I am a big believer that we can learn positive things even from those with whom we have sharp ideological disagreements. I’m talking mostly about cosmetic things, and, as writers, don’t most of us need all the help we can get?
So, in the spirit of learning (and, I will almost shamefully admit, pragmatism), I want to alert you to the fact that what follows is a semi-positive look at the skills of … Brian McLaren.
As I’ve written before, in terms of biblical worldview, McLaren is from Venus and I’m from Mars (notice I gave him the nod toward love and his allegedly serene, peaceful persona?). However, as a writer and speaker, the guy has some serious skills, and I’d like to take a look at those this week, to see what we might glean from a top-selling author.
I attended a lecture last night in Little Rock, Ark., in which McLaren spoke on the theme of one of his bestselling books, “Everything Must Change.” I admit, as a conservative Christian clodhopper, that some of McLaren’s statements left me pert-near scratchin’ m’ old noggin’ (see my review of Paul Kengor’s “Dupes” for a clue).
But I digress.
I was actually there to see him in action as a speaker and how he engages an audience.
On those counts, he scores high marks, and again, there are several things we can learn – to those of you who want to “succeed” as speakers and authors. One has to have a certain skill-set to do so, and McLaren was blessed with a cup running over in those areas.
First, his talk was smooth and virtually seamless. His laptop was unobtrusively behind the screen, in the choir section of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church (breathtaking architecture!).
McLaren used a device that advances his slides, and one was virtually unaware he was even using it.
Another key: He did not overwhelm the audience with hundreds of slides, a huge blunder made by scores of speakers. Rather, he concentrated on a handful of images and spoke without notes. The guy is good!
As he bashed capitalism – to approving nods from the 200 or so in attendance – McLaren spoke effortlessly.
One curious point: By my calculations, he spoke for only 28 minutes. He also commands some serious coin for appearances, so he must be doing something right. He also took questions for about 15 minutes and kept emphasizing that not much time remained for that. My point? As the speaker, he controls the event and its pace and I frankly think that’s good.
He was not challenged by the softball questions presented in Arkansas, but he has the capacity for thinking quickly on his feet, and, like much of his skill-set, I think that can be developed. You might need to practice in front of friends and family, or cardboard cutouts, but if you want to write and speak on, say the history of quilting in America, you’d better have command of facts.
Which brings me to another skill McLaren possesses: hands-on research. He’s been to Africa. He’s been to over 40 countries and can bring rich detail and his own perceptions to any talk he gives. This is much advanced from a person who proposes to be an expert on the culinary skills of the French, but who has never crossed the Atlantic.
During his book signing (not heavily attended, but book signings are usually sparse, and it was a Monday evening), McLaren was engaging and chatty. This is his persona and his easy demeanor with his fans is proof positive that this is an important ingredient in connecting with an audience. When someone wanted to monopolize his (and other fans’) time, he gently suggested they continue the conversation at a later time.
Now, admittedly, McLaren has big marketing bucks behind him (HarperOne), but they committed those resources because he’s flat-out good at what he does. If you get the chance, take note of his blog; he answers readers’ questions and cleverly almost always refers them back to one of his books. That’s effective marketing, and he never misses an opportunity to aggressively/gently market his books.
He also actively keeps his blog current, and that is a point you should internalize. It takes work, but is a must if you want to navigate through the competition in the cyberworld.
I believe you as a writer should study writers/speakers like Brian McLaren. You can learn a great deal in how to market your stuff.
Today’s competition demands it.