What I learned from Leo Kottke

GuitaristLast month, my husband and I enjoyed an evening concert at Big Top Chautauqua outside Bayfield, Wisconsin. Leo Kottke was the featured performer, and while I wasn’t particularly familiar with him and his music, he has long been a favorite of my husband’s. The concert took place under a big tent on a beautiful September night, very near the shore of Lake Superior, and Kottke did not disappoint, either as a guitarist or an entertainer. I came away a fan…and with a new perspective on what I do when I give a book talk.

I realized that the key word is entertain.

While the need to entertain my audience remains uppermost in my mind when I write, I haven’t always kept that focus during speaking engagements. Sometimes, I get too bogged down in the details of crafting a narrative when I talk with writers’ groups, or my presentation begins to sound stale when I answer the same questions over and over from audiences of readers. If I’m getting bored with repeating the same “this is my book, why I write, how I write,” then I expect my listeners are getting bored with the same old book talk they hear from every writer.

Enjoying Kottke’s performing style convinced me I needed to think of myself as a featured entertainer when I speak, not as the featured author. Yes, the man could play amazing guitar pieces, but it was his in-between chatter that tied it all together into a neat package of entertainment. Too much chatter and it would not have whetted my appetite for his music; too much music and I wouldn’t have formed a connection to the man. Instead, he balanced the two pieces and sold me on his entertainment value – which is exactly what I need to do to find new fans of my books.

After our evening at Big Top Chautauqua, I revamped the way I approach and present a book talk.

Instead of focusing on what goes into the book when I speak to groups, I now read short selections from several of the books – selections that are particularly meaningful or funny for me – and explain where in my own life those passages came from (and I always tell it with humor!). The result has been increased active engagement with my listeners, and they become more intrigued with the books, which results in more sales after the presentation concludes. I’m getting more comments about how enjoyable/entertaining the talk was, which not only makes it fun for everyone, but also leads to a greater number of speaking referrals for me! After all, if you’ve enjoyed an event, you’re likely to come back for more – whether it’s another book by the same author, or a CD recording of a musician – because you want to tap in again to that source that gave you an entertaining experience.

Authors need to think of themselves as entertainers – both in print and in person – and then present themselves that way, too.

How do you craft your talks for entertainment?

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