When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits. The only problem was, I had no idea how. To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea. On paper, it sounded great. In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students? The prospect sounded daunting.
Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids). Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver. I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits. I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors. I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.
Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.
Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry. (Hi, Julie!) She is amazing. For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales. Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school. From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs. At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience. So that is what I did. I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers. It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.
(Best advice, Julie! Thank you again.)
Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about. So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile. Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional. In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark. What do you want to convey? What kinds of books do you write? What images or ideas do you gravitate towards? Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive. In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional. Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect. You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.
Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience. In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.) The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students. I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills. I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author. Which brings me to my next thought….
Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself. They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME. The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book. If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.
Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will. Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong. All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it. To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive. Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it. This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there. One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it. Be prepared for your media not to work. What will you do then? Do you need handouts? An activity where the kids can get up and help you? A game? A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)? I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.
Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early. Now what? I always over prepare. Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library. Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there. Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work. Also, plan extra content. In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed. After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations: one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th You can tailor the same content for different ages. You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected. Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.
If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together. A school visit should be the same kind of experience. If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice. Figure out what works for you and then do that.
I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things. The kids are awesome! How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you? I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice. So get out there, people! Share your genius. School visits are a very good thing.