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It's funny how, if you're open to thinking in slightly tangential ways, you can learn lots of writing- or author-related things in non-authorial settings. Like that time four years ago when I posted ten lessons I'd learned from watching Top Chef. This time, my lesson was derived from recent outings at rock concerts.

Last night, my friend Lisa treated me to some Cake - not the food, but the music of the band named Cake, best-known for their songs "Distance" and "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" and their funky cover of "I Will Survive." (It was Lisa's treat to celebrate my picture book deal with the good folks at tiger tales books.) We were both looking forward to the concert, especially Lisa, who has been waiting at least two years for them to return to Philly. To summarize our evening really briefly: We didn't care for the band. Don't get me wrong - their music was fine, but they mismanaged their concert time and some of the things that came out of the lead singer's mouth were really off-putting.

Now, Lisa was with M and I last Friday when we went to see The Airborne Toxic Event in concert (their biggest hit is "Sometime Around Midnight", which I can seriously listen to on replay quite a number of times in a row - such a great song structure!), and we are all still raving about how awesome it was. So I'll be drawing some comparisons here, but I promise that you don't have to know or like the music of either band in order to follow along. Although I can't help but repeat what I said in the post about Friday's concert - if you haven't yet heard The Airborne Toxic Event, you really should. And if you are on their tour route (in that post), you should see them. Now. Before they become HUGE. Because it is my belief (and Lisa's as well) that they are going to be big. Soon. But I digress.

What I learned about public appearances

1. No matter who you are, if people have turned out to see you, it's because they want to see you. In most cases, it's because they already like you (or your work), but in some cases it's because they are curious to learn more.

2. People who turn out to see you want to like you, even if they aren't sure exactly how much they like you already. The benefit of the doubt is in your favor. If you are at least okay, they will continue to like you.

    A. If you are really good - you do a great job reading your work, say, or giving a presentation - they may well be converted into lifetime fans. This is what happened for M, Lisa and me at The Airborne Toxic Event Concert. Musically, they were phenomenal. When Mikel Jollett (the lead singer) spoke, he was genuine and super nice, and the rest of the band nodded along, made eye contact with the audience and seemed approachable. So much so that after the curtain call that came after the encore, band members came down into the audience to mix and mingle and take photos. (M has a photo of herself with Mikel; Noah (the bass player) came into the crowd a bit later - I think he changed first, and we talked to Daren Taylor (the drummer) in the parking lot, and M got a photo with him as well.) Lisa, M and I cannot speak highly enough of the concert AND of the band members.

    b. If you are a jerk or if you phone in your performance at a speech or a reading or a meet & greet or at a signing, at least some percentage of the people who were your fans before they saw/heard/met you will decide never to buy another Cake song ever bother seeing, reading or recommending you again in the future. This is Lisa's and my experience with Cake, after John McCrea (lead singer) ruined our concert experience using a variety of tactics, some of which I'll detail below, but the final straw of which involved singling out a woman in the audience during their encore who had hollered "Stop talking and sing!" (an entirely valid comment, btw) for ridicule, unleashing an angry tirade and threatening to leave the stage without having played "The Distance", which is their #1 hit. It was a completely horrible and unprofessional thing for him to do, but it wasn't the only bad behavior by McCrea and, by extension, by the band.

3. People like people who are genuine and real. During The Airborne Toxic Event concert, Mikel Jollett observed at one point what great energy there was in the room, and stammered something about wishing the band could take all of us home with them so they could play for us, and maybe we could all rustle up some lunch. It wasn't artfully phrased and it sure didn't seem rehearsed - it came across as a way of expressing appreciation for the audience. Lisa can't stop talking about how genuinely nice he seemed, and his humility definitely engaged us and everyone around us, based on crowd response and overheard comments.

I have observed this same thing time and again with writers, too, including well-known authors speaking to big crowds. For instance, I've heard and seen Laurie Halse Anderson speak at two separate SCBWI conferences (no two performances exactly alike, either) as well as at signings and at ALA. She's a rock star, because she is genuinely herself, and her concern and caring and appreciation and gratitude come across. The same can be said for John Green, whom I have heard and seen speak at an SCBWI conference, at a free public event in Philadelphia, and at a Nerdfighters' event in Lancaster County, PA. And the same can be said of superstar authors like Neil Gaiman, whom I saw and heard read from The Graveyard Book when he was on tour in support of that event, and of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and John Irving when they did their joint charity event at Radio City Music Hall a few years ago. And Lisa (my rock-concert pal) still speaks about how wonderful Daniel Handler was when she and her son went to hear him read in Philly a few years back - he was an amazing reader, and he spent several minutes talking to Ethan about life and books and music during the signing.

