Monday, December 6, 2010

Steve Martin and the Perils of Not Knowing Your Audience

What do you do when you've been invited to give a talk and realize that you've lost the audience?

To make it worse, the organizers of the event interrupt you midway through and tell you to change course.

No, this is not the tale of a novice presenter. This is exactly what just happened to Steve Martin.

Last week, the 92nd Street Y invited Martin to arts journalist Deborah Solomon to discuss Martin's new novel "An Object of Beauty," which centers around the New York art scene.

Midway through the talk, the event organizers sent someone on stage with a note directing Ms. Solomon to turn the discussion away from art and towards "Steve's career."

The incident resulted in a full refund to the attendees and an apology to Martin for the hasty interruption.

Martin describes his reaction to the interruption in an op-ed which in last Sundays NYT:

This was as jarring and disheartening as a cellphone jangle during an Act V soliloquy. I did not know who had sent this note nor that it was in response to those e-mails. Regardless, it was hard to get on track, any track, after the note’s arrival, and finally, when I answered submitted questions that had been selected by the people in charge, I knew I would have rather died onstage with art talk than with the predictable questions that had been chosen for me. Since that night, the Y has graciously apologized for its hastiness — and I am pleased to say that I look forward to returning there soon, especially to play basketball.

What is surprising about this story is not the inappropriateness of the note, but rather that it got Martin so flustered!

Just goes to show, even the best presenters can get caught off guard. What happened to Martin could happen to anyone. My advice is to treat this incident as a cautionary tale.

From the Green Room: When you are invited to speak, make sure to fully discuss with the organizers the expectations of the audience and how you plan to meet them. As long as the communication is open, clear, and thorough - no "interruption" should ever be necessary.


Anonymous said...

From Steve Martin's description, it's clear that he was discombobulated by the interruption, but there is also the suggestion that he resented having to deal with the "predictable questions" about his career. While he might have seemed "flustered" by the rude note-passing ambush, I bet that the operative factor was not the unexpected interruption (which someone of his professional ability could easily cope with) but rather Martin's unwillingness to indulge in yet one more tedious spiel about his career. In my view, he was more sinned against than sinning.

Sarah Gershman said...

Great points, but how could he not expect that when most people go to hear "Steve Martin," they are expecting to hear from the actor, not the arts novelist.
If he wants to change that, he needs to make it clear from the beginning what the talk will be about - and why. Even better, the Y should have more clearly marketed the event in order to adjust people's expectations right from the start.