There was a time, way back in 2011, when a book event used to consist of an author standing in a dusty library or bookshop and droning on about himself and his work, followed by a book signing and a free glass of cheap red wine.
No longer. I have seen the future, and the future is digital.
A few weeks ago I gave a talk on the art of effective story-telling to an audience of BP marketing executives gathered in some corporate venue in London. The hosts, from business-coaching firm Tinder-Box, gave a short introduction about me, then I gave my five-point speech, and it ended with a lively Q&A session. There was even a cartoonist at the event who kindly drew up this great caricature of me. It was a well organised event, like many others I’ve done. The difference was that this time, I did the whole thing without leaving my bedroom here in Barbados.
The setup was simple – on my end it consisted of my laptop propped up on a table, with the webcam directed at my head. On their end, another laptop plugged in to a big screen on which my head was projected while I spoke, presumably with speakers to amplify the sound and fill the room. Between us, a free Skype video connection. They also used a roving microphone to make the Q&A easier, but with a smaller group people could just speak into the computer. If you can show a PowerPoint presentation, you can do a video link. It’s great.
The possibilities are not lost on me. I am a keen traveller and would like to be free to spend time where I want to. My books are published primarily in the UK, but with this setup I could be anywhere in the world and still speak at bookshops, festivals and whatever else my publishers arrange for me. Plus, even when I’m in the UK, I can have a much broader reach. My events for On the Holloway Road were concentrated mainly in London and the south-east, with a few trips to the Midlands being about the extent of my travels. A lot of this was because of logistics – unless you can guarantee a large, enthusiastic crowd, it’s simply not worth travelling for eight hours and staying overnight and having either me or my publisher or the event organiser spending a few hundred pounds on a trip to the other end of the country. Doing it ‘virtually’ opens up new possibilities, to go to small or farflung towns which have probably been bypassed by all but local authors until now.
- Of course, there are downsides as well. Although I could see the audience and they could see me, it was much harder to develop a rapport. The screen put a distance between us, and I couldn’t make eye contact with people individually or see the expression on their faces, or feel that intangible thing, the atmosphere of the event. Usually I take cues from the audience, expanding on points they seem to like, speeding up or moving on when they look bored. That wasn’t possible online. I just went ahead with my speech, feeling nervous about the outcome until the Q&A, when it was easier to gauge the mood from the number of questions they asked and the enthusiasm in the room.
- It was also impossible to do one of the main things I go to these events for, and certainly the part my publisher likes best – the part where people buy from the stack of books on the table in front of me, and I sign copies for them. Of course, any publicity is good publicity, but there’s less of a tangible benefit than in library events, when you see a queue of people buying your book at the end.
- Finally, there’s no free red wine to sip on at the end (or glug on, depending how nervous you were). It sounds frivolous, but that’s also a favourite part of book events for me. After the formal reading and speech and Q&A, it’s always nice to chat with people individually and under much less pressure. I’ve met very interesting people that way, people who were too shy to ask a question in public but were fascinating one on one. Sometimes I even learnt something new about my own book from these conversations. For all the wonders of Skype, it couldn’t emulate that aspect of the old 2011-style events.
A Few Tips
If you’re planning to do an event like this, here are a few things I learnt:
- Don’t use wireless. On a big screen, even a few technical glitches can look awful. Hook up to a fast, reliable broadband connection using an ethernet cable.
- Don’t use notes. Glancing sideways or down looks terrible on a video – you see people doing it often on Youtube, and it makes them seem unprofessional and sometimes even as if they’re being evasive. You have to look into the webcam all the time. If you really need notes, you could type them up and have them open on your screen, as long as you can juggle that and the Skype window.
- Put the laptop on a solid surface where it won’t move around, and position it so that it’s level with or even slightly higher than your head. Consider your background carefully – people will be staring at it throughout the talk. I sat on a chair with a blank white wall behind me, so that there were no distractions.
- Arrange to call a friend just before the main event, so that you can test the connection and make sure you don’t look stupid (I started out with the computer on my lap, so that it moved around and I loomed over it menacingly – a lot of what I learnt in points 1 to 3 came from this brief rehearsal).
So that’s it. Video links are not new technology by any means, but are still not used as widely as they can be, especially in the bookish world. What do you think? Can you connect with people the same way via a screen as you can in real life? Have you been to an event where someone gave a speech via video link, and what did it feel like? If you’re a writer or public speaker, have you done this sort of speech yourself? Did you experience the same upsides and downsides as me, or do you have a different take?