How to Perfect a School Visit
Running a school visit as an author is daunting. Public speaking is hard enough on its own. Add the school element, though, and it can grow into a childhood nightmare powerful enough to revert you back to your younger self, complete with teen insecurities. Admittedly, some of this anxiety is well-founded. Children and teenagers aren’t typically forgiving audiences. When bored, individuals will become disruptive, and some teachers will mentally check out when a speaker arrives, expecting them to entertain, inspire and even discipline the kids. That can be intimidating but, ultimately, it’s survivable and also rare.
In reality, most school visits go well. In fact, many authors who fight through their initial butterflies and hone their performance skills grow to love the rush of entertaining live audiences. Plus, they learn the benefit of getting paid essentially to market their own books. As fewer authors jostle for attention in this space, those who do it well sell more books and supercharge awareness of their author brand. A portion of young readers go on to become lifelong fans, too. Even those who don’t read as adults remember and recommend authors they encountered as a child, filled with nostalgia.
All you have to do to benefit from this phenomenon is make a good impression. You might believe that’s easier said than done, but today’s blog post contains some practical ideas you can execute to make it happen. Follow them to make your school visits less stressful, more lucrative and fun for everyone involved.
Whether a person is born or nurtured to become an extrovert in unclear. What is certain, though, is that exceptional performers don’t often rely on talent to excel. Watch interviews with some of the world’s most charismatic actors, or stick behind after a compelling author talk, and you will discover that a lot of preparation goes into their work. The truth is that “talented” speakers run smooth presentations because they prepare, which eliminates the chance of them running into disaster.
Memorise your routine and you will become far less likely to stumble over your words, forget your place or be overwhelmed by nerves. Rehearsing at a local area for speakers’ club in front of a supportive audience can help you in this area. But your preparation shouldn’t stop there. If you want to make a great impression, also plan your route to the venue to be punctual, test your equipment and props on site, and have any legal paperwork you might need at hand. Run through PowerPoint slides ahead of time if you have them or print out your own handouts. You may think you can wing a talk, but why take the chance when you can prepare?
Prepare the School
It takes a thousand tasks to manage a modern school. Alongside teaching students, educators also have to fill out paperwork, order supplies, organise school trips, mark homework and run extracurricular activities. Your visit might seem like a big deal to you but, for them, it’s just another day. As a result, it is possible to be forgotten. Authors occasionally turn up only to find that the school hall is unprepared for their visit, the teachers haven’t been proactive and that parents weren’t notified to give their children money to buy books ahead of time.
If you want to ensure you aren’t forgotten, prepare the school in advance. To do this, send the teacher in charge of hiring you a reminder a week or two prior to your arrival, either via email or over the phone. While you’re at it, you could also send them a list of your books and downloadable posters they can stick up that clearly promotes the date of your visit. That way, they have a visual reminder and a way to get students excited. Doing a combination of all of these activities will ensure that you’re remembered and that the school prepares for your arrival.
Turn Up Early
Bloopers are common on TV for a reason. Faced with a live audience, even the most well-rehearsed presenters occasionally run into trouble, and presenting in the real world is no different. To minimise the risk of a live calamity happening to you, it’s worth turning up early. Practicing your shtick at home is great, but it can’t compare to checking out the exact space in which you’re going to perform. Running through your rehearsal while there, even if it’s just in your head, is the only sure-fire way to ensure you’re prepared before a few hundred children file into the room.
As well as rehearsing, arriving early will also give you time to wander the grounds looking for reception, wire up a laptop and check that you can access any files you need to present. Running into problems during the trial run isn’t ideal, but at least it allows you time to form a backup plan. The same goes for unpacking. Turn up early and you can assemble banners and strategically place your props for easy access. If all goes smoothly, you might be left loitering but that’s better than feeling dishevelled, rushed and unprepared.
Make It Fun
One common mistake authors make when visiting schools is that they try to be too educational. Yes, you’ve been hired by a school, but remember – you aren’t a teacher. As a visitor, your role is to inspire and entertain, not fill students with knowledge. If you bore your audience, you won’t be invited back, nor will you convert the children into fans of your books. As a result, think about what kids find exciting to ramp up the fun factor. Often that means pushing the story element of your work, whether you write fiction or non-fiction. Have you written a history book? Show them tools or deactivated weapons. How about sci-fi? Get them to imagine an alien together and craft a story around it.
Students are in school to be educated, but they’ll want to learn more independently if you excite and inspire them with your topic. So make it fun! Aim to entertain and be a friendly adult, not a teacher. As a compromise, perhaps end your show with a Q&A session to sneak some knowledge under their noses in a way that makes it seem like their idea. Teachers will likely discuss anything you mention for educational purposes after you leave anyway, so you might as well maximise the fun parts. Even get a little silly if you want. Younger children, in particular, love toilet humour. Just remember to keep it appropriate for your audience.
Expect a Working Lunch
Authors who visit schools often face a draining day. Some present to classes of 30 while others conduct assemblies of 500 pupils. Some do a mixture. While all this is exhausting, don’t expect the pressure to ease up at lunchtime if you want to nail your visit. Despite you possibly wanting to have a break, shut yourself away and quietly eat a sandwich, be prepared for that not to happen. This is because foregoing a peaceful lunch can help you stand out from less enthusiastic authors who have previously visited the school.
Rather than seeking solitude, consider lunches and break times as opportunities to make extra money and connections. Proactive authors, for instance, sign books in the school library during lunch, talking to pupils between bites of their sandwich. Or they welcome children who want to visit them with further questions. Many authors find themselves in this situation, or in the staff room getting grilled by teachers who are interested in what they do. This is all fan service and networking. Use your breaks wisely enough and you can create super fans among the students and staff. There’s always time to decompress when you get home.
Look for Feedback
Unless a pupil or teacher tells you they enjoyed your talk, it can be difficult to read the room when presenting. Adrenaline makes school visits seem manic for even the most experienced speakers. However, it’s important to track what works and what doesn’t if you want to improve. Comedians do this when testing out new material and you should take a similar approach. Take a look around when you deliver a joke. If one doesn’t land, remove it for your next presentation or replace it with an off-the-cuff remark that got a bigger laugh. Likewise, if teachers and pupils seemed genuinely enthralled by a topic, double down on that part in the future.
If you’re still unsure, give out short questionnaires at the end of your day, asking which parts your audience enjoyed and which parts lost them. If you find this sort of feedback too painful to experience in person then email the teacher who invited you after you’ve left the school. That way, you won’t have to put on a brave face if they tear apart your routine. That’s if you get the chance to distance yourself at all. As is often mentioned, children don’t always hold back to be polite when they don’t enjoy something.
Visiting schools as an author can be draining and erratic. You can find yourself nodding off in a coffee shop or filled with anxiety after leaving a venue. But don’t let this discourage you. No matter how well or badly you perform, know that you will get better with practice. And if someone calls you the worst visiting author they’ve ever heard of, be proud that you’ve done something that most authors never have the courage to try, and quote Disney’sCaptain Jack Sparrow: “But you have heard of me.”
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