoint. I’ve seen this happen in the academic world myself, and it shows a profound lack of respect for the audience. What could be more boring and alienating?
But that kind of approach isn’t limited to academics. I’ve attended too many author readings and presentations where the writers seem to have no sense of their audience. No sense that the event isn’t just about them, it’s about making a connection, about reaching and moving the people in whatever the venue, whether it’s a bookstore, a library, a theater, or a hall.
I’ve seen authors reading from their books in a low, dreary monotone, barely glancing up at the audience. I was at one event like that where a writer friend next to me fell quietly asleep and woke up full of questions because she’d missed some crucial passages. She asked me as softly as possible: “What accident? Who was driving? Who was the girl in the ditch?” The answers didn’t really matter because the author kept on in his sleep-inducing mode. That was one writer who not only had no audience awareness, he had never bothered learning something basic: how to project his voice.
I’ve also seen writers allotted fifteen minutes in a panel presentation go way over their time limit and be totally oblivious to the rising tension and anxiety of the other panelists. These time hogs clearly hadn’t rehearsed at home what they were going to read and timed it. And then gone one important step further: cut the piece by a few minutes so that just in case they slowed down during the actual event, they would stay within their scheduled time slot. By going over, they were treating their fellow authors with unconscious disdain.
And I’ve seen writers make cringe-worthy comments that set the audience on edge. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to read tonight.” Really? You’re the professional, you should be sure. “This next part always makes me cry.” If that’s true, then don’t read it, because if you don’t cry people will be wondering why not, and if you do cry it’ll interrupt the flow and likely be embarrassing. And aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be moved, not you? “The reviewers hated this, but I love it.” Sorry, but a reading isn’t the time for unloading snark.
Author readings and talks are performances. They demand planning and thoughtful consideration. Anything else is cheating the audience, it’s taking listeners for granted, and not treating them with the respect they deserve. Too bad not enough authors realize that. Instead, they come to their events minimally prepared, as if all they have to do is show up, be themselves, and wait for the applause.
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres included a guide to the writing life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.