By Matt Gordon
Recently I spoke to a large crowd. It was a fine talk—it neither changed the world nor incited a riot. As I gathered my notes from lectern and prepared to dig a hole in which to hide—my preferred pastime after being the center of attention—a thing happened which, I realized in that moment, always happens when one speaks to a large crowd. In fact, it had already happened that day when I gave the same talk to a different crowd. That thing is that people approach you and give you their thoughts, whether you want them or not.
It seems only fair, after regaling them with your own thoughts for half-an-hour that they should be entitled to do the same. The difference, however, is that I have spent a dozen or so hours crafting my thoughts: preparing and ordering and re-ordering and practicing their delivery. Again, this doesn’t mean the talk is all that good, but it certainly means it was all that prepared. On the day in question the approaching lingerer had, at most, thirty minutes to prepare his own thoughts, but if he used the entirety of my talk to prep his own, why share with me in the first place? In a way we were present at very different talks.
Nevertheless he approaches.
He, she, them . . . these after talks reveal some trends:
- The adoring fan
Occasionally someone approaches who loves you. They love everything you said. They love the way you looked while saying it. They’ll even repeat some of it back to you. Though, on occasion, they repeat a thing you actually did not say—must have been from another talk they heard earlier in the week or something they just badly wanted you to have said? I wonder if Shakespeare ever had someone come up and share their favorite line from Romeo and Juliet only to utter verse by Marlowe? I can’t be sure on that, but I can on this: it is woefully uncomfortable to be praised by a stranger out of proportion to your praiseworthiness. Maybe if I was good at anything this all would feel warranted? But as a person who is bad at most things and average at a few, it is weird to hear things like, “That was incredible!” or “God bless you, son!” Really when someone praises you this absolutely you start to wonder if they might be a lunatic, which brings us delightedly to our next featured character.
- The lunatic
Sometimes this person and the adoring fan are one. Like at a talk I gave some time ago, a man came up and told me it was a top-twenty talk he had ever heard in his lifetime. Naturally I asked why he hadn’t listened to more than twenty talks, but the humor was lost on him and he pressed on excitedly. He told me about his life experiences. A very detailed accounting. At first I am empathetic listening to this, but as the details wander into the conspiratorial or the intimate, one begins to wonder. And then one looks for help. But alas, what you’ll find is that everyone else knows about this person. They can somehow sniff him or her out because it will be the one time following a talk when no one is around. Usually a small line of well-wishers await a word or two, the audio people are doing audio things, clean-up crews are cleaning, but in these moments of need those people all vanish entirely and with them goes any hope of your escape to lunch. Tumbleweed blows across barren plain. Your legs start hurting. You start zoning off. You begin to wonder what freedom used to feel like, and all the time, with distant eyes, the yammerer yammers. UFOs, ex-lovers, Vietnam, estranged children, hallucinogens, obscure television shows with secret meanings: it is all on the table. Except lunch. Lunch has never been further away. This is all probably a great built-in source of humility. I stand and talk to a crowd of people who didn’t have a say in it for a half-hour, and now this unshaven menace, this man of the people, gets to stand here for them and put me under similar duress. Knowing what I know, I should probably just put a sandwich in my pocket to help endure these winding, requisite lectures.
- The backhander
Before the lunatic gets you hemmed in, the backhander makes an expedient approach. The conversation with this person is always quite short, but it stays with you. Recently, after an outdoor talk at a church I was effectively backhanded. A man sidled up confidently and pointed his finger at me. If not for social distancing I would have thought him preparing to strike me. He looked angry. Frustrated. I don’t blame him—I’m very much me and he very much had to put up with that reality throughout a lackluster sermon.
“I just want to tell you,” he began very much telling me, “that when I saw the title of your talk, I was very discouraged.” Great start, guy. Thank you for your thoughtful critique. It is the antithesis of ‘You had me at hello.’
“The last thing I wanted was another ‘sermon’”—here he put air-quotes on the word “sermon” implying what we both already knew: some people give sermons and some people sub in for people who give sermons—“about the pandemic.”
“And here’s the other thing . . .” Oh good, there is another thing!
“Why do they always put the second stringers outside?”
I didn’t know the answer to that but really wanted him to leave so I could be neck-tied by the soothing absurdities of the lunatic rather than this dressing down. The truth, after all, hurts.
“But then you gave your talk and it was really good.”
He then changed the menacing point to a surprising thumbs up, perhaps the sole conversion of the day, smiled ever so briefly, and marched away, off to secret shop the world on a voluntary status.
These backhanded compliments are not rare. Here are some that have stayed with me over the span of my part-time diversion into oratory:
“When I saw you I didn’t expect much . . .”
“That was long . . . and good. But that was long. How long was that?”
“Great, great talk. You mispronounced ‘recompense.’ Really good talk. If you ever need anything edited, let me know . . .”
“For a young person you weren’t terrible . . .”
“For an old guy you weren’t terrible . . .”
“You know, I didn’t hate that . . .”
Oh, I could go on. But I’m scared someone might pop up and tell me I’m spot on which surprises them for someone with my dearth of intellect.
- The networker
I’m a nobody. But give a person a microphone and suddenly someone in the audience becomes convinced that I can help their career, we can partner on this or that thing, or that I am the type of person who actually has a business card and not the type who will accidentally leave theirs in the glove compartment of my vehicle—with all the candy wrappers—for two years until my wife makes me clean out the business cards and candy wrappers from my car.
One time the owner of a company and I got to share with a bunch of rich people on the East Coast. The parking lot was littered with Teslas like my glove compartment is littered with candy wrappers and business cards. This talk/interview was in one of the wealthiest counties in America. I was simultaneously the dumbest and poorest person in the room; so in some ways I was very much at home. But I got to talk the most, and that was all that mattered. Afterward it was a feeding frenzy, except instead of piranhas wanting to eat away at my flesh, entrepreneurs wanted to give me their business cards, advice, and ideas. They wanted that of me too, but I didn’t have any of those things. I started just giving the next one in line the business card of the person that came before him or her. This worked because none of them knew my name anyway. I may not have looked like a Professor Theresa Hardgrove or Dr. Megan Penbrook or Sir Digory Newton, but a card’s a card. Books, too. Many ended the conversation by giving me a signed copy of their book. This is true. When we got on the plane to fly home, the business owner I was with asked, “How many books did you get?” I had a small library and there was no way these would cram into my glove compartment, what with all the candy wrappers and business cards taking up space.
I don’t have a fix for this. I’m not even sure if it needs a fix. People are just people—they aren’t the most self-aware folks. I did, however, see a workaround once.
I attended a conference, and one speaker apologized profusely at the start of his talk that he’d have to rush out immediately afterward to catch a flight. This guy had figured out how to give a talk and avoid the stilted social interaction afterward! He bypassed the after talk! It was a savvy move. And I told him as much when I saw him at a restaurant adjacent the conference center following his speech. I approached warily and began, “That was the most incredible speech! God bless you, sir. And honestly I don’t usually like really long, boring talks . . . anyway, do you mind if I pull up a seat? I have ideas plus a story or two about my recent abduction that I think you’re gonna really want to hear.” I took the sandwich out of my pocket and talked on.