4 Deadly Sins of Presenting at Writing Conferences

I’m the Director of Instruction for a large (700+ people!!!) writing conference in Utah every spring. (It’s called Storymakers, and you should absolutely go, but hurry, because registration is almost full.) My job is to solicit pitches for classes, comb through hundreds of them, choose the fraction I think is best suited for our attendees, schedule 90+ classes, and recruit and coordinate all the faculty.


Actually, I do kind of love it. But after we threaten and cajole people into giving us feedback about the classes, I spend some time combing through the data to see what worked, what didn’t, and why. Although this post is what NOT to do, I’ll give you two freebies that are always crowd pleasers according to literally THOUSANDS of feedback forms:

  1. People love feeling like they have a specific tool/technique they can apply to their writing from the second they walk out of a class. 
  2. People love high energy and funny.

There’s your lagniappe. Now, to pay off on the click bait headline that brought you here: these are the most consistent complaints year after year.

Avoiding these pitfalls will land you in the firmly “Nailed It!” instead of “Failed It!” column:

1. People know when a presenter is winging it and they don’t like it. 

At our conference, someone in any given class thought they needed what that presenter was teaching more than what eight other teachers are offering at the same time. They get testy when they know the teacher threw his PowerPoint together an hour before in the breakroom. And trust me, they know. It’s like how kids can hear you unwrapping a candy bar even when you’re hiding in the closet with your bedroom door shut because dear heavens you just need a Snickers to get through it sometimes, you know? Anyway, it’s like that. They can totally sniff it out. All of the evaluations will come in independently of each other and all of them will still call the teacher out for this. It’s eerie.

2. People complain about being “pitched” or “marketed to.” 

There are times when it makes sense to discuss an element of craft in your own work but it’s a fine line before it veers into “Buy my book!” I think the line gets crossed when some unconscious part of a presenter’s demeanor is desperately hoping they’ll make a sale. The attendees just know, man. Sometimes if my own work is the easiest to use as an example, I’ll pull a section from something in progress and say, “You can’t even buy this yet, so this isn’t an ad. Now look at . . .” and work from there. It helps. They know I’m trying to make a point, not a sale. Trust me, if you’re engaging and confident, they go looking for your books and you don’t have to say a word.

3. Low energy is a bummer, man. 

Sometimes it’s just a lack of confidence that manifests as low energy, but when your audience is interpreting your discomfort that way, it tanks your evaluations. There are a couple of cases where I’ve seen presenters characterized as “condescending” or “standoffish” and because I know them personally, I know it’s just nerves. If this is a tendency you have, try to channel it into nervous energy. They’ll still know you’re nervous, but it gets them on your side. They’re waaaay more sympathetic. The comments becoming something more like, “She was nervous, but great energy.”

4. When your description in the course syllabus doesn’t match what you actually deliver, it gives the people the crankies. 

That turns into, “It was a good class, but it’s not really what I thought it was going to be about.” And then *Ding!* Off comes a point here and there. So creative class descriptions are a good way to get people to your class, but make sure they’re clear enough for people to know what you’re teaching about. And since presenters often develop their presentations long after they submit their pitch, double check that you’re teaching what you said you were going to teach. (That’s actually a rare occurrence. Mostly it’s just matter of getting your class description/blurb right.)

Ending on a DON’T is kind of a drag, so here’s one more DO: If you’re passionate about what you’re teaching, the audience comes with you. Every. Time. So DO be excited. If you’re sincerely invested in giving these aspiring writers something that will improve or even transform their writing, they’re going to be excited, and YOU are going to be invited back. Every. Time.


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

3 thoughts on “4 Deadly Sins of Presenting at Writing Conferences

  1. That sounds like a really fun job getting to coordinate all that. I've never been to a writing conference, but low energy does sound like a bummer. I don't think I'd be able to listen to someone if they didn't sound totally enthused by what they were talking about.


  2. This is excellent post! and timely for me as I'm putting together a small writer retreat here in the Riviera Maya area of Mexico in a few months. I've not heard of Storytellers but will check it out. 700+? Yikes! And I'm stressing about 12.


  3. As someone who has attended Storymakers several times, I love knowing that you listen to the feedback. And I think you've assessed it perfectly!

    I've found several people there whose books I have IMMEDIATELY purchased because I loved their classes. Others, when I see their names pop up, I still get grumpy–for the exact reasons you've mentioned.

    You and the crew do an amazing job with the conference, and it's fun to hear your insights. Thanks for the great post!


Comments are closed.