Danette wrote and said, “I’ve been asked to speak at a writing conference next year. What advice would you give to prospective conference teachers?”
Well, I’ve taught at more than a hundred writers’ conferences, and I’d probably say there are a few things to consider…
1. If you’ve only done something once, you may not be an expert. Wait until you’re experienced at your job before giving too much advice on it. My friend and fellow literary agent Steve Laube and I were at a conference once with a brand new agent. I’m sure she was a very bright girl, but her answers on the panel were awful — she was an amateur, and her responses in front of a group made her look that way. The difference between her replies and those of an experienced person like Steve were dramatic. Had she waited a year or so, in order to learn her new job, she’d have done much better. Maybe you don’t have to be in a hurry to teach. (This lesson isn’t just for agents — it’s for anyone working in an area of publishing that would be of interest to conferees.)
2. If somebody is already covering one topic, pick something else. Writing conferences have a tendency to repeat the same information, and much of it is aimed at entry-level writers. Take the time to consider some niche or alternative topics that might be of interest to that group. (Here’s an example: Most conferences these days need someone teaching a “writing for the web” workshop. Every conference needs something on the changing face of publishing, e-rights, and contracts, but few choose to cover those topics.)
3. Give participants the real deal. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of inspirational hopnoodle at conferences. Too much of the “let’s stand up and cheer” stuff, which gives people a short-term rush, but doesn’t provide them with tools they can take away and use. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of general sessions that come across more as pep rallies than reflections on the craft. When I teach my writing workshop, I have students actually WRITE stuff. When I teach my contracts workshop, I actually go through a contract. When I do my focusing exercises, people are taking the time to write their answers. You’ll find you quickly get popular with the conferees if you give them practical information. (And I’m sorry if this makes me sound like some sort of hero. I’m not. Others do this much better than I.) One example: a couple years ago, author & speaker Ellie Kay did a day-long training session at a writing conference on “how to do interviews on camera.” It was real, usable information, complete with video camera, and I don’t know of anyone who didn’t come away thinking they got their money’s worth with her material. A couple years later, people are STILL talking about her seminar. That’s the real deal.
4. If you’re going to be teaching a group, make sure you’re prepared. I don’t know about you, but I HATE walking into a class and sensing that the teacher is winging it. I figure the participants are saying, “I paid money to come, this clown is getting paid to be here, and he couldn’t take the time to organize his notes?” I also hate walking into a class and seeing the teacher look like he just rolled out of bed. They gave him the schedule weeks ago — buy an alarm clock and figure out how to iron your shirt! Most of the conferees are beginners — they need a strong example.
5. Speaking of examples, I was at two conferences last year where somebody important cancelled at the last minute. Okay, I realize that things happen. Emergencies can arise. But I happen to know that in one of these instances, that wasn’t the case. The teacher was just busy and decided not to attend at the last minute, and I find that a lousy example. People have paid money to attend these conferences. Sometimes fairly big money. I realize that, on occasion, some of those people signed up because they wanted to meet folks like me, or at least introduce themselves, or maybe pitch me their idea. To cancel at the last minute, after my face has been in the ads, and after people have paid money to attend, seems unconscionable.
More later… what advice would you like to share with conference speakers?