In my time as a writer I’ve done a few events. It’s part of the publishing, even writing, process – at some stage, most writers will have to do a talk or a reading or an event of some kind. And at first, it’s frightening. Writing is generally a solitary pursuit, just you and the sound of a keyboard clicking away in a quiet room, so it’s a pretty big leap to go from an audience of no one to a crowded room waiting to hear what you have to say. You learn a heap from every event you do and there are some major lessons I’ve learned from my experiences – I figured they might help others in their preparation for literary events. So here’s some of the things I’ve taken in from my turns as a literary event speaker.
1. Don’t read out a totally pre-written speech. Or if you do, practise it with an audience first. I wrote speeches in intricate detail for all the early events I did. I drafted them, read them out loud, held them shivering in my nervous hands as I stood up in front of the audience. But then one day I figured something out. At all these events, I also watched other authors speak, checked out how they did it. The best of them were confident, assured characters who owned the stage. They read the crowd, they played off the energy of the room, and most of the time the didn’t read from a script. Because they didn’t have to. When you’re starting out, you get so hung up on the fact that you need to be great, you need to provide an intelligent, informative, lecture, that you start to move away from why you’ve been asked to speak in the first place. You spend so much time trying to sound like a real writer that you forget that you actually are a real writer. Your thoughts and opinions are all you need, your stories from your experiences. Definitely, it’s worth analysing the topic, writing notes, getting an idea in your head of what you might say, but you need to think about the audience, what they see. If you’re up there with your head down, scanning a print out, probably reading too quickly – do you think that’s going to be engaging for the audience? You don’t need to have intricate details, you just need an outline and some notes, then you just speak about your what you know. It comes across much more natural, more comfortable, if you can speak like a real person, rather than what you think an author should sound like. Trust me, I’ve spent ages thinking over what an intelligent author would say and trying to do that, as opposed to just saying things how I would normally speak. It’s much better to just be you.
2. The audience want to hear what you have to say. They’re not there to attack you or criticise. Most literary event audiences would love nothing more than to have the opportunity you’ve got, to be up on that stage, and they’re keen to hear what you, as a chosen panellist, can contribute to the discussion. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking, thinking of all those eyeballs looking at you, but you have to remember, again, what it’s like sitting in the audience. Would you be judgemental of someone who was a bit nervous? Who was doing their best to present their knowledge and experience? I wouldn’t, and definitely if it was clear the person was being themself, talking about how they do things, I’d appreciate it. I’d probably relate to it. The audience wants to know you, they want to know what you do. If there’s something you’re not sure about, but that’s your experience, you should just say what you think. More often than not, people will link with your struggles, they want to hear about those details too, so no need to be nervous or hide anything or try to be something you’re not. They want to hear you, you’re good, there’s nothing to be nervous about. You’re honest and real, that will resonate with the crowd.
3. Don’t drink red wine if you’re wearing a white shirt and you’re about to go on stage. Yep, this happened. When I was at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, some dude turned too quick with a glass of red and splashed my shirt, a white one I’d bought just for the occasion. That was nerve-wracking. Luckily I got most of it out and the mic stand covered the stain either way. They also used a bad photo of me that was projected onto this massive screen (you needed a picture for the entry, so I just took one of myself, not thinking there would come a time when it would be blown up to 50X and beamed into a room of tuxedoed important-types) and the host made fun of me for being nervous (in fairness, it was the perfect set-up – two very young kids had done a reading immediately before me and when I got up to the stage it was the perfect chance for him to say: ‘Geez, you’re more nervous than those two kids’ – hilarious) but the point is, be careful what you wear and what you eat if you’re going up on stage. You’re nervous already, you don’t need any more reason to be self-conscious.
4. Enjoy yourself. Literary events are fun. Yes, people paid to get in, and yeah, they’ll expect something for their money, but that’s not all on you (unless you’re doing a solo talk, in which case it is) and regardless, the event will be more entertaining if you’re relaxed. The more nervous you are, the more that’ll come across, and you’ll be able to feel it all through the room. You need to try and enjoy the moment, they don’t come around that often for most. Remember that you’ve done the hard work to get there, you are a writer, someone these people want to hear from. You aren’t a fraud, a poser whose fluked his/her way into this, you’re successful, you have experiences people want to know about. Literary events are supposed to be enjoyable and engaging. Audiences would rather you be open and alive than stuffy and academic the whole time. Relatable experiences are more resonant than hard-nosed lessons – they can read about those in any number of how-to books. Be real, be genuine, tell people about your blocks and difficulties as well as the good stuff. And have fun with it.