4. People don't like people who are fake/forced or unpleasant. I mean to say, duh. But in further support hereof, I am certain that many of you know of authors (some of whom are quite famous) who have Behaved Badly in public, and it usually puts people off. Or they've turned up for a reading, and they don't really engage with the audience at all, just do a perfunctory reading and step aside. Or they are at a signing, but they don't want to make eye contact with the people who have bought their book (sometimes multiple copies) and stood in line (sometimes for a long, long time). They give the impression that signing is a horrible chore (and I've heard from more than one friend that it can lead to some pretty serious hand pain, so I get that this may be partially true) and that they just want to get done so they can go somewhere else, kthankxbai. (Contrast this with the signing I went to last fall where Julie Andrews smiled and spoke briefly with every single person who had a book signed, in genuine appreciation of people buying the poetry anthology she edited. They told us in advance that she had a limited time there, and they moved the line along, but Ms Andrews certainly wasn't acting like she had a Very Important Dinner to attend afterwards, even though it was true.)

Last night, the majority of John McCrea's early comments to the crowd seemed rehearsed and insincere, and were blatant attempts to get the crowd to cheer through repeated use of the word "Philadelphia" (WOO! That's our city! Everyone cheer!) or self-centered remarks about the band or its music. When he later launched into an off-putting, angry rant about the music industry and the radio business (um, dude - there is a radio station AT THE CONCERT that plays you and promoted this concert heavily - have some respect/tact, why don't you?), Lisa & I (and at least half of the people in our immediate vicinity) were made quite uncomfortable. The drunk guys two rows up didn't seem to mind, and neither did the stoners to our right, but everyone else looked like they'd just as soon not have their noses rubbed in Cake's dirty laundry. Also, they seemed to wish that they'd play music instead of ranting for five-minute stretches of time. (Things like this happened more than once.) And the castigation of a woman who was only shouting what more than half the audience was thinking (less talk! more music!) was unpleasant as well. People booed. I suspect McCrea thought they were booing that woman, but I have to say that I believe they were booing McCrea's boorish behavior.

5. Encouraging crowd participation is good. Forcing it is not. Folks were singing along at both concerts, as they do. At The Airborne concert, when they started singing Happiness is Overrated, Mikel deferred to the audience on the "Oh-oh-oh well" part near the start, then asked laughingly why we sounded like we were all hanging out together in a Scottish bar somewhere (it did indeed sound a bit boozy). Spontaneous crowd participation followed by affectionate mention of it (using the plural "we") = win.

At the Cake concert, they stopped mid-song (on at least three occasions) and split the audience in half (twice it was done in a right half versus left half way, and once in a male vs. female way - and I do mean that: McCrea set it up as a competition in all three instances, and assigned parts for people to sing, and while it might have been okay once for a short time, all three sessions went on terribly long and then, on top of it all, he labelled one "side" as good and the other evil, and then eventually went off on a rant about how "you" the audience shouldn't set things up as a competition. Um, dude - you were the one who set it up that way. And wouldn't continue with the concert until you got the decibel levels you were looking for from the crowd. Yeesh. Forced crowd participation followed by criticism (using the plural "you") = loss. I suppose that's two points really - not only was the participation pretty much mandated (since they wouldn't move on until he got the result he wanted), but it was denigrated as well. (Dude. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.)

This is true at author events as well. Encouraging or allowing people to ask questions (even if it is in a presubmitted/prescreened way, as was done at Radio City Music Hall for the King/Rowling/Irving thing, the Gaiman reading and the Nerdfighters' Event I attended) allows the audience to feel that the author is approachable. This is true even if there are people who had questions but weren't "picked" as questioners, and it is decidedly true for the many people who come out and would like to ask a question but don't, either out of shyness or for some other reason. FORCING an audience to do anything too much more than weighing in on something by a show of hands (e.g., "how many of you are writers?") makes people uncomfortable at most sorts of speeches, signings, etc. (I believe an exception exists for workshops where people have been led to expect they will participate in something. That said, I once attended a workshop where the speaker made everyone read something they'd just written aloud, and there were some folks who were visibly uncomfortable with that notion despite having been warned up front that it was going to happen. Still, as they'd been warned and the speaker didn't refuse to proceed if someone passed on actually doing it, nobody seemed completely put off by it.)

