I’m a member of a very unique writing group. We call ourselves a Jewish writing group, but we focus less on the writing – we don’t critique each other’s writing (although we would if asked) – and more on the business end of writing. By this I mean, our meetings, which happen in a teleconference room (by phone), deal primarily with platform building. We discuss how and where to get speaking gigs, where to publish our work (articles and books), where to post blogs and articles and bios on the Internet, etc. We have edited each other’sbook proposals as well. Because we are all working on Jewish books, we are able to share important leads and contacts that particularly serve Jewish writers.
In this group we have one shining star. He has not only managed to build himself a phenomenal platform based on speaking engagements, but he also used this platform to help him get a book published. Now he draws on that platform (and strengthens it) by publicizing his book with more talks. In fact, at this moment he is not participating in Write Nonfiction in November (other than writing two blogs for me), because he is too busy criss crossing the country several times in 30 days on his self-created book tour. He’s managed to get himself spots on a PBS special, into national and regional magazines, on panels with other well-known authors, and onto numerous talk shows. (And he serves as his own publicist, PR rep and media coach…)
For this reason, I asked Ron Arons, author of The Jews of Sing Sing, to tell the readers of Write Nonfiction in November how he built his expert speaker platform. I learn something from him every time my writers group meets. I’m sure you’ll learn something from him as well. If nothing else, you’ll find his success story inspirational.
Public Speaking: A Central Component for Building a Platform
By Ron Arons
The Jews of Sing Sing
For the longest time I avoided public speaking. Throughout my schooling, including college and graduate school, I was afraid to get up and speak in front of fellow students to give a report. When I entered the workforce, I was forced into giving presentations about the results of the marketing research project I had conducted while working for Texas Instruments in their consumer electronics division. Questions raised by senior management in those meetings were frequently embarrassing, exposing weaknesses or inaccuracies in the presentations’ analyses and conclusions. What a humbling experience that could be.
Realizing my weakness and discomfort in public speaking, I joined a Toastmasters chapter, which held its meetings at TI’s facility. This set of experiences boosted my confidence to some degree, but, at some point, I dropped out of the chapter, stunting any further growth as a speaker.
Years went by before I would subject myself to public speaking again. This time I was a product marketing manager at Sybase, a vendor of database software that competed with a much larger company – Oracle. As the product champion for Sybase’s products that ran on Macintosh and Hewlett Packard computers, I was called into sales meetings on a regular basis to answer questions that the Sybase salespeople could not. My ability to speak before groups of 10 to 15 people grew by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, I remained uncomfortable with the thought of talking to larger-sized groups.
A few years ago I attended the San Francisco Writer’s Conference where the mantra of “platform” was drilled into my head. One could not get a book published without a platform. Furthermore, I understood that the platform was necessary to sell the book once it was published.
Originally intending to publish a memoir about my criminal ancestor, I started to build my platform. Given my genealogical approach to writing my memoir, I thought I would apply to be a speaker at the international Jewish genealogy conference held in London in 2001. I thought I stood a good chance of getting accepted as my criminal ancestor’s childhood and his family’s story took place throughout England and because I could talk about how I did my research from afar using the Internet. My proposed talk was accepted, and I flew off to England.
My audience at the conference was much larger – almost 90 people – than I had ever spoken in front of before. I was a bit nervous, but fortune was on my side. Two minutes into my talk, people were laughing hysterically and falling into the aisles. I thought to myself, “Gee, this is fun!”
Good things continued to happen to me at the conference. Over the next few days, several people walked up to me and, in a completely unsolicited fashion, told me how much they enjoyed my presentation. One person went so far as to say that my talk was the best she had heard at the conference (which had more than 100 sessions). She continued by asking me whether I would consider giving a repeat performance at one of her local society’s meetings in Los Angeles. My speaking career was about to take off.
With every talk I gave, I not only gained additional confidence, but also built up a sizable and impressive resume. Every talk I gave made it that much easier to get the next gig. Every gig expanded my reputation as a “national” speaker.
This, of course, is what every literary agent and publishing editor seeks in a book proposal. Small or no platform, no publishing/book contract. It’s also what you need to secure speaking engagements once the book is published, whether they’re at bookstores, churches, on the radio, on TV, or elsewhere. For example, I can’t tell you how much easier it has been to get speaking engagements after appearing as a talking head on the PBS TV series, The Jewish Americans. (Admittedly, I had a bit of luck getting this gig, which is another story.)
No, I did not get on TV overnight. Building my platform took years – about seven or eight years. It started very slowly by first fighting my way into an international Jewish genealogy conference in London. The next year (2002), I gave two presentations in the U.S. The number of engagements grew like the Fibonacci series of numbers – each number in the series is calculated by adding together the two numbers that precede that number: 4 engagements in 2003, 6 in 2004, 7 in 2005, 15 in 2006, 20 in 2007, and finally, 48 engagements this year. So, you get gigs without having a book published. Mine was published only this past June.
Over time, I also expanded the types of venues I would go after. My bread and butter has always been Jewish genealogy societies. But, over time, I secured gigs at synagogues, history conferences, and Jewish community centers. Now that the book has been published, I still go back to these same organizations but have recently gone after bookstores (I’ve spoken at some of the most respected independent bookstores across the country) and book fairs/festivals. (By the end of this year I will have appeared at three of the country’s largest book fairs – the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Miami International Book Fair, and the San Diego Jewish Book Festival.) With a built-up resume, it also has become easier to obtain invitations to be on radio shows as well.
So…all of this take a great deal of time and effort. The good news is that anyone can do it if you put your mind to it. It does take patience and persistence, though. So, if you have not already started to build your platform, the time is NOW. Good luck.
About Ron Arons
Born in New York, Ron Arons was reared a goodie-two-shoes. Aside from four moving violations (including a “California” roll through a stop sign, doing 40 MPH in a 30 MPH zone, and driving with his brights on), Arons has never been afoul of the law.
Arons earned a B.S. in Engineering from Princeton University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He worked for many years as a marketer at many high-tech companies, including Texas Instruments, Ashton-Tate, and Sybase, before deciding to work full time on this book. Arons became interested in understanding his roots after he lost both his parents to cancer 16-18 years ago. In the process of researching his criminal ancestor’s past, he has traced his roots to England, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania.
In 2005, Arons won a Hackman Research Residency Award from the New York State Archives to continue his research of New York Jewish criminals. In January, 2008, he appeared on the PBS television series, The Jewish Americans, as the acknowledged expert on Jewish criminals of New York’s Lower East Side.
Arons tours the country giving educational and entertaining presentations on Jewish criminals and Jewish genealogy.