5. Don’t walk around flashing your ‘Artist’ lanyard expecting people to ask for your autograph. No one’s gonna’ do it, rock star. Unless you’re JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, no one’s going to be too bothered about who you are out on the street. Yes, you should feel proud that you got invited, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Ain’t no one at the food court gon’ care that you’re the keynote speaker of the day.
Overall, you need to try not to take literary events too seriously. Yes, you want to put in a good performance and no, you don’t want to go in under prepared and sound like a fool, but generally when I’ve over prepared I’ve looked more foolish than the former. You should do your research, learn what you need to know, ensure you can handle the situation. But then you’ve got to be yourself. Don’t get caught up trying to be what you think the audience want, be you. It’s the only way to truly succeed and stand out as a speaker. Authenticity will shine through much more than any lessons you’d like to impart. Trust in your ability and knowledge, share what you know, what you think the audience can learn from, and show who your are.
I was watching a clip from Russell Brand’s latest show recently. In the clip, Brand was criticising the way he is portrayed in the media, saying they regularly use blatant untruths or information clearly taken out of context. Brand gave an example of an interview he did with MTV, where the presenter asked him a generic question to finish off – ‘What advice would you give the pop stars of today?’ Being a generic question, Brand gave a joke answer – ‘They should all take heroin’. The Daily Mail, Brand says, then ran a story on this under the headline: ‘Brand Tells Justin Bieber to Take Heroin’. This is clearly a sensationalised and mis-interpreted summary of what he’d said, an inaccuracy designed to push up hits.
The sad fact of it is journalists are being forced, to some degree, to report in this way. Tabloid sensationalism has always existed, but the new emphasis on page click metrics means journalists need to do whatever they can to make readers to press that mouse button on the headline. The more sensational it is, the more clicks it’s gonna’ get, plain and simple (I have no doubt Brand knows this too, but was making the point for evocative purposes). In fact, journalism seems to be becoming more and more of a dot-to-dot puzzle of keywords, with journos weaving the story as best they can between the search terms to ensure they maximum ‘click value’, and thus, better advertiser spend.
This got me thinking about the future of journalism, and more importantly, journalist jobs. With all the focus on clicks and sensationalism, that model, at some point, loses it’s effect, right? It’s like when you watch an ad for a TV show and it says: ‘You won’t believe what happens next…’ Then you watch the show and nothing happens. At some point, those promos lose their effect because you know they’re over-selling it to suck viewers in. Surely that’s true for journalists and publications too – the publications that continue to do it will at some point wear down your trust and you’ll look elsewhere for more balanced or more realistic reporting. But traditional media providers, in particular, are been forced into this style of blatant sensationalism. They’re scrambling, doing whatever they can to keep your eyeballs with them as they battle against the rising power of social media platforms. And looking at the data, this is a battle they ultimately cannot win. Here’s why:
Your Local Newspaper is Dead Meat
I read an article the other day, published by TheNewspaperWorks, which trumpeted the ongoing strength of press publications in the real estate sector. The writer backs these claims with data showing a large number of property buyers still rely on press publications, saying:
‘…newspaper real estate sections remain a critical influence in the buying cycle…’
This information was not surprising – the average age of a home buyer is 30+, on a good wage, etc. The major threat to all newspapers is social media, and the vast majority of social media users are under 30 years old. Those two numbers alone, with no other research, correlate to the above data. What’s missing from the NewspaperWorks article is the comparative numbers – the article says the numbers are still strong, but it doesn’t discuss the trends and changes over time. If it did, you’d see that graph descending, showing that over time social media and online use is eating into all readership and advertising numbers. That number will only continue downward as the next generation of consumers, increasingly familiar with social media, continue to move into older demographic markets like real estate. It’s one thing to say the numbers are okay now, it’s another to say where they’ll be in five years time.