6. Plan ahead and give some serious thought to pacing. The Airborne Toxic Event worked off a set list. (I know this because the band members threw them into the crowd as souvenirs at the end of the show, along with guitar picks.) Cake did not use a set list. I know this, because McCrea told us so, insisting that the band didn't "need" one, and that they didn't pay attention to anything the crowd called for, and that they played what they were in the mood to play. (The "deal with it" was only implied, not asserted.)

The Airborne Toxic Event concert went smoothly. There was a bit of patter every now and then, but nothing that was off-topic. Maybe an intro to the members of the band or a show of appreciation for the Calder quartet or the crowd or a short intro to a song (sometimes done to allow members to switch instruments, etc.) The Cake concert was . . . bumpy. They'd get the energy ramped up, then crash it with five-minute rambles or rants, or maybe a forced sing-along. Or they'd play two songs that got the crowd revved up and then drop the bottom out of the energy with two slow songs in a row (and maybe a ramble or rant as well, for good measure). It was like driving in a NYC cab that has a relatively clear road, but hits every traffic light (usually a "floor it, then stop" sort of experience).

I'm sure you've all seen speakers who had obviously planned their comments ahead of time, and you've probably seen some people who figured they'd wing it. Sometimes, people can wing it and be amazing. But I've also seen them crash and burn, and it is an uncomfortable thing to behold when that occurs.

7. That said, don't be afraid to make adjustments if something is going well (or, I suppose, badly). The Airborne Toxic Event played a somewhat low-key first half, during which most of the crowd stayed seated. They came out rocking at the start of the second set, and by the end of the second song, everyone was up - and stayed up for the third. At that moment, the band had a quick convo and launched into "Sometime Around Midnight" - after which, nobody even thought about sitting down. Since we were in the third row, it was quite obvious to us that they changed up the list because the energy had come way up and they wanted to keep it there. Well-played (pun intended), Airborne. I can't offer a corresponding or contrary story for Cake, since they had no list in the first place, although I can say that their musical preparation was really exemplary - they were quite tight in most places. And if they truly wing it with their sets, it means they are probably prepared to play quite a number of different songs on any given night, which is pretty impressive.

Either in person or in movies, we've all seen speakers who start down a particular path and realize that they are losing their audience. Something they thought was funny isn't getting laughs, or it's obvious that the crowd is losing interest, so they move on to their next point or tackle the subject in a different way. That is so much better than the people who continue on with their lecture as if they were channeling Professor Binns from the Harry Potter books, don't you think?

The extremely short version: BE PREPARED. BE POLITE. BE REAL. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. DON'T BE A JERK.

Kiva - loans that change lives
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Comments

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
wordsrmylife
Sep. 16th, 2010 10:03 pm (UTC)
And, I would add, because you imply it--Be flexible. If you see the need to mix it up, be ready to.

It's informed improv, rather like teaching (which is a performance art of its own, I have found).

What an excellent, thought-provoking post.
kellyrfineman
Sep. 16th, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks. And you are right - teaching is essentially a public speaking event. And the need for flexibility is an excellent inference!
jenlibrarian
Sep. 16th, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)
Kelly, want to send you congrats for all of your good news lately! (I have to limit my screen time for a while so I'm only popping in for a minute)
kellyrfineman
Sep. 16th, 2010 10:33 pm (UTC)
Thanks Jen! I hope I get to see you again soon!
jongibbs
Sep. 16th, 2010 10:25 pm (UTC)
Great post, Kelly. I'm glad to see that Julie Andrews is a good example :)
kellyrfineman
Sep. 16th, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks. And Ms Andrews was positively delightful.
brennayovanoff
Sep. 16th, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
I saw Cake once. They were exactly (EXACTLY) like you said. I have zero interest in ever seeing them again, and now when their songs come on the radio, I feel vaguely annoyed.

However, it should be said: Gogol Bordello opened for them, and they were amazing.
kellyrfineman
Sep. 16th, 2010 11:38 pm (UTC)
After threatening to leave the stage because they'd been encouraged to sing instead of talking, they eventually played "The Distance." Lisa and I heard it from a distance, as we walked to her car. Where she blasted The Airborne Toxic Event and hollered about listening to "some GOOD music". (There was no opening band last night. And since they've ditched their label and are maundering onstage about how they'll never be played on radio again, I'm guessing they may slowly fade into oblivion from here on out?)

