Saturday, October 9, 2010

Charming An Audience

**"Charming An Audience" was first printed in The SouthWest Sage, newletter of Albuquerque-based SouthWest Writers, in the August 2007 issue.
**The photo of comedian Sid Caesar is cropped from an 8x10 black-and-white glossy publicity photo given to me more than 40 years ago.
**The photo of Fred Harris signing a copy of COYOTE REVENGE for a fan, Judge Tom A. Lucas of Norman, Oklahoma, was taken by me at a Red Dirt Book Festival. (Judge Lucas is my brother.)

What follows is an excerpt from the original article.
Charming An Audience
By Pat Browning

Showbiz legend Sid Caesar gave me my first lesson in charming an audience. He was in San Francisco starring in Neil Simon’s “Little Me.” I was a new stringer for the Fresno Bee and wangled a backstage interview.

The play was hilarious. I could have laughed all night. Ushered into Caesar’s presence after the last curtain call, I blurted, “You’re a lot funnier in person than you are on television.”

He raised one of those expressive eyebrows and offered a simple explanation for the magic of live theater. He said that because I had bought a ticket, dressed for the occasion and made an effort to get myself into a seat, I was primed to think he was funny. In short, performer and audience worked together. We expected to be entertained and we helped to make it happen.

The same kind of interaction takes place when you’re selling books at personal appearances. You are the star of the show, whether you’re speaking to a library group, a book club or a mixed bag of readers and browsers in a bookstore. It all comes down to the marketing mantra: It’s not about the book; it’s about you.

Elegance is not a word I associate with bookstore signings but an event with Fred Harris at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City came close enough. A star of considerable magnitude in the worlds of politics and academia, Harris was there to promote his first Okie Dunn mystery, COYOTE REVENGE. It was another version of the performer-audience dynamic.

We were seated on the mezzanine, not far from a coffee cart. The host circulated with a carafe of wine. Harris told a couple of funny stories about writing the book and the tips he got from Tony Hillerman. He opened the book and read the first chapter aloud. Afterward, he answered questions before taking his place at a signing table.

Natural charm is a gift. Experience is earned. Standing up before a roomful of strangers may make your knees knock but it gets easier. Ask ahead of time about a podium. You need a place to lay your notes and your book. You may also need something to hang onto. Put some markers in your book so you won’t fumble when you want to read a passage.

Nothing limbers up a speaker and an audience like refreshments. You don’t have to spring for wine and cheese. Homemade cookies with tea, coffee and soft drinks work just fine. Napoleon said that an army travels on its stomach. Trust me, that distant rumble you hear is not an army. It’s the whole human race.

What the great comedian told the green reporter is as true as ever. The audience is not your enemy. The audience is part of your presentation. Whether they know it or not, the people behind those smiling faces want you to succeed. The interaction that Caesar described is 99 percent of a successful program. With a little preparation and practice you can handle the other one percent.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Nicely done, Pat, and good advice. (Sid Ceasar was one of my favorite comedians)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Pat, your post reminds me of the old song, "When you're smiling" (.. . the whole world smiles with you.) Like Jean, I loved Sid Ceasar, but his success came from knowing how to work an audience. People in every public position need to remember that interaction is based upon both parties, and if you're being paid to represent a company, then you should be putting on your best performance, representing the company in the best way. In doing so, everyone wins.

Anonymous said...

Caesar was not always perfect but when he was on, oh, boy, was he on! (:
Pat Browning

Anonymous said...


Maybe we interpreted Caesar's message a bit differently. Yes, he knew how to work an audience, but the audience was part of it. They had certain expectations and when he met them, he was a huge success.

I take his message to mean that the audience is on your side, expecting to be informed, entertained, or whatever, and their unspoken support helps you fulfill their expectations.

I can't imagine what it would be like to work a hostile or indifferent audience.

Pat Browning

Ben Small said...

Good stuff, Pat. I got over being shy as a trial lawyer. The advice is spot-on. I used to love Caesar, too. His facial expressions were hysterical. Laughter enhances audience rapport, just loosens everybody up.