Thursday, June 07, 2012

Speaking Engagements Gone Bad

A Yoga Journal blog post by Neal Pollack got me recalling my own speaking engagements gone bad. I could write a book on the subject. Not to worry. I will just give you a few highlights.

Let's see, one standout was a one-shot talk during the day for a group of sixth graders. It was arranged by a PTO member, and at the time we were making the arrangements I thought it was unusual that she was talking about having me speak for an hour and ten minutes or so. Most schools have 50- or 60-minute class periods and want speakers to stay within that time frame. But I was distracted by the fact that I don't usually speak to sixth-graders and that I was going to have to prepare some new material, so the time frame went on to a back burner. When the day came and I was giving the talk, the audience wasn't terribly engaged. But I'd planned a brainstorming-type thing for the last fifteen minutes or so. I'd just started with that, a boy had started speaking rather eagerly, it looked as if things were finally going to start working for me, when a teacher stood up and said, "We have to go now." Then everyone stood up and walked out on me.

Oh, the get-up-and-walk-out thing happened at a children's museum once, too. There was a big group there and a few minutes after I started my reading they all got up and left because they needed to catch their buses.

In his Yoga Journal post, Pollack says, "Every time I land a speaking or teaching gig, no matter what the type, I always think: This is the one that’s going to break me into the big time, whatever my current definition of “big time” might be." Experience must make a bigger impression on me than it does on him, because I don't do that anymore. But I've done it in the past! I was speaking for day at a regional teachers' conference in another state, no less. Yes, indeed, I did think that it was going to be the turning point, and I would become a regular speaker at professional conferences. Well, that year, for the first time ever, they had only 40 participants. They had six different venues running all day, two other authors speaking and some other professional things going on. The biggest group I spoke in front of all day included 6 people. The last hour of the day I had 1 woman in the audience. I know she wanted to leave. I said to myself, no...freaking...way. I had planned a special presentation for that conference that I would never be able to use again, and I had slides. I made her sit there and listen to the entire hour presentation.

I arranged to do a reading and talk in a lovely bookstore in my hometown in Vermont to coordinate with a nearby school visit the day before. If my sisters and brother-in-law hadn't driven up from Connecticut for the event, I would have been reading to my aunt and my high school history teacher and his family. Harsh, huh? A turnout like that in your hometown? Could be worse. I met a guy who did a book signing in the town he was living in at the time, and not a soul showed up. And he had just won the Connecticut Book Award.

Like Pollack, I try very hard to avoid becoming attached to results. Attachment to results is a kind of desire, desiring things to be a certain way. And what does desire lead to? Unhappiness! You know what else leads to unhappiness? Fixating on the past and letting all those disastrous speaking engagements fill you with regret and despair. I am so unattached to the results of my speaking engagements and spend so little of my energy regretting those results that I'm actually planning to submit a proposal to teach a workshop at a writers' conference. I'm just not foolish enough to expect it to go well.

Have a really lousy speaking engagement you think others would enjoy hearing about? Share it in the comments.

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