Presenting to School Students: top tips

How do you feel about public speaking? Author talks? Writing workshops? If, like me, ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????you’re the introverted kind of writer, more comfortable in the world of the imagination than out on centre stage, that part of the job can be as much ordeal as opportunity. But we all know how necessary those public appearances are, not only to promote our work, but also to give something back to the reading and writing community.

Some of us are naturally talented at presenting, with a bottomless well of entertaining anecdotes and a flowing, easy style. Some are good at it because they’ve worked hard to prepare. I’ve done a fair amount of presenting in the fifteen or so years I’ve been a professional writer, and I still get nervous every time. The easiest audience for me? Romance writers, because although their expectations are high, they are always warm, accepting and interested. The most challenging? School students.

Recently I was a guest at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, an amazing three-day event for young readers hosted by Somerset College in Queensland. I’d been invited to attend the 2009 festival, but my cancer diagnosis just before the event meant I had to cancel at the last minute. I was happy to go back as part of the author lineup this year. March 2014 marked my critical five year milestone for surviving breast cancer.

Although I’m far more comfortable presenting to an adult audience, I found the festival an overwhelmingly positive experience. It was not only excellently organised – a mammoth task for those involved as it is a large-scale event – but also brimming with enthusiasm, creativity and flair.  Over the three days, approximately 15,000 students from the region attended workshops and author talks, and thirty-odd writers and illustrators were involved. My sessions were aimed at young adults, but there were workshops and activities for all ages.

It was a challenge to prepare for this event. They couldn’t tell me until a couple of days beforehand whether I’d be speaking to groups of 20 or 200. With small groups I generally include some practical work, but in a very big group that’s unmanageable.  The lack of overhead projectors in my venues ruled out using visual images to help hold audience attention. I’m a control freak, a person who finds it hard to do things ‘on the hop’, so this was a real test. But it was also a learning experience, and I came away with some good tips for future events.

The key is interaction – students remain engaged if they’re on their toes. Here are some suggestions.

Giveaways:
I let students know in advance that I’d be giving away copies of my books to those who asked the most interesting questions. If you can’t provide multiple books, something small like a signed bookmark, a postcard or a nice pencil is OK, especially for younger students. For older students it might be a free download code for a story from your website.

Quizzes:
Ask students to listen out for the names of five books and their authors, or for certain place names, or for the answers to particular questions. First one to put their hand up with correct answers wins a prize.

Q&A:
Pause frequently during the session to invite questions, rather than saving Q&A for the end. My students asked about the writer’s life, research, characterisation, themes, and threw in some curly questions such as how much of my personal experience went into the novels and whether I still practised my ancestral  Scottish traditions, as featured in the Shadowfell series.

Read aloud:
Reading helps break up a talk, but keep excerpts short (no more than 5 min, less for younger students) and choose passages that are either funny or action-packed. And only include this if you’re an entertaining reader – not all of us have that gift.

Make it relevant:
Relate your talk to their world, even if your book is a medieval fantasy epic, a paranormal romance or dystopian science fiction. ‘How would you feel if …?’ ‘What would you do if …?’ Most themes are universal.

Work to your strengths:
Several authors at the festival had particular talents. Tiffiny Hall is a 5th Dan Taekwondo Black Belt and writes the Roxy Ran series featuring a young ninja. Tiffiny included martial arts demonstrations in her author talks. Gabrielle Wang, author of The Wishbird, presented a Chinese brush painting workshop. The best I could manage was reading a scene in which one character speaks broad Scots –a demonstration of courage if nothing else! If you have a talent that can make your session more entertaining, use it with confidence.

Signing:
We all signed at the festival bookshop after our sessions. Engage with students, make time for each, draw pictures, answer weird and wonderful questions and be prepared to sign anything. Never talk down to students. Have fun!

Experience helps. Some of the authors at the festival were frequent presenters to school students and had their material down pat. A skilled speaker can deliver more or less the same talk over and over and still sound spontaneous.

Do you write for children and/or young adults? What are your top tips for presenting an engaging  talk to a student audience?

