Sunday 28 May 2017

How to grab the attention of an unwilling audience by Julie Summers

Half of my professional time is made up of public speaking. I know that I am not alone in this. In these days of social media, we authors are expected to be out there, promoting our books, doing twirls at book festivals. We have to be erudite, charming and polite even when we are standing in a freezing cold marquee speaking to an audience of nine or ten, half of whom are festival volunteers. These events are often as not gratis even though, as Philip Pullman pointed out eighteen months ago when a row about literary festivals blew up, everyone else connected with events gets paid, from the technicians to the cleaners.

If a literary festival gets it right - and it is not hard - authors are very happy to speak to their audiences for as little as a warm welcome, a cup of tea or a glass of wine and perhaps a bed for the night if we have travelled for hours. One festival I went to provided absolutely nothing and I even had to pay 20p to go to the public lavatory to get changed into my festival garb. A high point of last year was Frinton Literary Festival which staged a wartime tea-party. Everyone dressed up for the event including the members of Frinton WI who came as 'Nippies', the name given to the waitresses who worked in the Lyons coffee houses in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Frinton Literary Festival 2016 
Members of Frinton WI in their Nippy uniform

When invited I talk about my research, the subjects of my books and - occasionally - about the process of writing. I enjoy this side of my life enormously and by and large I seem to get positive feedback from my audiences, large and small. I am fortunate in that the subject matter seems to chime with history groups and, luckily for me, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, who pay their speakers. When I wrote Jambusters, the story of the WI in the Second World, I could not have imagined it would give me five years worth of lectures. The WI are great consumers of their own history. And rightly so. It is a remarkable one. The Second World War was in many ways their finest hour. They kept the countryside ticking by busting bureaucratic logjams, making copious amounts of preserves from surplus fruit, feeding the farm workers with millions upon millions of meat pies and advising eleven government departments on everything from national savings and housing to education and post-war reconciliation in continental Europe. The WI had the ear of the government and the eyes to see what was happening in rural communities in England, Wales and further afield owing to their excellent connections. Sometimes I speak to groups of twenty women in a village hall or a pub, at other times I find myself faced by more than a thousand eager pairs of eyes in a theatre.

The WI's National AGM 2016, Brighton

Some of my talks, however, are to other groups that comprise both sexes. The topics that go down well with men are of course those focused on the male-dominated aspect of my work: mountaineering and war. Everest Needs You, Mr Irvine, is a talk I have given hundreds of times over the last twenty years and its endless appeal seems to be the unsolved nature of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all time: did Mallory and Irvine reach the summit of Mount Everest 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing? I can't supply the answer but the romance of the story seems to capture people's imaginations even 90+ years on from the event.

Mount Everest from the north side.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen close to the summit pyramid on 8 June 1924
Similarly, the true story of the Bridge on the River Kwai has the armchair war enthusiasts leaning forward in their seats to check that I don't get my destroyer confused with a gun boat. If they can pick me up on a factual detail they will, but they are always courteous, especially if I can prove them wrong. Aficionados seem to enjoy being corrected as well as correcting.

An enthusiastic audience of historians and family members
of Far Eastern Prisoners of War at a conference in 2010
The trickiest group of people to speak to are luncheon or evening dinner clubs. And here I have almost come unstuck on more than one occasion. In December 2015 I was asked to prepare a 45 minute illustrated talk for a male-only club Christmas dinner where the wives were invited as a special treat. That was already somewhat uncomfortable but the invitation had come through a friend of a friend so I did not refuse. When I arrived I was given a glass of mulled wine and when I protested politely that I never drink before a talk the secretary raised his eyes dramatically to the male deities above. Seated between the president and the treasurer at dinner I was summarily ignored as they discussed the time-table for the evening, leaping up and down from the table to whisper an instruction in one or other member's ear. The programme was over-running and by the time it was my turn to speak the president asked me whether I could condense my talk to twenty minutes and do it without slides. It was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I asked to be allowed to powder my nose and collect my thoughts before doing my twirl.

As I was tweaking my pale cream skirt I suddenly realised I had an ace up my sleeve. Returning to my chair and without sitting down I indicated I was ready. The president called me down to his level and said in my ear 'remember, don't go over the time. You look lovely but they don't want to be staring at you in half an hour!' I whispered back: 'Indeed not. They might be worried. I wouldn't want anyone else to know this, but I'm wearing a pair of my husband's underpants.' I have never seen anyone blush and jump simultaneously. It was a sweet moment. 

The cream silk skirt on its first public outing in 2008. 
I spoke for 19 minutes. And for the record the club did not even pay my petrol. But I felt I'd won that night. I was wearing my husband's underpants, by the way. I have not had recourse to use them since but this one unhappy evening provided me with a good story to tell.

I am not advocating a rebellion but I urge any of you who go out to speak, especially if you do it for free, to remind the people who commission you to treat you with the respect they would wish to be treated with themselves. And if that calls for a little shock, so be it.

1 comment:

Janie Hampton said...

I quite agree, Julie! The Society of Authors is quite clear on this - as professional authors we should all be paid for the part of our work that is speaking. When asked to speak for nothing I say as sweetly as possible, 'Do you ask your butcher for free sausages, because they are so tasty?'
I recently fell for a speaking invitation with no payment because it promised the potential of financial support to a girls' project I am connected to in Malawi. My reward, after a 3 hour drive to get there, was a paper plate of crisps and tepid coffee; and my 'fee' was some tealights,a prosecco-flavoured room freshener, and a 'To do' list. So far, no offers of donations have come.
And I have let down other professional author-speakers too. If we all stick together,as Philip Pullman suggested, nobody will dare ask for free sausages.