Local papers are becoming less relevant as people become more aligned with Twitter and Facebook. Most people get the local paper, flick through, see if there’s anyone they know, then put it down. The local press used to serve more of a purpose in regards to local classifieds and news and events postings, but people these days rely on Facebook groups for information or web searches to find local services. That drop in relevance is obviously resonating with advertisers, as Australian regional newspapers reported a 17.7% decrease in advertising spend in the last financial year. Couple this with the fact that Facebook recently flagged their next advertising target would be small businesses, and the future is looking exceedingly grim for your local paper, which is obviously a major issue for young journalists, many of whom get their career start via cadetships with suburban and regional publications.
The other factor that signals the end of local newspapers – people can now follow local identities and influencers on Twitter and Facebook and stay up to date on local news. Where they once had to wait for the local paper to be published to get an update on a story, readers can now get news and updates as fast, or faster, than the local journalists can. The relevance of that local paper in the information cycle drops with every person who joins a Facebook community group or clicks ‘follow’ on a relevant local influencer, and it’ll be almost impossible for those publications to remain viable businesses as the next generational of digital natives become the target market. There’s nothing you’ll be able to report to them they don’t already know. Within five to ten years, suburban and regional publications won’t exist in hardcopy form.
Metro publications will survive longer, but not a heap longer. The divisive move to paywalls won’t be the solution either – why would a people to access news and information they can obtain for free from their Twitter account? Twitter and Facebook also provide the users with more customisable options for the news they get, so they can not only stay as up to date as any newspaper can, but they can do so on specialised topics and not have to pay for the additional content they won’t read. Of course, the argument is that people will pay for quality content, which is true (and many niche titles have had varyng levels of success with payalls based on this model), but the newspaper is mostly news. How much of it is editorial content – or, more specifically, how much of it is editorial content that readers will pay for when they could just follow the relevant influencers and track the conversations on Twitter and Facebook and remain just as informed? Seems like a tough value proposition, and one that’s no doubt got tougher as mainstream publishers try to produce more click worthy content, what with the keywords and headlines, etc.
Pretty soon, you’re going to be telling your kids how you used to read the news on paper that you bought from the shops, the same way my Dad tells me about how they used to gather round the wireless in the days before TV.
The Generational Shift
Of course, this is nothing new, I’m not blowing anyone’s mind with some revelatory powers of predictive genius, anyone in the media sector is accutely aware of these issues. The issue people may be less aware of is how fast it’s happening. Obviously, the smartphone penetration rate is currently the biggest factor in the shift, and Australia has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world. According to data from Google, Australia’s penetration rate went from 37% in 2011 to 65% in 2013. That is a massive shift in an incredibly short space of time. While the major media corporations are definitely aware of this change, this data would suggest the death of the print newspaper is closer than many would think.
The biggest issue now facing traditional media producers is the generational shift. For the next generation of consumers, social media is already engrained in their day to day lives. It’s part of who they are. They live on Facebook and Twitter. They have no connection to a newspaper in physical form. As that generation comes through, it’ll be impossible to maintain the viability of print editions. But the change is also deeper than that. It’s not only affecting how they consume, but what they consume.
The next generation can choose the news they want see. They can follow whomever they want on Twitter for updates, get the news relevant to their interests, disseminate that with their friends on Facebook. It’s this that poses the biggest challenge for traditional media to capture. It used to be that they would tell us what the news of the day was, what was happening in the world, readers went to them for the info. But now readers can stay ahead of the curve, they can access all the information journalists can, just as fast. Now the media has to tailor their info to the readers in order to win readers with great content. It’s a significant shift in process and one many publications are struggling to combat – how do you stay relevant when you no longer control the information flow?
That’s not to say there’s no place for great journalism, there is and there always will be, but it’s getting harder for journalists to find a niche, an area they can own and make a career out of. The opportunities for journalists, in a traditional sense, are drying up and getting paid work will continue to be a challenge for all those in the field.
‘Branded Journalism’: The Future?
So what do you do? You’re a young journalist keen to get into the field, knowing you’re effectively chasing a dinosaur to ride. Will we lose great writers and insights because they need to get paid doing something else? Sure, there’s more opportunities to present your voice online, and it’s possible you could secure independent advertiser spend to fund that, but with so many voices and fewer central arbitrators, securing that sort of independence is going to remain a challenging proposal. One area that is interesting, that will undoubtedly grow as businesses push to best utilise social media platforms, is branded journalism.