I will now google Gogol Bordello.
christy_lenzi
Sep. 16th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Great lessons and comparisons!

(But I'm sad to hear how disappointing Cake was live. I love their music, especially the song "Love You Madly." Oh well...)
kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 12:49 am (UTC)
Did you notice that Brenna Yovanoff said that Cake was exactly the same way when she saw them a while back? (Here I'd hoped that perhaps it was just an off night.)

Thanks for the compliment!
mguibord
Sep. 17th, 2010 12:39 am (UTC)
I love these examples. The thought of public speaking/appearances kind of terrifies me but you make it sound doable!
kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
It's all a matter of practice, just like everything else in life. (I tell my kids that, and I think they believe I'm kidding, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that this is true.)
wordsrmylife
Sep. 18th, 2010 02:25 am (UTC)
Public speaking is definitely a matter of practice. I was talking about this with someone yesterday. She said, "Oh, but you do it all the time." To which I had to say, "But I didn't always." And then I told her about the time I was to do one of the Bible readings in church, because I was in the youth group, and I was so nervous that when I looked at down at my choir robe, my heart was beating so hard the robe was moving. But afterward someone told me how calm I looked and I realized that they couldn't see what I saw. If you put up a good front, people accept the front.
asakiyume
Sep. 17th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
Wonderful essay--thank you!

(here via jongibbs)
kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you for stopping by!
ext_258289
Sep. 17th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
Great post! I got here from An Englishman in New Jersey's blog:http://jongibbs.livejournal.com/ Enjoyed reading it very much! Great advice
kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for stopping by! (Gotta love Jon's round-ups - I always find something good there!)
yatyeechong.blogspot.com
Sep. 17th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
BE PREPARED. BE POLITE. BE REAL. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. DON'T BE A JERK

Good advice for us relating to people in general as well.
kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
I'm sure you're correct. Funny how some people can get it so wrong, isn't it? (I'm looking at you, CAKE!)
mtlawson
Sep. 17th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
That was a great article! (You can blame Jon for me stopping by, as usual. He's very sneaky at getting people to do this, you know.)
kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
He is sneaky in a very generous way, though, isn't he? Thanks for stopping by! (Is that a Scooby Doo villain in your icon?)
mtlawson
Sep. 17th, 2010 04:43 pm (UTC)
Yes, very sneaky.

And yep, you're right! That's the Ghost of Redbeard, from one of the original Scooby Doo episodes.
lkmadigan
Sep. 17th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
This is timely advice, my friend. I have some public speaking coming up ...

kellyrfineman
Sep. 17th, 2010 06:18 pm (UTC)
I am pretty certain you don't need to be reminded not to be a jerk. And congrats again on making that ALA romance list!
ext_260035
Sep. 17th, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
Sorry, but that was pathetic....
So you're one of THOSE people, huh?

You go to concerts and expect the band to play(in your words) their "#1 hit"? And you think you have some say over how they choose to pace their setlist and performance?

You know, I've been to shows where the band hasn't even played a single recognizable song, and yammered the entire time, and they were still some of the best concerts I've ever been to.

Cake is awesome. Your comments about them were not.

My advice? Stick with cookie-cutter Top 40 bands.

kellyrfineman
Sep. 18th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
Re: Sorry, but that was pathetic....
I thought Cake was awesome, too, before the lead singer behaved like a complete jackass. I still like their music, but won't bother with another of their concerts. Potato, potahto, I suppose.

I've not met you before, so I'm a bit startled to get such a nasty comment from you. No need to take people's heads off, Rob. I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to insult you, nor do I think you are wrong to enjoy a concert that isn't to my taste.
ext_260035
Sep. 18th, 2010 04:50 am (UTC)
Re: Sorry, but that was pathetic....
Agreed. That probably was a little harsh. I apologize.

However, Cake is an amazing band, they have amazing stage presence, and I think part of the reason people have a "bad" experience at their shows sometimes is because they play for undeserving audiences.

And by that I mean, the guys in that band are very smart, very music-literate, they are fantastic song-writers, amazing performers, etc., but they often have to play in front of people who maybe don't quite appreciate that because they know them from the radio, or they are expecting them to play a certain song, or they expect them to behave a certain way, or interact with their audience a certain way...and really, if you think about it, doing that would not be very rock 'n roll of them. It would rob them of some of their spontaneity and vital spark.

I think your opinion is valid, and I did enjoy reading your post because it was very well written, however, I think the band you chose as your example of how not to deal with your audience was a poor one.

