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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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