The event flatlined less than halfway through it’s 90-minute life cycle. No one could have predicted the outcome and, yet, someone still should have seen the buzzards circling very early in the process. By the end of the evening, there was blood on the floor.
|Steve Martin with Deborah Solomon|
The price was $50. It all seemed like a fantastic and inexpensive way to spend an evening with a comedic legend. All 900 tickets sold out (and, I would imagine, quickly). What could possibly go wrong?
By now, the New York daily newspapers have all documented how, shortly into the event, the audience (both at the event and watching online) began to grumble their dissatisfaction and how, despite best efforts by event organizers to steer the discussion back on track, ultimately, an evening with Steve Martin was a massive train wreck.
So, what went wrong? Who is to blame? And, most importantly, what can we learn from this?
What went wrong?
The main problem that lead to this event #FAIL is the fact that the audience felt the interview (moderated by journalist, author and cultural critic Deborah Solomon) focused too heavily on the art world (which is the subject of Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty).
Audience expectations are based primarily on the event description in its literature and on its website.Â The deal is, “We’ll give you x-y-z if you will pay $____.” In this case, based on the event description above which gives no clear indication as to exactly what the conversation between Ms. Solomon and Mr. Martin would be, far too much was left to the imagination by event organizers. While it’s expected that a reasonable amount of time will be dedicated to plugging the artist’s latest project, doing so entirely at the expense of discussing the career highs and lows that made Martin a legend is hopelessly naive and narrow-minded on the part of the moderator. The audience paid $50 to connect with a man they grew up watching for the past 30 years. They wanted an intimate conversation with an old friend reminiscing about old times, not an art lesson. Whether you agree with this or not, the fact is: at events, the audience wants what they want and they are determined to get it when they have to pay a price for it.
Which brings me to the second problem: according to The New York Times, event management desperately attempted to change the course of the discussion between Martin and Solomon by handing her a note, on -stage, during the event (embarrassing but necessary):
viewers watching the interview by closed-circuit television from across the country sent e-mails to the Y complaining ‘that the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art’. The audience cheered when Ms. Solomon read aloud the note.
This is analogous to the captain and crew aboard the Titanic attempting to shift course after they hit the iceberg. By then, the wheels and circumstances for a huge disaster were already well in place and, once momentum took over, it was almost impossible to reverse.
For most people, receiving a hand-written note during your panel that effectively says “The audience thinks you suck. Change course!” would’ve been a wakeup call (after all, the audience has spoken – end of story). But Ms. Solomon (clearly the last of a dying breed of journalists who have no interest in audience participation) was said to have been “appalled” to have been criticized publicly. The audience, however, cheered when she read the note of rebuke. Ouch. She’s lucky to have walked out of there in one piece (this was, after all, a New York audience).
According to Ms. Solomon (who thought the interview, up until then, had been going “swimmingly well”), the 92nd Street Y never gave her clear instructions on what she was to discuss with Mr. Martin. Based on the vague description of the event on the website, I’m inclined to believe she is telling the truth but that does not exonerate her from having blood on her hands in this disaster. She should share in the blame of having killed what should have been a perfectly vibrant and entertaining discussion.
So, who is to blame for making Steve Martin unbearably boring?
92nd Street Y: Any failed event is the fault of the event organizers. I believe this strongly. There are things that happen beyond our control and there are errors we naturally make as human beings that we learn from and pay for dearly. This event failure was the culmination of lazy organizing by 92nd Street Y. It is not enough to have a legendary, celebrated speaker and journalist moderator on stage and expect glory. Clear instructions should have been given to the moderator on the topic of discussion and the moderator’s presentation should’ve been reviewed before the event. The description of the event on the website should have also include a simple outline of the discussion between moderator and guest. This way, both the moderator and the audience would have been prepared for the details of the discussion in advance of the event. To their credit, the organizers at 92nd Street Y attempted to change course during the event and, when that didn’t work, issued a public apology to audience members after the event, admitted they screwed up and issued everyone a $50 refund.
Deborah Solomon: Ms. Solomon clearly was out-of-touch with the audience and, perhaps, let her ego take her on a trip no one else was willing to go on (especially for $50 a ticket). Her miscalculations aside, once the audience clearly voiced their discontent, Ms. Solomon (according to the New York Times) refused to change the topic of the interview. Had she listened to the audience and the event organizers, the event could’ve not only been brought back to life, but it could’ve been a success. It is clear that Ms. Solomon has a lack of regard for audience input. The concept of social media and audience participation should be explained to her and should’ve been incorporated into her presentation.
Although Steve Martin himself attempted to defend Solomon by saying she is an “outstanding interviewer” and by pointing out their previously well-received interviews together, it would be wise for 92nd Street Y (and all event organizers) to remember that a great journalist does not necessarily make for a great moderator in front of a live audience (just ask Businessweek journalist Sarah Lacey who interviewed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg before a live audience and was practically beheaded by the audience for giving what many believed was a trite, self-absorbed interview where she too ignored the complaints of the audience).
What have we learned?
Quite simply, event organizers need to bring the audience into the process as early as possible. In this day and age of social media and real-time coverage, there is little patience from the audience for this type of disregard of their opinions and lapse in judgment on the part of the event organizers and the moderator. Had 92nd Street Y been in tune with (listening and responding to) their audience in social media prior to the event by asking questions and imploring Users to submit questions and discussion points, they would’ve known exactly how to direct Ms. Solomon on what to discuss (specifically). I’m all for spontaneous, creative direction by moderators but let’s not forget it is the audience who sits in the cockpit (or, at the very least, co-pilots the operation).
Just the same, for Ms. Solomon (as a journalist no less) to completely ignore the audience is inexcusable and is what ultimately killed the event (for anyone sitting in the audience or watching online it must’ve been like a shot in the heart). If you are not soliciting opinions from the audience in social media prior to the event, then you’d damn sure better be listening to them at the event.
Is there any real excuse in this day and age to have panels that are this poorly organized and executed when we not only have audiences that are dying to contribute to the discussion, but we also have the social tools to bring them into the discussion?
How can event organizers avoid the untimely death of a panel discussion using social media and include the audience more in the creative, panel-planning process? Should they? Interested in your thoughts.