For the record, I've heard the same complaints from people about musicians like Radiohead, or Phish, or any number of other artists, and I think a big part of the problem has to do with audience expectation.

For example, I saw Nirvana in 1993, a few months before Kurt Cobain's suicide, and that band was all attitude, all rebellious snarl, and they really didn't give a sh*t what their audience wanted out of them -- and yet, they put on one of the best rock shows I've ever witnessed. Yet if they were to play that exact same show today, there would be people who would be pissed because they didn't play the one song they wanted to hear. And that's kind of sad.

Personally, I just think that when we're blessed with the opportunity to see musicians as amazing as Cake performing live, right there in front of us, flaws and all, we should embrace their ethos, and not be upset when they don't conform to ours.
kellyrfineman
Sep. 18th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Sorry, but that was pathetic....
Ah. I understand your point much better now. Because this post was set up as a do/don't for public appearance, I didn't wax on about their fabulous musicianship. Which was something that both Lisa and I really appreciated - they are amazing musicians who play a wide variety of musical styles (sometimes whole hog, sometimes fusing them together, which is awesome). The music was great. I've listened to two of their CDs, and Lisa knows all of them, so it wasn't like we only wanted to hear their radio hits. And the stuff they played that's going to be on their new album (out in January, btw) was excellent.

I just wasn't a fan of so many lengthy interruptions - and I say that as a person who loves going to see folks like Lyle Lovett, who sometimes chat often - but in Lyle's case, he's usually relating a story that has something to do with a song, or a funny story that happened on tour, and I like that sort of thing just fine. It builds rapport between the performer and the audience.
ext_260035
Sep. 19th, 2010 09:09 am (UTC)
Re: Sorry, but that was pathetic....
Okay, we're cool. You obviously like the band more than your post suggested; thank you again for explaining that! I took some time to check out the rest of your blog, and I have to say, I like it! So you've also earned yourself another reader. (:

P.S. - Because you name-dropped Gogol Bordello in your post, I guess you were automatically in the "cool" column even before our little dialogue started. They are one of the best bands out there, and I whole-heartedly recommend them to all of your readers!

Anyway, Happy Writing (and Music Listening)!

Bob
writerjenn
Sep. 18th, 2010 12:19 am (UTC)
I don't know either of the two bands you discuss, but your rules for public appearances are excellent as guiding principles.

As a corollary to #5, I'll add that I hate when a speaker/comic/musical act tries to get audience participation at the very beginning of the show, when we've barely sat down and aren't warmed up at all yet. I always think, "I'm paying to be here; you're getting paid to be here; you're on the stage; so why don't you stop trying to make me do your job for you?" A good act will lift the crowd on a wave of enthusiasm where we participate voluntarily.

As a tangential point to all this performer-audience relations stuff, from the performer's point of view: Andy Rooney once wrote that if you make a good, serious point as a speaker, it's impossible to tell how the audience is receiving it, because they're quiet. Whereas, if you make a good funny point, you can tell by the laughter whether they got it.
kellyrfineman
Sep. 18th, 2010 01:26 am (UTC)
Andy Rooney probably got a good laugh with that particular point, as well. I'm not certain I agree entirely, though. A lot of times, if a good, serious point has been made, you get that hum response from the crowd. Maybe it's just my experience at so many poetry readings (mostly by others, but occasionally when I read as well). There's this sort of murmur or hum that comes back at you when a particularly good point has been made sometimes.
writerjenn
Sep. 18th, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
Yes, sometimes you do get that hum, or an "Ooh."
But Rooney wasn't trying to be funny. Most people know him as the humorous curmudgeon who does short pieces at the end of 60 Minutes, but in fact he's written several books of essays, many of them serious. That particular point came from an essay he wrote about all the ins and outs, ups and downs, of public-speaking engagements.
bogwitch64
Sep. 18th, 2010 01:18 am (UTC)
#5, IMO, is the most important one. People respond well when they are included rather than talked at. They'll be more forgiving of less than stellar jokes or and such as well if they feel invested in the person onstage.

After years working with kids from toddlers to near-adults, I can say that with certainty. :)
kellyrfineman
Sep. 18th, 2010 01:28 am (UTC)
Your way of making that point is spot on - they will forgive things that don't work if they have that "all in this together" feeling, and will quickly condemn if they have an "us against them" vibe. You see it all the times in politics, classrooms, and, well, pretty much everywhere!
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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