A visiting writer or artist program can be the highlight of a school year. The students and staff are invigorated and inspired by the experience, and the organizers believe that the event was worth every penny. Based on that performance, the writer or artist sells more of their work, gains new fans, and is recommended to other schools.
Unfortunately, visiting writer and artist programs are not always so successful. As an elementary school librarian and former middle school language arts teacher, I have seen presentations that thrilled and others that flopped. Unlike teachers, many authors and artists work alone and have not developed their skills of addressing an audience, particularly one that is young and wiggly. Becoming a skilled presenter for a young audience is challenging and takes practice. The good news is that by knowing your audience, you can turn a mediocre school visit into a memorable one.
- Connect with them. Students are excited you are there, and they want to get to know you; however, longwinded, self-involved autobiographical presentations are not the way to introduce yourself. If you reveal information that shows you remember what it was like to be their age, students can better identify with you. Remember that teachers are also part of your audience, and they love it when you inspire students to achieve their potential. Studies have shown that hard work, determination and resilience are crucial factors in students’ success so let your audience know about the obstacles you overcame to get where you are today.
- Keep it moving. For students in the K-2 age group, you will need to change things up every 10-15 minutes, depending on the engagement level of your activity. That means activities without audience participation, such as talking while presenting a PowerPoint, should be limited to ten minutes or less. If you are including the audience in a game or a skit, you can stretch the time to 12-15 minutes. Even with older students, you shouldn’t go longer than 20 minutes without switching to a new activity. Most importantly, pay attention to the audience’s energy. If the teachers are yawning and the students seem more interested in each other than in you, it’s time to move on to the next part of the presentation.
- Get them involved. Audience participation is key to a successful school visit. An author and illustrator team who recently visited my school played a game that involved the students suggesting things for the artist to draw. We were given the drawing as a gift, and our PTA plans to frame it for the library. In one truly memorable performance several years ago, the authors asked the teachers to eat dried insects they’d brought back from their travels in the Amazon rainforest. (I may or may not have eaten a bug that day.) The more you involve the audience in the presentation, the more attentive they will be.
- Include a theme. If you’re not sure what theme you want to focus on, ask the librarian or teacher ahead of time if there is anything they would like you to address. They may suggest that you share your experience with collaboration, overcoming failure, or some other topic that is the focus at their school. The theme can be woven into your existing program, but it shouldn’t be too didactic. If they don’t suggest a theme, create one yourself. People may enjoy your program if it’s just pure fun, but they won’t be inspired unless there is a meaningful take-away message.
- Ramp up the energy. The younger the audience, the more enthusiasm needed. I have seen authors speak quietly to young children about their craft as the students not-so-quietly picked at each other, rolled on the carpet, and ignored the presenter. Save the quiet, earnest performances for adults. With the kids, bring on the energy and the big voice and don’t be afraid to move around the room. With small children, you cannot be afraid of looking foolish. They love it when you give the characters voices and tell the story dramatically. For middle and high school audiences, you may want to behave with more dignity and include those witty asides you’re so good at making, but still keep the energy high. Remember the teacher in Peanuts? Wah wah, wah wah, wah waah. That is what students hear if you talk to them in a monotone voice, and no one wants that.
- Reflect on your performance. Ask schools to fill out a survey after your performance and tell them to be completely honest so that you can improve your craft. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to receive constructive feedback that will help you improve your performances.
With budgets tight these days, schools want to be sure that they are getting the most out of every dollar they spend. If you are a visiting author or illustrator who leaves the kids cheering and adults singing your praises, you will not only sell more books, but you’ll find yourself with new fans and more engagements down the road.