Photo credit © Lucian Alexandru Motoc | Dreamstime.com

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Juliet. I wish I saw your blog a few weeks ago as you make some really good suggestions. I did my first book reading and signing (not students) recently. Reading my own fiction wasn’t easy. I felt so self-conscious. I was so worried my voice would crack and I’d stumble over words; it actually went okay after I got started, and the small audience was full of good questions after. I don’t mind speaking in public about other more public issues, but reading my own words as an author makes me uncomfortable. On the positive side, the book sales were good so I have to say it was a success. So, any tips on how to get rid of the feelings of self-consciousness?
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..A Bloody Hand Upon Her Cheek

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  2. says

    Juliet, thanks for all the tips! As I gear up for the
    release of the first 2 books in my MG fantasy series out in 2015,
    the thought of presenting to schools in assemblies has me a bit
    nervous – more so than an adult group. I’m putting your article in
    my planning folder! I’d love to dress up as a character in my book
    for these events and hope that will appeal to middle graders. Your
    tips on working a younger audience are great – especially with
    shorter attention spans. :) And great news to hear of your 5-year
    milestone!

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    • says

      Dressing up as a character sounds a great idea – there was one writer at Somerset (a woman of around my age) who did that and I was very impressed!

      One tip I should have included was ‘tell a story’ by which I mean making your presentation like a story – the wonderful Kate Forsyth, whom I’ve heard speak in public several times, is very skilled at drawing her audience in quickly with a hushed-but-excited delivery and an oral storytelling style. As I said, it’s quite like acting!

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  3. says

    Hi Paula. I always practise reading the chosen passages before the event, partly to check the timing, partly to be really comfortable with the material. You could do a test run for a small audience of family or friends. The more you do public appearances as an author, the more confident you will become. It’s rather like acting, something you learn to switch on as required.

    I’m happy to hear the book sales were good!

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  4. says

    Hi Juliet and others I’m new to the site and am finding joy
    along with comfort in the recent blogs. Thanks everyone. Greatly
    appreciate your tips. I do a lot of public speaking as a marine
    scientist and non-fiction author and my first middle grade fiction
    novel (book #1 in a series) is about to hit the shelves (Yeah!).
    Here are a few additional ideas. Make your talk interactive (when
    I’m talking about how marine animals use mucus, aka slime, I end up
    having the kids (and adults) shouting out slime by the end of the
    talk). Talk about what inspired you to write or include a personal
    experience or emotion the kids can relate to. Think of a few
    questions ahead of time to get the ball rolling in Q & A,
    sometimes they need that to break the ice. If you are in touch with
    a teacher ahead of time, have the students do some research on you
    and come up with questions beforehand. For me, the hardest part is
    reading. As a scientist I was taught never to read during talks,
    ha, ha….now I need to read short selections from the book. Still
    working on that skill I think. I’m talking to about 300 7th graders
    tomorrow from a poorly performing school and through a foundation
    and the host organization we are giving them all a copy of the new
    book – The Shark Whisperer (Scarletta Press). I’m thrilled,
    nervous, and riding the roller coaster of writing and publishing.
    Science never seemed so emotionally draining…I respect all you
    dedicated writers out there immensely and am honored to be part of
    the clan.

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    • says

      Some great tips there, Ellen, thank you! Nothing like a bit of slime to entertain younger students. Good luck with your session tomorrow, I hope it goes brilliantly.

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  5. says

    Hi Juliet,

    Great post! I’m a children’s author and when I started out doing readings with my first children’s book, I was extremely shy. So shy, I asked my brother-in-law to read the book for me as I was too nervous to do it. And I avoided school visits for a long time. Now, I love doing school visits because it’s a great way to connect with my audience who are the kids. 3rd – 6th grade is my favorite age group. They’re engaged and engaging, ask a lot of questions, and never shy away from volunteering when I ask for helpers to come up for the interactive part of the presentation.

