How the Talk Became Big Business

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

How the Talk Became Big Business

Authors, scientists, economists are packing venues as more and more people turn to a lecture for a good night out. How did that happen?

by
Aditya Chakrabortty

Canadian social commentator Naomi Klein, one of the big draws of the lecture circuit. (Photograph: Pawe Kula/EPA)

A speaker. A speech. A microphone. A bare stage. And - no expense
spared here - a glass of water. As an evening's entertainment, it does
not sound like much: Bruce Springsteen and his E Street extravaganza
this is not. And yet when Malcolm Gladwell,
a Manhattan-based journalist, turned up last winter to do a monologue
at the Lyceum, a West End theatre that has hosted Led Zeppelin and is
now home to the Lion King musical, he filled it - twice. Despite bitter
November temperatures, long queues formed and the first show had to be
delayed by half an hour to squeeze in as many punters as possible. All
4,000 tickets, at up to £25 a head, sold out.

What were they
getting for their money? Gladwell does not do stand-up, is not in
exclusive possession of the Lord's wisdom and cannot tell you how to
make millions from buy-to-let. A small, skinny, former business
reporter with a towering afro and hands that flutter about as if
evading an invisible butterfly net, Gladwell likes to address such
pressing issues as the quest for the perfect pasta sauce (Google the
video: it is brilliant).

That winter evening he talked for just
over an hour - about plane crashes. There was no video, no Q&A, and
his material was hardly roll-in-the-aisles stuff. Yet Gladwell pulled
it off - so much so that he is back here this week on a mini-tour,
playing just enough dates - from Liverpool to Brighton - to fill the
back of a concert T-shirt. "There are hundreds of people like me," he
says. A decade ago, a scientist, a policy wonk or a writer with a big
idea would publish it in books and articles; now they also take to the
road and talk about it - in lectures, debates and book readings. The
talk is turning into a performing art; the intellectual is becoming a
stage act.

"Talks are stand-up without the jokes," says David
Johnson, Gladwell's tour producer (now there is a sign of changed
times: a journalist with a tour manager). "You get to a certain age and
you don't want to get drunk and be deafened by some rock band or heckle
some bad comedian. You'd rather be informed instead," he says. Which is
presumably why a fortnight ago, the Nobel-winning economist Paul
Krugman packed out the London School of Economics for three nights
running. Full houses saw a middle-aged man with a greying beard and a
blue suit jovially bringing up lecture slides that showed how the
current financial crisis has left the world economy in a deep hole. It
was the PowerPoint Presentation of Doom, leavened with a fair few jokes
- and it went down a storm.

That format - light humour and
serious talk, delivered live by a big name - can be caught across the
country at regional theatres and literary festivals. This week,
Barnstaple residents can spend an evening with Paddy Ashdown and Sir
David Frost will visit Ludlow to talk about his life and times. Both
appearances will be put on by Clive Conway, who also handles Baroness
Shirley Williams, Benjamin Zephaniah and Ann Widdecombe. "It's a chance
for people to see someone they would normally see only on the TV, a
charismatic and inspiring personality," he says. "They come away
entertained but also slightly informed."

Even the highbrows now
have established performing names, guaranteed to draw a good crowd.
Lectures by Slavoj Zizek - the celebrity Leninist who resembles a cross
between a giant bear and Latka from the sitcom Taxi - sell out far
faster than any of his philosophy books. And for those who prefer their
politics served with more earnestness and less ideology, there is No
Logo author Naomi Klein, a warmer, more inclusive speaker whose
performances can sound as if she is thinking out loud.

But
perhaps the biggest talk event happens next month, when an American
organisation called TED holds a four-day conference in Oxford. Up to 60
lecturers will speak for precisely 18 minutes each on subjects ranging
from the eastern European mafia to whether solar-powered aeroplanes
will ever (ahem) take off. Tickets are going for £2,750 each (although
the hard-up get a £1,225 concessionary rate) and only 30 of the 700 are
left.

As such prices indicate, talks can make good business.
Conway started his lecture firm from scratch in 2001; now he mounts
between 250 and 300 evenings a year. David Johnson has a background as
a comedy producer, but after promoting Gladwell he wants to do a show
with the poet laureate, Carol-Ann Duffy ("She's got the makings of a
superstar"). His epiphany came in the winter of 2002 when putting on a
series of spoken-word performances in London by the US film-maker
Michael Moore. The show was a mix of polemic against the imminent war
on Iraq and broad jokes such as Moore using a leaf-blower to gust his
underpants around the stage. Most of all, it was a hit: 800 seats a
performance at up to £30 each, eight shows a week, a five-week run -
and the whole lot sold out. "That showed me there was a huge public
appetite for serious subjects," says Johnson.