It’s an element that remains key in the new media landscape – the power of storytelling. For a brand, being aware of the power of social media alone is not enough to ensure success. You can’t just fire up a Twitter account and whack on an Instagram profile and be down with the kids. Businesses need to produce shareable content. You want Facebook likes? You have to give people a reason to forward it on. You want re-tweets? People need to see the content and think ‘my followers would be keen to know this’. There has to be some substance to get ‘virality’ – it is one element that cannot be faked (or not entirely, though people continue to try). If businesses want to win in the social media landscape, they need to be active on social platforms, they need to produce engaging content that gets noticed, and they need to understand their online presence, what their target audience want to share. This was supported by a recent article by ShopSocially CEO Jai Rawat (here) in which used data from Searchmetrics to show the influence social media engagement now has on SEO. In the article, Rawat’s number one point to ensure content is more shareable and reaching it’s full engagement potential:
Great content. You know whose best placed to help businesses produce great content? Great writers.
The stories that get shared around the digital landscape are, above all, solid stories. Think about what was the last non-fiction story you re-tweeted (BuzzFeed lists don’t count). Why did you share it? What did it have that made you think your followers needed to see this? As noted on the graph above, people want to share interesting, funny and important things. Or they want to share what they’re doing, what they believe in. This is an area where businesses need engagement, they need real stories, real content that real people will read and share. Definitely, I can imagine some would instinctively recoil at the thought of their journalistic integrity being dictated by a brand affiliation, but there amazing opportunities for journalists and writers to help brands find authentic stories, real stories of people who benefit from their affiliation with the brand. Red Bull do great branded content, Under Armour does some great work – there are great brand stories to be told.
Brands that can provide engaging, interesting content to promote their products without pushing them in your face are the ones that will win the battle for social media dominance. Branded journalism will be one of the key factors in solidifying and strengthening brand image in the new media landscape, and ensuring ongoing success. The key to this will be the stories, making those links organic, making the brand a part of community discussion.
And maybe that need for stories, for intelligent, researched content, will help keep many fellow writers and journalists doing the work they love in the ever evolving media landscape.
I caught up with a writer friend today and we were talking about the difficult commercial realities of being a writer, particularly in with the current state of the publishing industry. This is an issue that’s being discussed in many writing communities at the moment (including here), and being felt by the media industry in general – with so much content available for free online, it’s harder and harder to afford to make a career out of writing, or indeed, any artistic pursuit.
One of the things we went on to discuss was the state of consumption, and how media consumption may be changing the publishing industry. We generally have an accepted story structure in mind when we view things, based on movies we’ve seen and books we’ve read. We know there’s a beginning, middle and end and we have a good feel for what should happen in between, and this is how it’s always been, according to Joseph Campbell and other academics. But it feels like we may be on the cusp of a change to the way writing and story structure is accepted.
I noted this when my three year old son was watching Superman clips on YouTube. I was watching him as he clicked through, and he got onto some of the old Christopher Reeve Superman clips, and he loved them. This prompted me to get out the orginal Superman movie to show him, thinking he’d be excited by it. But he was totally bored by the storyline. ‘Find Superman’ he said, handing me the remote to fast-forward through. Granted, he’s a three year old, so he’s not really into storylines so much, but maybe his approach is indicative of a shift. He’ll never need to sit through the boring parts, he has YouTube. Maybe he’ll grow up with a different story progression in mind because of this. Maybe, the entire way we view films and books will need to change with the next generation.
I’m sure we’ve already seen examples of this – those Transformers films make almost no sense, but they are constant highlights. It’s possible that that’s what we’ll see more of, highlight reel films and that will inform the next generation.
Now, I don’t think that will mean the death of storytelling – I think there’s actually examples in the past year of a resurgence in film story – but I do think it’s something that will drive the commercial reality of being a writer, and may become another barrier for us to climb over, which is unfortunate. I believe we’re already missing out on some great novels even being produced because writers cant afford to write them. I believe that’s the main reason most authors only ever publish one book. And it’s a shame that we can’t (or haven’t yet been able to) find better structures to ensure literature and the arts are better funded so we don’t miss out on potentially great work.
There are discussions on this, I know, and hopefully they do lead to more opportunities for artists to survive amidst the ever-mounting commercial pressures.