    The more I do presentations, the more comfortable I feel. And for the most part, I use power points because the visual aspect is more engaging for kids. I do have to say, a LOT of time and effort goes into preparing the power points. Initially, I thought that once I did one for each book, I could just reuse it for the next event, but I end up specifically gearing my power points to the targeted age group, school, and what curriculum the teachers want to focus on. Some teachers ask that I read and focus on the story, some want a more specific focus on the writing process and being an author.

    When I don’t have the technology available, I pick certain illustrations from my books and blow them up poster size, then laminate them and use these for visuals. When I first started doing school visits, I would insist on doing just individual classrooms because school assemblies scared the beejezus out of me! But I eventually caved in and began doing those. I started doing them with another author and that made it more bearable, but having done a few, I’m more comfortable with them now. Kids love that you’re there no matter what your presentation is like so I try to keep that in mind. I recently did an assembly in front of a hundred kids. Was I nervous? Sure. Was it scary? A bit. But I had so much fun with the kids who all asked such great questions. Ultimately, I think every author should learn how to do school visits. They’re wonderful experiences for the kids–and for the author.

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    • says

      I agree, Natasha – visual content is so useful for keeping the students’ focus during the session. I use PowerPoint a lot (for both adult and younger audiences) and find that the images really spark people’s imagination in sessions where they go on to do their own creative work. Your suggested alternative of laminated posters is good, provided the venue isn’t too big.

      Great idea to target your PowerPoint presentations to the age group and/or do different ones for each book, if you’re going to be out doing this a lot. They do take time and care to prepare but good ones are worth their weight in gold.

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  6. says

    Thank you for these great tips. I like giving smaller, intimate workshops for kids and adults. Only once did I have a huge crowd — and we didn’t really know how many folks would show up — but it was a challenge to entertain kids of various ages and the adults.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Conference Tidbits and Inspiration

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    • says

      I prefer those smaller sessions too, Vijaya – they feel like talking to a group of interested friends rather than addressing a multitude that may or may not care about you or your work. But we can all surprise ourselves by rising to unexpected challenges – my most successful session at the recent festival was the one I’d most been dreading, with around 100 students aged 12-14. I suspect it went well because it was my last one and I had a better idea of what worked and what didn’t!

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  7. says

    These are terrific tips – thanks!

    I recently had to present to two groups of 400 9th graders. Yikes! What to do? I pulled a somewhat romantic scene with my male and female protagonists, edited it down to dialogue and a few “stage directions”, then asked for volunteers to read the scene (I read the directions.)

    The kids were greatly amused by the romantic overtones read by their own classmates.

    To flesh out the presentation I “lectured” on the 1920s, interspersing my stories with questions, and the correct respondent received a small piece of candy.

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  8. says

    When doing a presentation and reading for children, I
    always start with asking the students a few questions. If I am
    presenting to several classes at once, I’ll get the teachers’ names
    ahead of time so I am able to call specifically on a class to
    answer. I ask the students to tell me what fiction is, what
    nonfiction is, and then ask them about the subtitle of my book
    “Inspired by a True Story.” Is it fiction or nonfiction since true
    is in the title? By doing this I think it helps engage the students
    from the start… I’m presenting this weekend at a school’s “green
    festival” so I’ll also be asking the children about what we can do
    with and around trees, how trees help us, and how they can help
    people who live in a city. Finally, when I read to a group I
    usually ask a student to hold up a book to show the pictures while
    I’m reading. I think this holds the students’ attention, too. And!
    I can’t read with my bifocals and show the book at the same time!
    Hope this helps!

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    • says

      Useful suggestions, Cheryl. Those of us who wear glasses to read (that includes me) do tend to find reading aloud a bit awkward, and I imagine bifocals add a layer of difficulty. I end up taking my glasses on and off quite a bit, which looks fiddly.

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      • Sharon says

        Sometimes it can, but you can also use it as a time to take
        a breath if you’re nervous. Like a marathon runner not doing up his
        laces until he’s ready to go, it can be part of your preparation
        routine during the presentation. Then again, the last time I did
        public speaking was at dads funeral, so I’m not sure that that
        qualifies me to say. Know you’d get this a lot, but I love your
        books and read them over and over. Thank you for having the courage
        to send them out to us to be appreciated! :-) And, as others here
        have said, congratulations on your anniversary and
        recovery!