Gladwell, Moore,
Krugman: you'll have noticed the predominance of US names (Klein is
Canadian). This is surely no accident, because what this shift also
suggests is that the British intelligentsia, like so many other
sectors, is becoming more American.

In the US republic of
letters, big names employ speaking agents to schedule their lecture
engagements and can expect thousands per show. Gladwell, for instance,
has spent much of his spring not writing, but talking: doing lectures,
charity fundraisers and corporate events. He has assembled a repertoire
of 12 speeches, and has memorised half a dozen of them, each about
45-minutes long. But wouldn't Gladwell's fans be happier if he
delivered a new book or 10,000-word feature rather than a talk? "One of
my musician friends has a 16-year-old daughter who never buys a CD but
goes to concerts the entire time. Me, I'd prefer the recording," he
says. "But it's so easy to get the MP3 or the printed thing nowadays
that the scarcity value is attached to the author or the musician,
rather than what they produce."

That comparison with the pop
industry is a telling one. The rock album is no longer a money-spinner;
gigs are where any cash gets made. Book sales in the UK are flat rather
than falling (hardbacks are not as easy to pirate as MP3s - yet) but
even optimists describe the market as mature. Which leaves publishers
and authors looking around for other ways to whip up business, even if
that means focusing less on books. "It used to be that when a new title
came out, you sent out copies to the reviewers and did a few bookshop
signings and that was it," says Caroline Priday of Princeton University
Press. "Now you're not marketing the book so much as the author,
looking for events and publicity for them to do all year round."

The
author-as-performer is not a new conjugation. Charles Dickens and Oscar
Wilde were accomplished public speakers, and by the 1920s
money-spinning author appearances were sufficiently well established
that the newly bestsellered Joseph Conrad gave it a go (with disastrous
results: the Polish author's English was so thickly accented that even
his private secretary struggled to understand him, and customers were
not happy at paying for incomprehension, however literary). But the
talk is no longer a one-off. It is a staple entertainment; an evening
lecture or reading has become a social alternative to the cinema. There
is just one problem with this: no one ever went into historical
research to play Wembley.

Some do rise to the challenge. Amit
Chaudhuri produces both novels and music and has successfully
experimented with performances where he showcases both. The comedian
Robin Ince is doing shows where jokes are woven around explanations of
string theory. Still, as the job title suggests, writers write rather
than necessarily talk. Some have enough difficulty socialising.

For
those without such troubles, and a degree of fame, decent money awaits.
General Sir Mike Jackson, former chief of the British army, is at a
posh hotel in Hampshire at the end of this month talking about his
life; at £55 each (including lunch), all the tickets have already gone
and the waiting list is over-subscribed too. People who have stumped up
to be there make a far easier audience than a Paxman or a Dimbleby. "TV
interviews are a form of mortal combat - they generate heat, but not
light," Jackson says. "This forum allows for more mutual comprehension."

It
also does not hurt that one in five of those listening buys the
speaker's autobiography or latest book. "This sort of audience just
wants to sit in the presence of a celebrity author and receive his or
her wisdom," says Peter McDonald, an academic at St Hugh's, Oxford.
"The audience wants the author to be a secular sage."

But mark
you, not too mystical a sage. Because writers doing talks usually have
to sacrifice subtlety and complexity. In print one can wield stats,
deploy graphs and take any amount of detours. Try such fanciness in
public speaking, and you risk losing your audience. Ultimately, a
reader may be challenged, but an audience must be engaged.

Last
week, I went to a debate on MPs' expenses in Kensington, west London.
Featuring a fine panel of historians and journalists, it was staged by
Intelligence Squared, which claims to put on "intellectual blood
sports". "People want to get out of their houses and away from their
screens," Hannah Kaye, one of the company's debate organisers, had told
me.

At the back of the hall were the couples on dates, fresh from
the bar and ready to catch a couple of hours of talk before heading off
for supper. What they wanted was party apparatchiks and duck islands,
and regular mentions of either were greeted with rousing jeers. Up in
the gallery, we were most definitely being played to - until, that is,
the discussion got too serious. Then the room temperature dropped:
London Evening Standards were leafed through, and a lady began a
furious game of Snake on her mobile.

Recklessly, one speaker
launched into a taxonomy of the alternative vote, the list system and
other details of proportional representation. On the very last row, a
woman began stroking her partner's shaved head. Whether it was meant
romantically, or to assuage pain, was not clear.

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