Going to conferences can either be vividly exciting and interesting, or dull and eye-wateringly mind-numbing. I’ve experienced both kinds of conference, and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like the stupifying dullness of a conference speaker who doesn’t know when to stop (or, in some cases, shouldn’t have started in the first place).
But the interesting ones far outweigh the dull ones; I attended three days of a fantasy fiction conference in London one glorious summer and, whilst it might not sound like much to everyone, I thoroughly loved it. There was a large hall filled with people all of whom possessed a collective adoration of the subject matter, the organisers were also clearly invested, and everyone there just accepted the people by their side.
I’m comfortable speaking in public (I’ve done it often enough, through various roles I’ve worked in as well as through my writing career; the toughest crowd by far was certainly a class of school children – they had the most insightful and penetrating questions I’ve come across), and there have been occasions where I’ve actually enjoyed it. Those times have traditionally been when I feel confident with the subject I’m talking about, I can engage with the audience (they’re not all chatting amongst themselves and organising the next outing at the same time – I actually had this at one memorable event; it was like wading through treacle), and I can stray off-topic if I need to think on my mind because of questions or interjections.
I’m certainly not a natural-born performer – not in the same way as actors, performance poets, or politicians – but I enjoy a good crowd who are there to actually engage with the topics being discussed.
Which is why I was rather excited to be invited along as a guest speaker at the first-ever Writers Conference organised by Thanet Writers. I’ve discussed this charity in a number of different places, but let me refresh peoples’ memories; it’s a cross-Thanet writers’ group supporting all types of writers to developing their work. You don’t have to attend their face-to-face writers’ groups to be a member, not do you have to be published or have any sort of qualification. Only one out of three of those is true for me, so I’m rather typical (rather shockingly) of the whole ethos.
I’m not the only guest speaker, and that’s rather exciting; we all have the same brief, which is to talk for roughly 10-15 minutes on a topic related to writing, and join in on a panel discussion. Fair enough; I can manage that. But what will the others discuss? Can I guarantee that our talks won’t overlap? Does it matter if they do? Probably not – we’ve all got our own presentation styles that allow for overlap, although I doubt very much that any of the talks will duplicate each other.
My problem isn’t what to say, but what not to say; I’ve considered twelve different topics to talk about in the past 24 hours alone. I have a lot to say, that much is certain; that’s always the case. I’ve always got a lot I want to say, regardless of the situation, but that’s by the by. I need to consider what’s right for the audience. The size of the audience is irrelevant, to a degree, because whether you’re talking to one person or a hundred or a thousand, you’re having a conversation with them; after the first person arrives, it’s just a matter of degrees.
The audience will all have one thing in common; they will all be interested in writing. That’s a positive start; I have at least one thing in common them too, in that case, and so I need to pitch my discussion on that theme. But what’s interesting?
I initially wanted to talk about the route to publication, because a lot of writers are looking to get published, and so sharing experiences can be useful. But why is my route to publication any more or less relevant to an audience? They’ve probably heard publishing stories already; I don’t want them turning off as soon as I start talking (always a possibility, I grant you, but one I want to minimise if at all possible).
Should I instead try and find some controversial topic to discuss? The concept of writer’s block, perhaps? Trust me, it gets considered in the writer’s world more often than you realise; I’m a firm writer’s-block-denier, and am very comfortable – and vocal – in my opinion. Believers in writer’s block are equally as vocal (I know, I’ve met some of them), so I might well set off a debate I’ve had many times before. I’m always happy to have a debate, but do I really want to engage with it on the first ever such conference? Not really …
On a related note, have you ever been subjected to a speaker who relies entirely on someone else to tell them when to stop? You know the sort of person; who doesn’t write and prepare a speech, but merely has a tract that they are going to read out and then expect someone else to tell them when to finish – and they do, precisely when told, often leaving a thought untold. Or the organisers allow the speaker to continue, dramatically over-running their time slot and unbalancing the times for the rest of the speakers. I feel my toes curling in embarrassment when speakers like that begin, and I just want to grab them by the lapels, drag them off to a rehearsal space, and make them rewrite and practice their speech until it’s just the right length without needing to rely on anyone else.
I seem to be ranting now. That’s something else I’d better not doing at the conference; a well-judged passion will have some of the crowd agreeing with you and and some of them massively disagreeing with you, but at least they’re passionate. Whether they’ve fed off your passion, or felt your words kindle their own passion within them, doesn’t matter; a spittle-filled rant will just feel the audience laughing feebly – if at all – and feeling intensely embarrassed for you.
I was hoping that this blog would give me some kind of focus on what I was going to talk about – do you sometimes find that, that by talking or writing about something, it helps clarify your own position? – but I’m still as confused as ever.
Perhaps blogging is the answer. I could talk about that and why it’s an entirely valid form of expression. People often associate “proper” writing with novels or short stories, but why can’t effective writing happen in a blog? Just with self-publishing of any genre, there’s a wide variety of blogs out there; good, bad, and indifferent. There are some blogs I can’t bear to even glance at; they’re terrible. Terrible. I have gone through several iterations of mine, and edited and re-edited several pieces as my own writing style develops. It’s hopefully improved with time, and the feedback I’ve received over the years is brilliant; I can honestly say it’s helped refine my opinions, my writing ability, and my concept of what a good debate should look like.
So there you have it; I have my answer, which – ironically – this blog helped to answer. Now I have to decide what to say and how I can make it interesting; and I have ten days in which to do it. Easy, right …?