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  9. says

    Great post! My first school visit is scheduled for May 2nd, so this comes at a great time. Thank you for the tips Juliet (and to everyone who left tips in the comments section)!

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  10. says

    Excellent post, Juliet. Most useful. I’m organising a SCBWI panel talk on this exact subject in Brisbane next week. I shall add your suggestions to the mix, thank you! :)

    When I’ve visited schools as an author, I always take along something interesting to ‘break the ice’. Mostly it’s something from one of my books, like my junior fiction, ‘Secrets of Eromanga’ – things I have from my experience of volunteering on a dinosaur fossil dig in western Queensland – a piece of fossil, or a 350 million year old piece of undergrowth with tiny seeds, sticks and leaves embedded within. But the most popular object I pass around the class (so they can have a good look) is an 35 million year old piece of coprolite – fossilized poo.

    It’s from a pre-historic turtle from Madagascar and you can see the chomped up shells in it. It’s hilarious hearing the squeals when I tell them what it is. By then everyone is ready to listen to anything I say. Mission accomplished! :)

    PS Love all your books, Juliet.
    Sheryl Gwyther´s last blog post ..My Writing Process (never a dull moment) Blog Tour

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  11. says

    Loved this post! As a middle school teacher, this is the part I can’t wait for. (Not published yet, but two full requests in the last week have me more than a little hopeful!) In my teaching career I’ve been known to dress in complete costume, sing, dance, and rap – once I even taught while standing on a wobbly three legged stool. I’m the very definition of introvert in my personal life – but in a classroom all my crazy comes out to play.

    Yet when you put me in front of adults my voice shakes, my hands sweat, and I can’t form complete sentences. Give me 200 kids any day…they’re so much more forgiving than adults.

    We all love it when authors come to visit – teachers and students alike – so have fun and be enthusiastic as possible. It’s contagious, you know. And if you stumble over your words or misspeak, just acknowledge it and move on. Kids love it when adults are real and even more when adults can be real and laugh at themselves at the same time.

    And if all else fails, throw candy at them. Erm, I mean *to* them.
    Kendra Young´s last blog post ..Two FULL manuscript requests, y’all – TWO!!!

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  12. says

    Great presentation tips, Juliet! I had to chuckle at your
    dilemma of not having a projector to show images. This can
    especially be an issue at large festivals. But I found a solution
    for an appearance I made at an outdoor event in downtown Los
    Angeles: I created 16 x 20 images from the book I was featuring and
    mounted them on foamcore. I then had kids from the audience assist
    me in showing them at specific times in my presentation. The kids
    loved being on stage and everyone enjoyed the bit of
    color!

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    • says

      Was this very expensive, Alexis? I recently had something mounted on a foam board at Staples and was shocked it cost $40! It used to cost $20.

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    • says

      The enlarged images on foamcore sound excellent, and getting your audience to show them even more excellent – I may well use that idea! Could be awkward to take on the plane, though … Easier for presentations you can reach by car. :)

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  13. Marysia says

    These are all really creative ideas, Juliet. I hope the students had fun. I would consider myself privileged to attend one of your workshops. :)

    The more writing blogs I read, the more I think I must be the only extraverted writer on the planet. I would enjoy this sort of attention. If a publisher ever gives me a chance, they won’t have to draw me out of my lair for publicity stunts. Yes! to the book tour, interviews, workshops, etc. I’ll do it all. Haha. :P

    The hard part about writing for me is to balance work and play, put a cap on socializing and buckle down for long hours of isolation. Sometimes I get caught up in my story and the hours really do fly by, other times it’s hard, grueling work and I would rather hang out with family and friends. I have to remind myself at those times that I want to finish my books and that I do have to put the hours in on a daily basis if I hope to make a career out of writing.

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    • says

      Marysia, there are probably only a few of us who get that balance perfect (between writing time and promotion/marketing/teaching time.) And yes, finishing the book and making it the very best it can be should always be always the writer’s number one priority. I do envy people like you who thrive on public contact.

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