Huge thanks to everyone who joined me and the panel - Jonathan Emmett, Fleur Hitchcock, Rikin Parekh and Emma Perry - for last week's first attempt at a free online session designed to share tips with fellow authors and illustrators.
Our main feeling was that virtual visits are here to stay - and that's a very good thing! For every one 'real life event thing' you can't replicate online, there are tens of opportunities to do something playful and inventive on a video call. There's no exhausting travel and no associated travel cost, and you can pop up anywhere in the world at the click of a button. Stage fright and anxiety need to be conquered for any kind of visit, and we all want to reassure you that, if we can master it, you can too. Have fun!
- Give yourself enough time before the visit to do your prep. Don't book a visit for tomorrow if you still have lots of planning to do.
- Use prompt cards or keep a brief bullet point list beside you if you're worried about losing your flow. The act of creating this and reading over it a couple of times will help your plan bed in.
- Manage expectations. Make a one page document that outlines what your sessions are, how long they last and what you will charge. Let them know not to panic if tech lets you down on the day, and that you can easily rearrange. This will help you feel less panicky about things that are beyond your control, such as a bad WiFi day.
- Ahead of your visit, send the teacher an email with a phone number they can contact you on if they encounter any problems opening up the call.
- Ask the teacher what name you should call them by, and ask for the name of the class (e.g. Miss Wright, Giraffe Class). This information is not often apparent until you ask, and you will need to know it on the day.
- Tell them how much time will be allocated for Q&A. About 10-15 minutes is usually about right. Tell the teacher you will need them to sit close to the microphone and that they may need to repeat any questions that you don't hear. If the classroom has a roving mic, they might like to use one on the day.
- Suggest the class prepare any questions for your session ahead of time, so they're ready to ask them on the day. Suggest they look at your website to find out some facts about you (if you don't have a website, or an info page, think about doing this - it's a lot of work in the first instance, but it's so much better when everything tallies up). Suggest they read at least one of your books, or to ask their Schools Library Service to supply some, if they have an SLS.
- Stick a post-it, peg or even googly eyes by your camera to remind you to maintain eye contact. This is particularly important when recording videos.
- If you provide visits, you don't necessarily need a booking agent to handle your admin. They charge schools booking fees, which might be a barrier to some schools. Setting up calls is very simple, and most often the school will want to create the link invitation for security reasons, so there's really very little to worry about. That said, a booking agent might just secure you some visits you wouldn't have come by yourself. Swings and roundabouts!
- If you don't have an agent, and even if you DO, you can also list your visits free on the directory site VirtualVisits.co.uk (run by panellist Jonathan Emmett).
- You might like to create a 'menu' of sessions, or just one trusted routine. Having it pre-planned means you can grab it 'off the shelf' every time you present, instead of spending time repeating the planning process every time you have a visit. For instance, I do pretty much the same event over and over again, with my latest book sandwiched in the middle and a different leave-behind activity lined up to accompany it.
- Have any props and books beside you before you start the call. Have a glass of water to hand (if you're nervy and prone to shakes, don't put it too near your keyboard!).
- Ask anyone at home with you to leave you to it and not interrupt. Close any windows and doors, and try and keep background noise to a minimum. (Zoom has built in noise reduction).
- If you have any activity sheets to accompany your book, send them via email ahead of time as an optional extra for teachers.
- If you want to offer book sales, or suggest they buy any stock from, say, their local indie book store, do so ahead of the event. You can offer to send signed book plates to the school, by request.
- Practise using the various platforms - Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet - with a friend or family member. For instance you can open up a zoom meeting and have a go at using backgrounds and screen sharing without anyone else even being on the call!
- Be prepared to use the school's choice of platform.
- IMPORTANT: Do not share any images (e.g. screen shots of your call) without permission from the school. If you really want an image, make sure any pictured child has the appropriate sharing permissions from home, or make sure their face isn't visible.
- Video calls are every bit as exciting to children as being there in real life. Make it clear that you are delighted to be in their class. Talk about what you can see on the walls or in the room; they love feeling that you are with them. Don't apologise or downplay it as a lesser experience than a physical visit. It isn't! It's going to be brilliant and every bit as meaningful and memorable if you give it all you've got.
