With terrific visits last week to Carrollton and Midland, Texas, I’ve wrapped up my sixth year of school presentations. I’ve learned a lot of things along the way, and for the benefit of other visiting authors, here are half a dozen of them — one for each year I’ve been at it.
1. Find out what the school wants you to talk about.
If you’ve got multiple books, don’t assume that your host wants you to focus on your newest one. Your host might not know much about it, and in fact may have led their students to expect something else. I’ve found that schools can be pretty flexible in accommodating authors, but that flexibility ought to go both ways. If it’s practical for you to tailor your presentation to the school’s preferences, do it. But at the very least, be aware of what those preferences are.
2. Get to the room before the kids do.
Getting there first allows you to deal with any kinks in the technical setup (laptop, projector, etc.) without a crowd observing your troubleshooting skills in action. It gives you a chance to request any particular configurations of the audience (I like having an aisle down the middle so that I can get closer to students not sitting on the front row). And one of my favorite parts of any visit is standing by the door as the kids enter the room, greeting them, and watching them realize (maybe 33% of the time) that I’m “the arthur.”
3. Learn the school’s hand signal or magic phrase for getting a crowd to hush.
Pretty much every school has something they use, be it a gesture or a call-and-response chant. Learning this — and good-naturedly letting kids know that you know what it is and how to use it — is an essential tool for restoring your audience’s focus on you and what you have to say.
4. Even if they treat you like a big deal, you don’t have to act like one.
Your visit may be a highlight of the school’s year. It may be the first author visit they’ve ever had, or the first they’ve been able to afford in a long, long time. As such, they may treat you like a rock star — going so far as to use the phrase “rock star. But that doesn’t mean you need to act like one. For one thing, deflating and demystifying yourself will help make what you do seem more accessible and more attainable to the kids you’re presenting to — and we all want that, right? For another, if you’re gracious, humble, helpful, flexible, and generally easygoing, word-of-mouth to that effect will spread among librarians, and more schools will want you to come visit.
5. They may not treat you like a big deal.
But that’s not why you’re there, so no problem. Be a pro, and speak up for your needs — and for things that will make the experience better for your audience — but keep your focus on connecting with those kids and giving them a good, meaningful show that at least some of them will remember for a long time.
6. Q&A just may not happen.
I love the question-and-answer portion at the end of my presentations. I get a lot of insight into which aspects of my books — and of my presentations — made the biggest impressions on my audience. But sometimes the conditions just aren’t right — say, if your presentation is the last thing scheduled for the day and kids have already moved on mentally to their departure. Or if the audience you’re speaking to just isn’t clear on the difference between a question and a statement (e.g. “I like sharks.”). When that happens, don’t get frustrated — just accept it. You can generally go out on a high note by asking if any of the adults in the room have a question.
Other authors, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned. And the same goes for those of you who have hosted authors during school visits — let me know in the comments any advice you’ve got to share. The next school-visit season is just three months away…