At a recent presentation, I was shocked when the audience seemed irritated because I was there. They refused to laugh at my jokes, so I began an energized speech sure to sway their misguided skepticism. I failed.
Throughout my writing and public relations career, I’ve presented hundreds of speeches and workshops. I follow a familiar routine of entering the room, greeting the participants, and embarking on proven techniques to earn an immediate laugh. The sparkle in their eyes and their animated body language tell me I have them in the palm of my hand. Surely, my provocative and brilliant oratory is destined to entertain and enlighten the world.
For paid appearances at national conferences, I arrange the details in advance and keep complete notebooks with facts about Power Point presentations, audio/visual equipment, handouts, room arrangements, conference schedules, key contacts, and important information about the audience. I’m less organized when I give free speeches to local organizations and usually pop into the meeting, do my thing, sell some books, and leave them laughing.
The Idaho Writers Guild organized a series of free workshops for local writers in the Boise area. Because I recently completed a memoir titled Frozen Dinners, I agreed to present a workshop about how to write a memoir. To prepare, I wrote and printed handouts and gathered business cards, bookmarks, and copies of my books. I promoted the event on social media and anticipated the two-hour workshop would be fun and easy.
I arrived at the Collister Library 20 minutes before my workshop and introduced myself to the staff. A kind woman escorted me to a meeting room full of a dozen women. I proceeded to unpack my supplies and arrange my books and materials. I noticed that they seemed aloof. That immediate rejection caused me to try harder and bring out my killer jokes, usually reserved for tepid audiences. This tactic didn’t work, so I kept talking, mentally scrambling to rearrange my outline. They continued to stare at me without emotion.
Self-doubt creeped over my confidence. Did they detect manure on my shoes because I grew up on a pig farm? Maybe my speaking career was over. Maybe I was a fraud. Maybe no one ever wanted to hear me talk or lead a workshop, and I should run away to live alone in the mountains. Then I noticed the women all had sewing projects on the table.
“No. This is the weekly meeting of our needlepoint club, and we’ve been discussing new patterns,” said an older woman. I imagined her name was Blanche. She was working on a floral design for a pillowcase. The others continued to stare at me, their fingers holding pointed needles in midair.
“We didn’t know why you were speaking to us,” another woman said. She resembled my great-aunt Gertrude. “But, we didn’t know how to make you stop talking.”
I’ve heard that comment before, usually from teachers, bosses, and romantic dates. I reminded myself to stop agreeing to give workshops for free.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered as I gathered my supplies and stuffed them into my bags. “I guess you won’t want my books about menopause and midlife Cabernet.” They didn’t laugh. I made a mental note to investigate any mysterious crimes committed by stoic people who needlepoint.
I hurried out the door and wandered around the library until I found the room where my writing students were patiently waiting.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” the librarian said. She didn’t notice my eye twitching. She gave a glowing introduction and my confidence slowly returned. I arranged my books and materials, again, and launched into my workshop. They laughed within the first minute. I was back, and they were mine.