Charming an Audience
What the Comedian Told the Reporter
by Pat Browning
Showbiz legend Sid Caesar gave me my first lesson in charming an audience. He was in San Francisco starring in Neil Simon's "Little Me." I was a new stringer for the Fresno Bee and wangled a backstage interview.
The play was hilarious. I could have laughed all night. Ushered into Caesar's presence after the last curtain call, I blurted, "You're a lot funnier in person than you are on television."
He raised one of those expressive eyebrows and offered a simple explanation for the magic of live theater. He said that because I had bought a ticket, dressed for the occasion and made an effort to get myself into a seat, I was primed to think he was funny.
In short, performer and audience worked together. We expected to be entertained and we helped to make it happen.
The same kind of interaction takes place when you're selling books at personal appearances. You are the star of the show, whether you're speaking to a library group, a book club or a mixed bag of readers and browsers in a bookstore. It all comes down to the marketing mantra: It's not about the book; it's about you.
Elegance is not a word I associate with bookstore signings but an event with Fred Harris at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City came close enough. A star of considerable magnitude in the worlds of politics and academia, Harris was there to promote his first Okie Dunn mystery, Coyote Revenge. It was another version of the performer-audience dynamic.
We were seated on the mezzanine, not far from a coffee cart. The host circulated with a carafe of wine. Harris told a couple of funny stories about writing the book and the tips he got from Tony Hillerman. He opened the book and read the first chapter aloud. Afterward, he answered questions before taking his place at a signing table.
Natural charm is a gift. Experience is earned. Standing up before a roomful of strangers may make your knees knock but it gets easier.
Ask ahead of time about a podium. You need a place to lay your notes and your book. You may also need something to hang onto. Put some markers in your book so you won't fumble when you want to read a passage.
Nothing limbers up a speaker and an audience like refreshments. You don’t have to spring for wine and cheese. Homemade cookies with tea, coffee and soft drinks work just fine. Napoleon said that an army travels on its stomach. Trust me, that distant rumble you hear is not an army. It's the whole human race.
Carola Dunn, who writes the Daisy Dalrymple historical mysteries, confesses to being terrified the first time she spoke to a group.
Now, after years of writing, she says, "I have so many anecdotes that I could talk for three or four hours if my voice would hold out."
Here are her tips for authors going out to charm an audience and sell a book.
"Find out beforehand whether your audience is likely to be composed of mystery readers, general readers, would-be mystery writers, or would-be writers in general. Then you can tailor your talk according to what their interests are likely to be. And always leave time for questions.
"Talking to writers, you go more into the mechanics of writing — how to develop an idea into a story, for instance. Writers are usually interested in how much time you spend writing, stuff about agents and editors, do you make a living (not necessarily something one wants to answer), how you do research, how you develop characters.
"Readers are more interested in how and why you started writing, where you get your ideas (probably the two most common questions), are your settings real places and how did you choose them, and general stuff about your background — what else you do/have done besides writing. I'm always asked how I ended up in America, and usually where I come from in England.
"Of course, there's a lot of crossover between the two groups, a lot of mixed groups, and it's a rare group of readers that doesn't have at least one with ambitions to write.
"One more inevitable question: Who are your favorite authors? This one invariably makes my mind go completely blank. I suggest taking a list."
What the great comedian told the green reporter is as true as ever. The audience is not your enemy. The audience is part of your presentation. Whether they know it or not, the people behind those smiling faces want you to succeed.
The interaction that Caesar described is 99 percent of a successful program. With a little preparation and practice you can handle the other one percent.
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This article is in the August '07 issue of The SouthWest Sage, the monthly journal of SouthWest Writers, based in Albuquerque, NM.