WRITERS AT WORK: Dealing with Speaking Engagements (Part 3)

Hi everyone,

Tuesday means WRITERS AT WORK and today it’s my turn again to “deal with speaking engagements. My thanks to Sandy Asher for her remarks last week. As you can tell, we’re having fun with this one. And, as always, we hope to hear from you with comments or maybe some good examples from your own experiences! Here we go.

Topic 7: Dealing with Speaking Engagements
Response 3: David
May 17, 2011

Ho-ho-ho. Now we come to the fun part: complaining. Sandy and I have addressed the problems of showing up prepared for the gig. Unfortunately, the person who invites us needs to prepare, too, and the failure to do so can lead to some memorable experiences.

Here’s one from my bag of nightmares. I was invited to a school in Jefferson City. We agreed on payment and expenses. My contact would reserve a room and provide a map. There was no follow-up correspondence, which should have been a red flag. Today it would be!

I arrived at the hotel on a frigid January dusk the evening before my visit. There was no reservation and every room was taken. I called my contact. She had forgotten to book a room. The hotel clerk finally found a vacancy in a row of tiny cabins some miles away. It was as frosty inside as out. I lay on the bed in my coat, staring at the lone light bulb hanging from a cord, thinking, “They’ll find me frozen here in the morning.” Back to the hotel. I offered to lie down on the floor in front of the desk. They found a room. Needless to say, things did not improve the following day. Teachers didn’t know I was coming or why I was there. Some graded papers during my presentation. One left me alone with her kids who promptly treated me to a rousing version of good old-fashioned pandemonium.

I don’t know which memory is worse, that one or the conference in Boulder, Colorado where I flew from Kansas City to speak and no one knew I was coming. The person who invited me failed to tell the program chair or get me on the agenda. Ah well, I enjoyed sightseeing around the area for a couple of days. It’s very nice there if you don’t have to stop to go speak.

Sandy, I can hear someone saying, “Didn’t you check with these people? Didn’t you have a contract?” My indefensible answer is, “No.” But both experiences happened more than thirty years ago and times are definitely different now. For one thing, e-mail is better than letters when it comes to keeping in touch with one’s host and pinning down who is doing what for whom. I think a lot of speakers do like contracts up front and invoices after. I probably tend toward a less formal arrangement but everything each party will do is spelled out in my correspondence well ahead of the event. But let’s face it, folks, there are some deplorably incapable people in every profession and once in a while one of them will be holding the other end of our string.

Oh! I nearly forgot about book signings! Has anyone ever sat behind a table in a hallway or book store or auditorium, books stacked at hand, pen at the ready, and watched the dust settle on your shoes? I have. And again, it’s usually a matter of planning ahead to make sure that all parties agree on assigned duties before the event. I remember one book store signing that turned out to be a row of authors, each assigned a table. (I thought I was to be the only one.) A woman beside me was selling a book she had self-published and she was just plain serious about hawking her wares. No one could come within twenty feet of her without exciting her into a stand-up routine spieled off at 80 decibels, gobs a’ plenty to kill off every conversation in sight.

I’ve had great to good experience speaking in schools, festivals, and conferences, probably 90% of the time. Another 5% have been so-so. But oh, my, that last 5% will make you wish you had talked more and planned better. What do you think, Sandy? Are you a member of the 5% Club too? Anything we can do to reduce the dreaded number?