Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham's talk sparked lessons for aspiring writers

Last month I had an opportunity to see a master craftsman in action — a master in the writing world, that is. Jon Meacham, Pulitzer prize-winning author of "American Lion, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," presented "Jefferson in Williamsburg" in early May as part of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's 2013 Speaker Series.

Although I'm not a student of Jefferson, or history, I am a student of writing (fiction) as a profession, and I attended the event hoping to pick up some tips to share with local authors on how to give an author talk. I think I hit the mother lode.

First on the schedule was a book signing. I arrived at the exact scheduled time, thinking the allotted hour before the talk would give me enough time to purchase a book, get it signed and find my seat. I walked into the Williamsburg Lodge expecting to see a crowd, but not necessarily what looked like hundreds of people standing politely in queue — half for the book signing and half to secure a good seat for the talk/luncheon.

As I made my way to the end of the signing line, which by that time had zigzagged through a couple different hallways, I began to doubt Meacham's ability to sign all those books, smile and say hello to all those people, and get into the next room on schedule.

I needn't have worried. The line moved quickly, and as I neared the front (40 minutes later), I saw that Meacham had an assistant who asked each person how the book should be dedicated, including confirming spellings of names.

Tip #1: Bring an assistant with you, even if you don't anticipate Meacham-sized crowds. Not only can your assistant help with things like spellings, but he/she can chat with you while you're in between readers.

Meacham's presentation began several minutes later, and I found myself drawn immediately into Jefferson's world as he spoke (seemingly without notes) about the man, his politics, his successes and failures, and his legacy. Forty-five fast minutes later, he opened the room up for a handful of questions, and in another 15 minutes, the event concluded.

Here are the lessons I took from the presentation:

Make your topic relevant

Meacham opened his talk with, "Thomas Jefferson is a son of Williamsburg." Since the event was titled "Jefferson in Williamsburg," it's not surprising that he began with a reference to the city. But Meacham did more. He used the word "son," which created a more intimate, even familial, connection with those in attendance. He had me at hello.

Know your topic

Whether you're talking about a real or fictional person, place or thing, you should know it inside and out. Meacham quoted at will, not just Jefferson, but other political figures past and present. He provided myriad details and told a number of stories about Jefferson and the history of the day that could only have come from many hours of research. (I later learned he spent four years researching his book.) Meacham went beyond the facts, however. He also gave us an analysis of Jefferson's effectiveness as a political leader and related it to today's political climate, tying yesterday's history with today's reality.

Show humility and make a connection

Meacham told a story about a woman who rushed up to him on the National Mall in D.C. She asked him to wait while she picked up his book for her to sign. He was happy to oblige, and when the woman returned, she had John Grisham's latest novel in her hand. He quipped that there is now a woman walking around carrying a book with a forged John Grisham's signature. That comment created another connection between the speaker, a man who'd achieved celebrity status in his field, and the audience. It told us he's human, just like we are.

Share personal anecdotes, to a point

Often readers want to know not only about your topic, but about you, the writer. This doesn't mean you have to reveal details about your private life, but a few humorous incidents that give readers a peek into your personal world can go a long way to building a relationship. While telling a funny story about his wife, Meacham used a facial expression to convey the punch line. Then he said, "You'll notice I didn't say anything, so you can't quote me." The story showed us a glimpse of Meacham, the husband, while respecting the boundaries between his public and private life.

Plan your time

I've given a handful of author talks and have moderated panels, and one of my biggest challenges is clock management — determining how much time to allot to each panelist or topic, while maintaining interest for the audience, and still providing an opportunity for Q&A. Without obvious clock-watching, Meacham contained a very thorough presentation to about 45 minutes before opening it up for questions to round out the hour. I presume this was a result of advance planning and preparation. While time management might seem an obvious element to consider when planning an author talk, aside from deciding what you want to say, you might want to calculate how much time you'll need to make your points. Maybe even go through a trial run to perfect your timing. The goal is to leave your audience wanting more.

And that's exactly how I left the Meacham event — wanting more.

For information about the foundation's 2013 speaker series, go to colonialwilliamsburg.com/do/special-events/speakers-series.

More Writers' Block

Leah Price blogs about our local writing community at dailypress.com/writersblock. If you'd like to share news of a new book or an upcoming writing event in Hampton Roads, please email ldprice@dailypress.com.

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