The author as performer

For many authors the book tour is a necessary evil. The reclusive scribe is forced into the public eye to read extracts from the podium to an indifferent audience. Authors, researchers, accountants – subject matter experts of all kinds find it difficult to speak about their passion in a compelling and engaging manner. These are introverts forced to perform unnatural extroverted acts in public. All but die-hard fans are likely to find such presentations boring.

The challenge is to take the minutia of a non-fiction book, research report, PhD thesis or chart of accounts and turn it into something audiences will find entertaining. Sounds impossible? Not so.

A modern Mark Twain

The Weekend Financial Times has a fascinating article on The Author as Performer by London ICA talks director James Harkin.

Malcolm GladwellHe reviews author Malcolm Gladwell’s presenting material from his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success:

…this wasn’t a book reading or a Q&A session of the kind authors traditionally submit to. Neither was it a slide show, as you might expect to find at a lecture. Instead, the author recounted a single vignette from the book – the tale of why a plane ended up crashing, from the perspective of the pilots and those in the control tower – and burnished it into a narrative with all the chill and pace of a traditional ghost story. Even the lighting was kept deliberately low to create the right atmosphere. The performance lasted precisely an hour and five minutes, and no questions were invited after Gladwell had finished speaking. Rather than a talk about a book, it looked more like a carefully choreographed stage show.

Harkin recalls that Dickens and Mark Twain packed lecture halls in the US and Britain back in the 19th century.

Ted ConferenceContemporary events such as the TED conference showcase “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”. Speakers at TED are limited to 18 minutes in which to present their case – just long enough, according to the organizers, to develop an argument but short enough to hold people’s attention and encourage an economy of language. No questions are invited.

Speakers must adhere to the “TED Commandments” of speaking. These include: “Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out Thy Usual Shtick”; “Thou Shalt Tell a Story”; and “Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.”

The speaker as showman

The TED injunctions seem to work. In 2007, following his complex graphical presentation of economic trends, Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of public health, tore off his shirt and proceeded to swallow a sword. The following year American brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, talking about the memory of her stroke, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and picked a real and soggy-looking human brain from an assistant’s tray.

Al Gore delivered a masterful presentation in his award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, by adding a touches of drama to what could have been no more than a glorified slide show.

It’s only rock and roll

Harkin notes that the trend toward speaker-as-rock-star signifies a shift in the economics of book publishing which mirrors the economics of the music industry.

Just as rock bands, in the age of digital MP3’s, give away the music and make the money off live performances, so authors might learn from the same kind of business model: supplementing meager returns from a book contract with an income stream from public speaking.

This is not news to the many author-members of the National Speakers Association. They are speakers who write, rather than writers who speak. As I’ve reported in this blog, they hold day-long seminars on topics such as publishing tips for speakers. Being natural performers, they are in the pole position to make money from the podium as well as the page.

Harkin reports that a select group of non-fiction authors with a business or technology focus have been able to command high fees for speaking privately at corporate events.

The new economics of publishing are bringing these exclusive presentations to a wider public.

Performance Piece

As in the time of Dickens and Twain, audiences seem willing to pay good money for a speech which informs and entertains.

Harkin notes:

When almost everything is available in a digital world of zeroes and ones, the thing that is impossible to duplicate is the intensely involving experience of live performance.
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That’s why people are still prepared to pay big money for live music, and why people choose to pay £20 for a one-off performance by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s why, in the past two years at the ICA our talks have been accompanied by everything from live butchery to live beard-trimming to the sudden appearance of dancing girls.

The challenge for many authors – especially of the dryer kind of non-fiction book – is how to make their words come alive on stage. It’s one thing for the author of a racy novel to hold an audience’s attention. After all, as someone once said, if you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

But if your subject is cost accounting or nanotechnology, you’ll need a solid grounding in the ways subject matter experts can make an audience sit up and take notice when you’re presenting complex information.

The good news is that authors like Gladwell and the organizers of the TED Conference have cracked the code on this and are packing ’em in.

Now the bar has been raised, what will you do differently to turn your next talk into a performance piece?

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