Let me check my ticket; I didn’t realize YOU were the headliner.

19 Oct

Monday I saw the author Bill Bryson give a talk at the Sixth and Eye Synagogue in Chinatown. Only a few blocks from my office, Sixth & Eye is becoming my favorite entertainment venue because I am a nerd. And Bryson, whose humorous travel books have served as my travel companions in many countries, was as delightful in person as he is on the page.

By way of contrast, do you know what is NOT delightful? The people who queue to ask questions after the talk. With the exception of the rare person who has a succinct and relevant question, there are three general archetypes:

  • Aspiring Writers – who ask for advice, but really just want everyone to know they are writers (falsely thinking themselves rare), perhaps in the hopes that an agent is lurking in the audience?
  • Big Fans – who – hoping their questions will be so impressive or thought-provoking that the author will invite them out to dinner after the talk – take full paragraphs of preamble to lead up to their question, often with written notes about favorite passages to aid them
  • Narcissists – who don’t actually have a question, but are trying to find a loose connection between the author’s talk and anything to do with them (their humanitarian cause, their name, their state of birth, etc.) so they can grab the microphone and start talking

All of these surfaced at Bryson’s talk, and he did a good job taking each in stride, including the Narcissist who asked for marital advice, just so he could announce that he had only been married for two days. (Although, frankly, if I were as dumpy as that guy, I’d probably also be driven to announce it from the rafters, because I’m sure he never thought anyone would have him.)

But again, Bryson is a class act, so he handled these folks beautifully.

Unfortunately, a few weeks earlier at the same venue, Michael Moore hadn’t had much luck with the audience, mainly because they were all Big Fans. “I’m from Flint,” the questions opened, almost to a person. (One of my friends is the Mayor of Flint – in a Facebook sense, not a FourSquare sense – so I was tempted to call him after the event to let him know he should be circulating absentee ballots at every Michael Moore talk if he’d like to save himself a lot of canvassing.)

When Moore was given the signal that it was time to wrap up the questions (by which I mean the Love Letters), there were still a dozen people at the microphone. Although most people think of  Moore as a big mouth, he’s actually a pretty nice guy – or at least I assume he is, based on the fact that he proposed a lightning round for the people still queueing with questions, rather than simply making them awkwardly return to their seats.

“You keep your questions to under 20 words and I’ll do the same with my answers, and we should be able to get through everyone who is still in line,” he suggested.

People nodded as if they would play along, but then the first dude to ask a question (Big Fan) couldn’t stop gushing about everything he loved about Moore. To Moore’s credit, he waved at him and said, “You’re over 20 words – get to your question!” I loved that.

Unfortunately, no one learned from that exchange, because every other person followed suit, including one woman who wanted to plug the work she’s doing for some humanitarian cause in Africa. Moore was a gracious sport about it, which kind of surprised me. It turns out: he has more patience than I do.

After the fifth person waxed poetic during the lightning round, I turned to Alan. “Can we leave?” Before the final syllable was out of my mouth, he was standing. I can’t handle people who ignore the rules.

Speaking of rules, I’m returning on Halloween to listen to Jeffrey Eugenides (aka: Middlesex, Virgin Suicides) speak. In preparation, I am tempted to pre-print some business cards I can distribute outside the door. Here’s my plan:

Side A:


Side B:

Please count the words uttered by anyone who asks a question tonight. Should they exceed 30 words, please STAND and start making zombie noises/gestures until the microphone is cleared. Then be quiet and wait for Eugenides’ answer. Repeat as needed.

What do you think? Effective? Any wagers on the outcome? Discuss amongst yourselves. No lines/questions permitted.

7 Responses to “Let me check my ticket; I didn’t realize YOU were the headliner.”

  1. Angela@chasingnow.com October 19, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    Great observations on the archetypes who ask questions after a talk. I suppose they feel the need to be acknowledged for their admiration, or like you said, to do a little self-promotion. I like the business card idea, but I doubt it would have any effect on the archetypes. These are probably the same people who raise their hands to ask stupid questions at the 4:30 Friday afternoon staff meeting.

    • pithypants October 20, 2011 at 8:42 am #

      You’re right. People asking questions at end of day staff meetings should – per Paul’s comment – be shot.

  2. Paul October 19, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    People who get a microphone and don’t follow simple instructions … BLAM!!!

  3. Lorna's Voice October 20, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    I’ve seen it at faculty meetings and conferences of all types, public forums, you name it: people with a microphone think they are brilliant and important. They preface their question with an oration fit for a political rally. What’s up with that?

    I love your post exposing these people for who they are. Very clever and well done!

  4. An Observant Mind October 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    Oh I LOVE your idea of the flash mob, and I you have fabulous choices in authors/activists. We may possibly have been separated at birth 😉

  5. bereccah October 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    My personal favorite are the ones who decide a meeting is the place to air their individual challenges at work, ie all the things that aren’t going right with their clients, no matter that it has nothing to do with the rest of us. BLAM is right.

  6. Karen October 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    We have a crazy conspiracy theorist in Chicago who I believe may be homeless. He shows up for everything and does a remarkable job of crafting surprisingly relevant conspiracy questions for the speakers. I kind of love watching their bewilderment in trying to compose a polite response for the poor nutcase but wish his crackpot questions were your recommended 30 words or less.

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