- by Elaine Isaak
Some of my writer-friends are just now in the happy position of being invited to speak to groups or to participate on the program at conventions. As a convention junkie and speaker myself, I’ve seen a lot of these things, and wrote up some of my insights for The Writer Magazine and our own NINK newsletter.
Most of the advice comes down to this: Make yourself useful.
Even if you are simply attending the conference, thinking about how to be more effective at networking, the advice holds true. One of its side-effects is to encourage you to think not about what you want for yourself, but about what you have to offer others.
If you’re an experienced writer or speaker, sharing the things you learned that will be helpful for new writers is a good way to start. Be as specific as you can. “Write a good book,” is useless. But a discussion of what agents and editors look for in the first few pages, a workshop on how to craft a good hook or how to escalate tension, even judging a contest can give specific, useful focus.
If you’re asked to speak to a writers’ group, try to get a sense for the range of experience levels and genre interests they represent, and gear your comments appropriately. This seems obvious, but I recently attended a panel billed as a higher-level discussion of the editor-author relationship, only to find the attitude of the panelists much more suitable for unpublished writers. If you’re not addressing your audience, then you are likely wasting their time.
In a similar vein, be wary of humor. A touch of laughter once in a while enlivens a talk or discussion, but if you treat the occasion as a joke, the audience may not be as amused as they seem. Yes, part of our job as conference speakers is entertainment–but that needs to be tempered with the focus I mentioned earlier. You may be lucky enough to be at the level of your career when people just come to listen to *you* and don’t much care about the topic. Otherwise, the audience is attending the session to hear you and/or the other panelists address the topic at hand. A fun and lively discussion about world building beats a dull one, but it also beats a laugh-fest that never touches on the reason people showed up to begin with.
And that leads me to a final point. If you don’t *know* anything about the topic, and you’re not willing or able to do the preparation for it, please decline. It’s flattering to be asked, it may feel awkard to have to say no, but it doesn’t help your audience if you don’t have anything to say–and it doesn’t help your professional reputation. In the end, being useful to your audience is the best way to leave them with a good impression–and get them to ask for more!