- There are umpteen techy tricks and apps you can employ (including using an overhead camera - see Jonathan's tips at the bottom of this post). But what matters is a good, solid message and a connection with your audience. Don't try and run before you can walk. Get to grips with presenting via video and build up your confidence with the basics before adding whistles and bells.
- If you are going to build in tricks such as different camera views or screen sharing, make sure you have a plan B. Sod's Law and technology mean that, even when you're well prepared, on the day something might not work. If you have a solid alternative, you won't need to get flustered. You can just move on and no one will know any different.
- Ice-breakers are always good, do something to make everyone feel involved and set the tone at the beginning of your presentation, just as you would 'in real life'.
- Doing 'workshops' can feel a bit awkward over video due to the necessary sitting quietly for five minutes while the children work. You could have fun with this, for example using a timer, or you could avoid workshops and instead set them a challenge to complete after the call. It's really up to you. If you do the latter, consider using your call to prepare the class for writing - lead them down the path toward creating an idea, or getting into the mind of a character, the feelings evoked in a particular situation, etc. This is where sending activity sheets or follow-on resources can come into play.
- Readings are always appreciated. If yours is a picture book, be prepared to read the whole thing. If you simply hold up any pages you particularly want to show them, the book will be clearly visible to the whole room as the screen is so big! You can use screen sharing if you prefer, although some presenters (myself included) feel this can break the connection between them and the audience. The panel were in agreement that the same is true for showing pre-recorded readings. If you write longer fiction, think about what excerpt(s) would work well. Don't just read at them for five minutes - stop, ask questions, keep them engaged.
- When doing Q&A, which is always popular, you might like to have children come up to the screen one at a time so they are closer to the mic. The teacher may want to control how this is done and might prefer to have children remaining in seats. Don't worry. Again, if you can't hear, just say you had trouble hearing and ask the teacher to repeat. Be kind to the children! They will feel snubbed if you tease or make them feel like it's their fault. Just explain that video calling is brilliant, but not perfect!
- The Society of Authors has this advice on charging for virtual visits (correct at time of posting). Fees vary widely. Your time has value, but don't expect schools to pay as much as they would for physical visits - there is no travel involved and, if your planning is efficient, virtual visits will be much less demanding of your time (unless you decide to run a free zoom clinic then write up a million notes. What was I thinking?!).
- Personally I have adapted my pricing as the year has gone on. The more visits I've done, the better an idea I get on what I feel comfortable charging, Money is often a really awkward point for creatives. Have a look at author/illustrator websites and see where you think you sit.
- Consider offering a school you have a personal connection with a free visit to help you practise. I sometimes do this for charities, very local schools and when I am 'road testing' a new event. When giving free visits at your discretion, make sure they know that this is something you would normally charge for. Some presenters send an invoice showing what they WOULD have charged to make the value of the visit clear. (I always ask them to keep the fact I haven't charged under their hat, as I don't want others expecting the same.)
- Ask for a testimonial, particularly if you're doing a freebie. It's only fair to get something in return!
SOME USEFUL LINKS
Virtual Authors UK
The directory of authors and illustrators available to virtually visit UK schools. Listing is FREE and open to any author or illustrator who currently has their work traditionally published in the UK. https://virtualauthors.co.uk
More Virtual Visit Tips
Most of the tips from this link are repeated in this blogpost on “Recording and Broadcasting from a Computer”, but additional information is provided for several of them here.
Overhead camera app and clamp
“Shoot” full screen iOS camera app (£4 at time of posting).
One example of an angle poise phone/webcam holder (lots of manufacturers make these, so you might want to shop around; this as an example, NOT a recommendation - make sure any you buy will fit your model of phone/webcam.)
Find your local School Library Service (scroll down page, it's well buried!)
When the world starts turning again, my top tips on 'real life events' for picture book authors can be found here. They all translate pretty directly to virtual visits.
Michelle Robinson is a