Last weekend, I had the opportunity to be part of the South East Queens Annual Writers Conference at Cambria Heights Library in Southeast Queens, New York. Twelve writers read selections of their work. These pieces ranged from whimsical children’s stories to heart-wrenching sharing of abuse and trauma. They included murder mysteries, fictional narratives, and poetry poignant and humorous.
They invited me to read a few selections of my humorous “ The Learned It In Queens Communications Playbook – Winning Against Digital Distraction.” I had a proven plan. I would begin my set with an energized declaration that my book had started its life as a complaint about how Humans had mutated. Noting we had turned ourselves into a heads-down, living-in-a-bubble species. One that no longer engaged in eye contact. I would then move on to explain how I had designed an adult picture book that parodied our digital communication challenges with humorous vignettes about the quirky, daily life experiences of Queens residents. (Note – You’re probably going “huh?” right about now, but my book premise works very well!) Then I would read a few selections and bask in the audience’s warm reaction.
However, as topics went, I sensed a challenge. I was the “the other.” My subjects and approach didn’t fit into the conference offerings. Then, to make matters a bit more challenging, my fellow authors and I would only have five minutes to speak. That is a decent amount of time unless you’re me. And you have a long name. Plus, the book title takes close to a minute to share. And more than a couple of minutes to explain.
Next, they recorded the event live. So, there were no breaks or “do-overs” (translation – A Queens school kid’s slang request for another chance to repeat a play). And finally, a lovely senior citizen and library volunteer had offered to be the conference timekeeper and had come prepared with colorful discs. She would raise a yellow disc at the one-minute warning mark. Then a red disc would announce that our speaking time had ended. This activity would take place in her video rectangle in full view of the authors and the attendees. Of course, this provoked anxiety.
At first, I didn’t have any concerns because I had practiced my curated selection and had built in a time buffer. I felt confident in my ability to be ready to speak within seconds of hearing my name announced. I would start with a captivating opening line, hit all my humor points, and finish my piece under the wire, ending with a flourish and a smile. That was the plan.
But before it was my turn to go, I had to do a lot of listening. The excerpts read before my spot were intense, heart-wrenching, and breath-holding. Voices coming from their guts sharing. These pieces demanded deep and focused listening. And the selection read right before my turn? It earned a well-deserved respectful pause. I realized that I would have to figure out how to give the audience a moment to take in their experience. And then, I needed to gently pivot to my lighter offering without appearing to dismiss the other work.
So, in the moments leading up to my selection, I had my traditional discussion with my inner Queens Girl self and posed the question: “What am I going to do?” And true to form, she responded: “You are going to keep it authentic. How many times do I have to remind you? But you are going to give everyone some space to take in what they heard. Throw out anything you don’t need, but do not stop talking until you end on your key points. So, get out there and bend the rules.” Yes, my inner Queens Girl can have a bit of an attitude when she doles out advice, but she does keep it real.
So here are my Lessons Learned.
Did I change how I started my spiel (talk)? Well, I didn’t take off like a favored thoroughbred running the 4th Race at the Aqueduct Racetrack the moment I heard my name. Instead, I paused after being introduced to build in few beats of breath and space and said thank you to the audience. These small, simple filler choices showed that the tone and pacing of the next piece would be different. The audience might have heard my comments as a matter of course, but the extra minutes I spent mattered.
Did I read exactly what I wrote in the book? Of course, not! As I reminded myself during practice, the good thing about being the author is that I could reword sections without checking with anyone. In this case, it was more important to demonstrate the book’s flavor in a way that flowed and engaged the listeners.
Did I give a pitch-perfect reading? No again. Trying to cover my key points, I broke eye contact with the audience a few times as I skimmed my notes. Oh, and I know I spoke too fast at the end, even for a New Yorker.
Did I have a favorite section? Yes. I liked that I could give a big shout-out about what the Queens Community does well, celebrating the diversity of current residents. And it was fun to share a few lessons about what I learned from growing up in Queens.
Did I end on time? You know I did not. Real-life endings are not always as perfect and elegant as we would like them to be. No matter how much we envision outcomes and strategize. Flashes of red accompanied my final words. Our very dedicated timekeeper not only lifted the red disc straight up in the air with her thin and determined arm, but she began to wave the red disc back and forth in her video rectangle quite vigorously. It felt like she was waving me onto a runway at JFK International Airport. (Note to file – I sent her a note of appreciation and apology the next day!)
Did I learn important lessons? Yes. When I “showed up” at this conference, I focused only on delivering my material, being heard, and getting a laugh. A few moments into the event, I realized that while I could give a good talk, that was no longer the reason why this event was important. What made this afternoon special, was that writers were stepping up to their virtual mikes to use their voices in different and brave ways. I adapted so that I could contribute to coming together as a group. This tweak helped us share a true, virtual Front Stoop Moment. We connected and heard each other.
Yes, I learned this in Queens.
Julienne B. Ryan is the author of The Learned-It-In-Queens Communications Playbook – Winning Against Digital Distraction” and an applied, narrative storyteller, speaker, trainer, and coach. She is on a mission to improve how we communicate with each other, one authentic conversation at a time. Click on this link to learn more about her services.