School Visits by Donna
This week the Muses turn our attention to ALL THINGS MARKETING and I'm kicking it off talking about school visits.
School visits are a great way to connect with readers, build a loyal following and inspire future young writers. If you're not familiar with schools and speaking to large groups of kids, however, it can be daunting. As a teacher and administrator for many years, I've learned some Dos and Don'ts that just might make a future school visit go more smoothly.
Before the Visit:
- Define your message. Even though selling your books may be an author's goal for a school visit, it isn't the reason schools invite authors to come speak. They want to help students understand the writing process and to encourage reading. It's important to talk about the writing PROCESS in a realistic, approachable way. Editing, drafting, proofing, and rewriting are all important parts that always need reemphasizing with young writers. Also think about what makes your book unique to educators. Is there something special you can highlight in your presentation that deals with bigger issues than just the story itself? For example, I talk about self-esteem and body image issues when I talk to schools about SKINNY.
- Put your expectations for the visit in writing. Before you make your first school visit, design a simple information sheet that you can send out ahead of time. Describe your presentation(s) and your personal needs for the presentations. Be specific and know your limits. It's not about being a Diva, but about providing the best experience possible. Everyone's different, but I specify things like I'll make up to four presentations a day and if the audience is larger than 100, I'll need a microphone. I also list the technology needed for my Powerpoint, but also have a back up plan (see below). Finally, I specify the payment details, including whether travel expenses are included in the fee or not.
- Arrange for book sales. Make this as easy as possible for schools. Librarians (or other educators) are amazing supporters for authors, but this isn't the primary focus of their very full time job. I work with a local independent bookstore in town to supply order sheets to be sent home ahead of my visit and then sign the books purchased when I'm there. Your publisher may also have some great suggestions on ways to insure books will be available for sale.
- Put a limit on how many freebies you will do. While this may sound harsh, any time doing school visits is time away from working on the next book. I love giving back to my community and have so many wonderful connections to the schools in my area. I'm also so aware of the huge budget constraints schools operate under. I wish I could visit every one for free. But I can't, so I agree to four free visits a year -- first come, first serve--two in the fall, two in the spring. I don't charge mileage, or any other transportation costs for these visits, but limit the location to where I can reasonably drive to in one day. If airfare or hotel is involved, then I ask those costs be reimbursed, even if there is no charge for the actual visit. (By the way, I still have one freebie available for next fall if anyone is interested!)
- Plan your presentation. While this seems like it wouldn't have to be stated, I've seen way too many presentations where authors don't very specifically plan what to include in their talk. It's hard to keep the attention of a cafeteria full of middle schoolers! Trust me. The biggest advice I can give is to try and keep it visually stimulating. Use Powerpoints, music, book trailers, movable GIFs, and audience participation when appropriate. After you've run through it a few times, you'll learn the pacing and adjust the timing. One friend, a very seasoned and popular presenter, gave me a great piece of advice. "Add in some kind of video clip about 20 minutes in, just when you're loosing them." She includes a short clip of her home office, pets, etc. It's a great way to show the audience your "real" life and break up the lecture with some visual stimulation.
- Talk to someone at the school before you arrive. How many presentations will you make? How many kids in each session? Will you teach an actual writing class or will it be a speech? Should you plan for questions and answers? What ages will be in the audience? The answers to these questions (and more) will help guide you in your planning, so it's great to have a contact on site to speak to before the visit. Be sure to write down the name and contact information. You never know when something unexpected might happen on the day of the visit. On one visit to a school in Chicago, my driver ended up taking me to the wrong school and dropping me off outside. We didn't realize until he drove away we were at the wrong place. Luckily, my publicist was prepared with phone numbers for the driver and the school to let them know what was happening and that we would be running a little late.
During the Visit:
- Be gracious. Talk about the student work you see around you. Ask questions about the learning goals of the school. Be interested in what THEY are doing. Thank people for their time and effort.
- Come prepared for a technology disaster. If you are counting on a Powerpoint, then you might want to invest in some simple tools. I learned early on that a projector without a remote can be disastrous with a large group presentation. You don't want to be trapped behind a computer screen, with your back to the audience, pressing the forward button for every slide! I bought a simple USB remote that also includes enough memory to store my presentation and always bring it with me. I also store my presentation in a Dropbox folder as further insurance. If you end up doing a lot of school visits, you might want to also invest in a projector. They make small, lightweight ones that have enough memory to store a presentation and don't even need a computer attached.
- Expect the unexpected. In the real life of schools, things happen. You have to roll with it. On a recent school visit, I arrived to a packed school cafeteria just after the school was evacuated for the first full school fire drill of the year (complete with the firetrucks). Needless to say, it was a bit of a challenge after all the excitement.
- Leave something behind. Bookmarks. Bling. Website info. Email. These are your future readers. Even if you don't sell a single book the day of your visit, you are planting seeds.
After the Visit:
- Be appreciative. A successful school visit takes a huge amount of work from educators who are already working more than full time jobs.
- Post photos of your visit on Facebook or Twitter. Students love that connection.
So what about you? Have you seen a special way authors have handled school visits? What works for you or for visits you've seen?