Monday, February 02, 2015

Tips for Authors for World Book Day

Authors all over the UK are about to dive into the crazy/brilliant time of year when schools need speakers to entertain, inform and inspire students to want to read. World Book Day is coming up. Between now and the first week of March (and probably for at least a couple of weeks beyond that) every author you know has been asked to make more appearances in schools than they could ever want or possibly fit into the diary.

It's been getting crazier every year for the last decade. Some authors are doing all this for the first time and a friend of a friend got in touch to ask whether I had any advice for her to prepare her for her first ever school visits as an author.

I bashed out a list of tips and I hope it might be useful to somebody. There are obviously some basics to public speaking that I'll try not to cover here - we can talk about those another day, if anybody is interested. So below are just a few things that strike me as being particular to being an author speaking to a school audience. Other authors reading this: please do add your own in the comments, tell us which ones you already do or tell me the ones I've got wrong!

Ask the teachers to get the kids to file in from the front. If they start at the back there'll be random odd chairs at the front, which makes your job much harder from from the very beginning. Don't accept empty rows or empty seats. They sit in every chair, starting at the front. If they refuse to sit in the front row and the teachers aren't sharp enough to do anything about it, wait until they've all sat down in the second row, then remove the first row of empty chairs. Better - remove one of the empty chairs, then ask one specific student and one specific teacher to take away the others.
Obviously don't start til everyone is settled. The manner in which the students come into the hall or the library, or wherever, sets the tone for the whole thing. Sounds strict, but it makes it so much easier to have as much fun as you like for the hour that follows.

An odd one, this, and some experienced authors I know disagree. Nonetheless, I suggest you start at your very quietest and build up from there. Loud noises and loud voices are among the things that set off disruptive behaviour in students who have certain kinds of issues. So draw everybody in. If there's a microphone, start without it.

In the first minute, thank the students for having you. The key word to emphasise is 'guest'. For example, "Thanks for having me as your GUEST today. It's pretty special for me blah blah..."
The word 'guest', especially in close proximity to 'special', triggers 'guest behaviour'. Teachers have droned on at them for years about how they should behave for guests. Help them out with a not-so-subtle mental kick to engage that behaviour for you, now.

Stand, don't sit, and never behind a table or lectern or anything else. If you've been put up on a stage, come down off it unless there's a really, really good reason for you to be so far away from your audience.

Don't rely on powerpoint or projections or any other kind of tech. It will only work in about one in five schools. In the one-in-five schools where it works, only one-in-five students will absorb what you're shoving in their faces up on the screen. Be better than that. In the absence of powerpoint and the like, YOU must be interesting to look at. Think about how and when you move as much as what you're saying. Move around, stand still, vary the pace, go to the corners and speak from there for a bit, use your gestures. With more space and time we could go into the best way to do this, but if you're starting out, it's enough just to make sure you give this thought. YOU are the visuals. Be dynamic.

Don't let them. It won't be the librarian or teacher who booked you, but somebody else in the hall thinks they're getting a free period. If someone is chatting, marking, moving
around or anything like that, stop immediately. Stare at them if necessary, but wait for
them to give you their full attention. The staff have to set the example. Don't let them get away with anything else. Hopefully you'll be entertaining enough once you get going that they won't be able to take their eyes off you, but until then, keep the staff in line.

You need to signal early on that the students aren't just there to sit and 'listen' to you ramble on for an hour. You're going to engage them, get them involved, ask them stuff and go to them for input and ideas. (At least, I hope you are.) This is much easier if in the first few minutes you've asked for a simple show of hands for something. (Anything that isn't
patronising like, 'who likes reading' - I saw an author do that once. It was

Have a couple of books to give away. Give one away early-ish to someone who answers a question well. It'll switch the others on for the rest of the session.

If you're going to do Q&A at the end, tell them that (preferably twice) near
the beginning so their brains, consciously or not, have thought up some questions by the time you get to that bit.

Unlike with adult audiences, don't repeat yourself or labour any points. (I know I've said repeat a couple of things, but apart from them). Kids get stuff first time, quickly. So say it once and move on. Don't wait for a reaction or for anything to sink in. They've got the point and they're getting bored unless you've moved on. Be a step ahead, or several, if you can.

Ignore everything else, but follow this one. If you do, nothing else really matters. This goes for all kinds of public speaking, but never more so than as an author presenting to an audience in a school. It's big:


That applies to every word you say. Shape it into a story. Even if that means embellishing stuff or just making it up. It's why you're there, it's your strength, your unique set of skills.

Have fun, everybody. Wishing you all some great World Book Day events.


Allan boroughs said...

Brilliant, succinct and gold dust for any first timer (or a tenth timer for that matter)

SF Said said...

This really is an excellent series of tips for authors doing school visits. I've done hundreds of visits in my time, and have learned something new from reading this post. (Specifically, the 'guest' tip - sheer genius.) Thanks, Joe!

jevvv M said...

Spot on, Joe!

I'm sure adults would appreciate their speakers heeding your tips too :)

Zarin Farhan said...
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Carolyn Swann said...

You might also want to ask for something to drink (rarely is it offered) and check parking (usually not even considered). I love doing school visits but don't expect a fanfair on arrival. The bit about stopping if someone is talking - good advice. Good luck out there