Dazzling the Audience

When I was invited to speak at the Scribbler’s Retreat Writers’ Conference in St.Simons Island, I accepted, though I hadn’t a clue how to give a speech. The last time I stood in front of a group to give a formal talk was during a speech class freshman year in high school. We were supposed to give a demonstration speech, I remember, and I decided to be clever. So, when my scheduled day came, I stood in front of the class and announced I was the representative of the Emperor’s New Clothes Manufacturing Company. I held up one invisible garment after another and proceeded to describe every style, every fabric, every frill. When I finished, the teacher frowned at me and said, “Your speech was very good, but it would have been better if you had used real clothes.”

Just goes to show you, one shouldn’t try to be too clever. And I took that to heart when I wrote my speech on “Creating Incredible, but Credible, Characters” for Scribbler’s Retreat. It was simple, more of an introduction to the art of creating characters than a full-blown exposition. I wanted to spend most of my hour showing them how to create great characters, not telling them, so I prepared a character questionnaire to help them delve deeper into the social, physical, and psychological aspects of their character. My plan was to have them create a character as a group so they could see how conflicts, plot, and subplots grow along with a character.

I didn’t have time to practice my speech before I left, so I figured I’d do it on the plane. Yeah, right. It had been so many years since I’d flown that I didn’t realize how impossible it was to do anything on a flight except get through the hours. When my idea of studying my speech on the plane didn’t work out, I figured I could do it once I got to St. Simons. That would have been a good idea except for . . . Did I mention this was a resort area? Right on the ocean? In the south? I went for a walk on the beach, and happened upon a trolley leaving for a tour of the island. I hopped aboard and was entertained with tales (and some tall tales) of the island’s history. When we returned, I was still in tourist mode, so I went to the lighthouse, and walked up all 129 steps to the top. And so the time went.

Despite not studying my speech, I wasn’t nervous. Until . . .

I’d met fellow speaker Chuck Barrett, author of The Savannah Project, so I particularly wanted to hear his speech, which came right before mine. He talked about point of view, a difficult topic that he handled well, and at the end, everyone applauded. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that people would applaud at the end of my speech, and that thought panicked me. So I went to the front of the group, thanked the woman who introduced me, and froze. Just for a second. Then I remembered that this was my party, and I could do what I wanted, so I smiled, told the story about my Emperor’s New Clothes Speech, and sailed right through the rest of my talk. I think I might have stammered a few times, but people were kind. Then, when we got to the questionnaire, I dazzled!!

Well, it was more that the audience dazzled me. When they caught on to what we were doing, their eyes lit up, and I knew I had them. Many people contributed to our character — a beautiful 27-year-old woman of French descent and a shady past. A certain fellow in her life wanted her to make them a fortune as a stripper, but she was resisting him. She wanted a simpler life, the life of a writer. She had a best friend, who loved her, and a sister who hated her. And she had a daughter she’d given up for adoption when she was sixteen.

We could all see this woman, as if she were a part of the group. Afterward, several people told me that I helped them see how to overcome problems they were having with their own characters, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. Oddly, I can’t remember the applause. I only remember looking at each of the participants and thanking them for making the experience so wonderful.

14 Responses to “Dazzling the Audience”

  1. Wanda Says:

    Hi Pat,
    I’ll bet there was applause! You’re just the type of speaker we want when we go to a conference. And how I wish I’d been there, it sounds like a lot of fun to participate in a group, building a character. I’ll be there will a lot of invitations coming your way as a speaker. Good on ya, girl.

    I’m so glad you got home safe and sound, too.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      One woman told me that she was always hoping there would be something different at the conferences she attended, and she was one who was particularly delighted with my speech. Made us both feel good.

  2. Holly Bonville Says:

    Sounds like an incredible experience. So glad everything went well.

  3. oliviacunning Says:

    Congrats, Pat! Your speech teacher should be smacked around a bit. What a dud. I had a speech teacher decrease my grade for “giving a speech” instead of just talking to the group. “How often are you actually going to give a practiced speech?” was his logic. Hmmm, let’s see. About 12 hours a week.

    Anyway, enough about me. I’m so glad this went well for you and so jealous that it was on a tropical island. My many hours of public speaking occur in Nebraska…

  4. Carol Ann Hoel Says:

    I’m not surprised. I always feel benefited by reading your posts. Blessings to you, Pat…

  5. Lisa Says:

    Hahah! Love the Emperor’s New Clothes story! And put me in the “not surprised” camp.

    Does this mean we can expect to see you at future conferences?

  6. katsheridan Says:

    I’m not at all surprised you dazzled them! You did everything perfectly. The story at the beginning made you very relateable and gave people a reason to root for you to succeed this time. Then you engaged them in active participation. A winning combination!

  7. Yosis Says:

    Hi Pat! Welcome back! We missed you while you were gone. I would have loved to hear your Emperor’s New Clothes speech – that sounds like a winner! Huge congratulations on the success of your class/speech at Scribbler’s….and I’m wondering if you’ll be posting photos of your trip?

  8. joylene Says:

    Wish I could have been there. I knew you’d dazzle ’em. Bravo, Pat. I see many more exciting lectures in your future. Maybe you’ll even make it to the Surrey Conference one day. With Donald Maass in tow.

  9. James Rafferty Says:

    Pat, I’m so glad the audience got your concept. You’ve been dazzling on Gather and in your novels for years, so I’m not surprised that the conference worked out well for you. Bravo!

  10. Deborah J Ledford Says:

    What a great experience for you, Pat. I’m sure you did indeed dazzle your audience. So happy you shared your experience with us.

  11. yobil Says:

    Pat- Fine work! A sweet updating of the old speech class dictum: Tell them what you are going to tell them (Emperors New Clothes make-it-up-yourself story), tell them (character development), then let them learn what they are ready to know (all the rest). Everyone can love you and your presentation, because the learning was all about them! Your old teacher could learn something from you….

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I couldn’t think of anything more boring than listening to me drone for an hour, so it was fun making them do half the work. I’m going to get a DVD of the speech, but you’ll only be able to see the backs of their heads, not their lit-up eyes.

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