This happened maybe 15 years ago, so the details blur. I was attending a writers conference that offered beginner and advanced classes on various aspects of professional writing. One incident stands out.
One of the sessions was conducted by a woman whose name and credentials are lost in the blur. She went around the room asking us why we were there and what our backgrounds were. A sixty-ish man said he wanted to write a novel and eagerly explained his qualifications to do so by including the fact that he had read 50 books.
Not just 50 books on writing. Or 50 books researching the subject of his novel. 50 books total. In his whole life. Nobody said anything… except the presenter. She gave a rambling reply to the man, of which I remember only this: She looked at him and said, “Fifty books is nothing.”
Cold, right? To the gentleman’s credit, while he deflated a tad, he hung in there.
Aside: To me, part of the impact of the man’s statement was the fact that he didn’t say “Almost 50 books” or “More than 50 books.” The figure was 50 books on the nose. That tells me the poor guy had been keeping count and he had reached the magic number. Onward.
The speaker said what we were all thinking but didn’t want to say to the poor guy. It was true that, for a would-be writer or anyone who purported to be a person of letters, fifty books was indeed nothing. But she handled it wretchedly.
Maybe she wanted to save him from failing by not even trying.
Maybe she was appalled that someone could have read so few books over the course of 60 years.
Or maybe she was just unfeeling and rude.
Regardless, there were better ways to say it. Then again, this woman was not a professional speaker. Rather, she was a writer and, therefore, unaccustomed to frequent human interaction.
A good speaker never sets out to embarrass an audience member. Never. Unless you’re Don Rickles, and I’m betting you’re not. (Besides, it’s a well-documented fact that people go to a Rickles show hoping he’ll pick on them.) Audiences put themselves in your hands, and when they reveal things that go counter to the tenets of your topic, you need to find a way to correct them gently.
If you’re verbally agile, you can do it in front of the rest of the audience. Or you can take the person aside after the presentation or during a break, and talk to them out of earshot of the rest of the group. And even then you’ll be nice about it.
Standing at the front of the room, you have an effect on the individual emotions of the audience members. Challenge them, sure. Change their perceptions, certainly. But do it in a way that leaves them feeling not diminished but enhanced.
Have a heart.
Jay Speyerer is both a speaker and a writer, so he comes with solid credentials of frequent human interaction. Visit www.jayspeyerer.com to find out how to get out of the way of your own language so you can say what you really mean.