Know Your Audience

Nancy J. Cohen

This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to the Southwest Florida Romance Writers in Estero, Florida. Up to 25 members were present when I spoke about Social Networking for Writers and passed around my eight-page handout. We could have discussed this topic for a lot longer than the allotted hour, but our time ended and I left for home.

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On the drive back to the east coast, I reflected on how a speaker really has to gear her talk to the audience. Speaking to a bunch of writers is a lot different than giving a talk to a roomful of fans. Readers in general are eager to hear how you got published, where you get your ideas, what you researched for your story, and if you make a living at what you do. Don’t ask me why, but that question always arises. Would you ask a lecturer how much money he makes?

You’re expected to be witty and entertaining and to use anecdotes in your talk. I like to educate the public on the realities of the publishing business, so I’ll talk about the impact of the digital era, choices for writers today, and what readers can do to help authors in terms of customer reviews, Liking our pages, sharing our posts, etc. Lay persons find this information to be fascinating. Sure, I’ll talk about my books but mainly as an overview about my series and some of my research experiences. I don’t believe in doing readings or a book review on a specific title. There’s nothing more boring, IMHO, as an author’s droning voice as he reads from his own work. It’s more exciting to talk off the cuff about the publishing world and what fuels my stories.

In contrast, when speaking to fellow writers, I aim to teach. I want to get points across that they can take home and use in their own work. Motivational talks uplift and inspire writers to keep plowing ahead despite the setbacks that we all experience in this career. I’d rather give practical tips, how-to details, and specific instructions. Handouts accompany all of my workshops. This is not necessarily the case if I’m on a panel, however. Then it’s much harder to get across a lot of information because you’re sharing the time and stage. It’s good to come prepared with a few pointers regardless, and handouts are still appreciated, but having one hour to myself is best for in-depth instruction.

I’ve attended panels at writers conferences where the authors prattle on about their work, and attendees leave the room having been entertained but learning nothing new. I don’t care to attend those types of sessions myself. I’d rather go to a workshop where I can gain new insights or tips on a specific aspect of writing or marketing. Anybody can talk about himself. How many can teach in a meaningful, clear manner? Those who can’t teach will do very well speaking on panels at fan conventions, libraries and community groups.

Where am I going with this? If you have a speaking engagement coming up, consider your audience. If it’s a bunch of fans/readers, talk about your books, the publishing world, where you get your ideas, the writing process. If it’s a group of writers, target your material so they can take away something worthwhile.

If you’re a reader, what do you like to hear when you go to see an author? If you’re a writer, do you differentiate how you approach each audience?

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Panels from Hell

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


This weekend I am going down to Carmel (a favorite spot of mine) to do a panel at the Harrison Memorial library with the very talented Hannah Dennison and, since I also just received my panel allocation for Malice Domestic, I am mulling over the whole ‘what makes a successful panel’ issue. Believe me I have seen some stinkers in my time – I dread being on the panel from hell more than just about anything (except perhaps being moderator of the panel from hell…) – but what makes or breaks a panel?

  • First of course, the topic has to be interesting and one that resonates with the panelists. I was once put on a panel about hot sex and had to admit from the get-go that basically there was no hot sex in any of my books! (The panel still was great, despite that:)). However, even with the most exciting of topics there’s still a risk of boring the pants off the audience. I have seen plenty of excellent presentations on some of the most mundane topics (and let’s face it, there’s a limit to how many topics there can be on mystery writing…) and some of the most boring presentations on the hottest of topics…so there must be more to it than merely topic alone.
  • A terrific moderator – a good moderator can ameliorate against some of the worst panel sins (microphone hogging, long-winded answers, blatant and constant self-promotion) – but I’ve been on panels where it is immediately clear that the moderator hasn’t even bothered to read up on the panelists work! In my mind a terrific moderator is prepared, professional, witty and unafraid to step where angels fear to tread in order to prevent the above mentioned sins from ruining a perfectly good panel presentation. What I think turns off many in the audience is a moderator who either sits back and lets the panel degenerate into a rant/lecture/ego-fest, or one who is so intrusive it is as if she (or he) was a panelist rather than a moderator.
  • Well prepared participants. There’s no point being on a panel if you think you can just ‘phone in’ your answers without giving the topic any thought. Some of the worst panels I’ve been on have had an author who clearly spent no time at all thinking about anything except how to promote his (or her) next book at any given opportunity. The best panels I’ve been on have been where the moderator has given everyone a heads-up on possibly questions first, though this is still no guarantee that the panelists will have anything interesting to say about them!
  • Professionalism – as with all the worst panel sins mentioned, the most horrible panels occur when one or more of the participants completely takes over and (disregarding any professional courtesy to others on the panel) hogs the limelight. Equally well, the authors who ramble on for ten minutes answering the question are just as unprofessional in my book. I believe authors should treat the panel as a showcase for themselves as both a writer and a member of the writing community – so no unprofessional behavior please! My motto: Be gracious – dress for the occasion, act for the occasion, and shut-up when necessary.
  • Pass on the Jerry Springer moments. I’ve only witnessed one panel degenerate to this kind of in-fighting – but some authors do allow themselves to get carried away. As far as I’m concerned arrogance and vitriol needs to be left at the door.

So have you had any horrific panel experiences? Any tips from being on a panel or from being in the audience on what makes (or breaks) a panel? What was the best (or the worst!) panel you ever saw or participated in?

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