I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t own a TV. Why? Partly because I refuse to pay exorbitant prices to watch Cops on Saturday morning; partly (mostly) because I know I would never read books if I had one. And like any good Millennial who brags about reading on the internet, owns a vintage record player and occasionally wears bowties, I love – and learn from – the writings of Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut’s famous refrain, “so it goes,” exemplifies the strength of brevity. His crudely drawn asterisk demonstrates the authority of context. His prophetic lines, “Something is always going wrong with our teeth. What chain of events in evolution should we thank for our mouthfuls of rotting crockery?” remind us we probably shouldn’t cancel our dentist appointments.
But for all the wisdom embedded in his writing, Vonnegut’s life and ascent to stardom teaches us the power of a different medium: direct engagement, or the building of a human connection with people who want – and need – to hear what you have to say.
Early in his career, Vonnegut was almost universally dismissed as a crackpot sci-fi paperback writer. He was essentially shunned from the publishing world and all but destitute. Out of desperation, he got a teaching gig and gave speeches at literary events. Robert Scholes, author of the The Vonnegut Effect explains, “Not that public speaking was Vonnegut’s chosen profession; rather, [his speaking engagements] were stopgap measures to generate some income after his customary publishing markets had either closed or ceased to respond.”
It was at one of these speaking events that two prominent newspaper editors were first introduced to Vonnegut’s unique brand of absurd wit. Flash forward a couple years to when Vonnegut finally finished his to-be breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. As you may have guessed, it would be the formerly mentioned editors who would ensure his escalation to literary fame.
Robert Scholes, again: “A correlation exists between the first two major reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five: each was written by a critic who had heard Vonnegut speak to audiences, and who had been, moreover, impressed by the personal voice in the author’s fictive statement.”
Although Vonnegut’s direct engagement with two powerful editors may have been serendipity, it serves as a reminder of how influential face-to-face communication really is. If he had mailed the editors his book, it likely would have ended up at the bottom of a never-ending pile of submissions and never been read. Instead, Vonnegut met the editors where they would be most receptive to his message; where he wouldn’t be drowned out by impending deadlines. As a result, his book spent 16 weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller list and is ranked as one of the publication’s 100 best English language novels since the 1920s.
In today’s rapidly changing communications environment, we often judge the value of opportunities by the thousands of people it will “reach” online. Along the way, many of us have forgotten the art and impact of face-to-face interaction. The truth is, no matter how eloquent and impactful your message may be, if your audience isn’t present and receptive, it will end up at the bottom of the “submission pile,” easily and quickly forgotten. It is much harder to ignore someone looking you in the eye.
My advice is this: take time to speak to those who are important to you. If you establish a human connection with your audiences, you may just experience the “Vonnegut Effect.”
Oh, and to the uninitiated, I highly recommend getting to know Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five is a great place to start.