As an author who specializes in writing fiction for the younger generation, I know that a good portion of speaking engagements will be with that younger generation (more specifically, middle and high schoolers). Now, with a few of those (terrifying!) experiences under my belt, I’d like to help my fellow writers out with a brief checklist that will keep the word “boring” or “awkward” far from those teens’ thoughts!
1. Be yourself. When I was getting ready for a day at a high school recently, I put on a boring pendant in place of the quirky necklace I love. Five minutes later, I swapped out the pendant for my fave. I told you that to say this: Be yourself. Show your writing through your style and in your presentation. If you write quirky stories, don’t be afraid to be quirky. I’ve found in my visits that the “reading” students often have the funniest, biggest personalities. They’ll appreciate someone who isn’t afraid to be just what we are–crazy writers:) And you might get a compliment on that necklace!
2. Just say no to death by PowerPoint. Unless you have the funniest slides, like, ever, just don’t do it.
3. Talk about your book. It wasn’t until I was about ten minutes into several of my talks that some teenager would raise his or her hand and say, “So what is your book about?” Oops. As much as I want to inspire others to write and talk about getting into the biz, getting down to the nitty gritty, that is, the book, is an important part of why you’re there.
4. Know your–ahem–stuff. At one point, I was talking about the “big five” publishers, and a kid asked me who they were. I mixed two of them up, and even if those kids don’t fact check me, it’s a failing on my part not to know my business like the back of my hand.
5. Know the rules. Thankfully, I have successfully reminded myself each time to remember that this is a school. As a visitor, I need to keep my speech to the point, which includes my books, what it’s like to be a writer, and the publishing biz. Topics such as religion and politics are off the table. I have had some success discussing the purpose of foul language in writing and how the kids respond to it, but that’s about as far as I feel I should go. I’ll leave heavier debates for the people who know the parameters better than I do. That’s right–those hard working teachers!
6. Do some research – Part I: Know your audience. Are they an English class? Creative writing class? What’s the school’s mascot? If you have a chance to speak with the teacher, what are the kids working on or reading? All of this knowledge opens doors for you to connect with your audience.
7. Do some research – Part II: Use this opportunity to connect with the very people you’re writing for! I ask the audience plenty of questions about their favorite books, authors, and genres. What do they like or not like in a book? In the meantime, I’m also engaging them.
8. Which leads me to…don’t talk the whole time! Twenty minutes is about the max for anyone to sit and listen to a speech. It is. So, if you have a longer presentation, you’d better break it up if you don’t want students to use your talk as sleep catch-up time. Give them fun writing exercises, or even a book quiz where they can win a prize (your book maybe?). Or, make sure to keep most of the discussion Q&A, addressing their interests instead of just what you think is interesting.
9. No PowerPoint. Did I say this already? Anyway, you hate it, I hate it, they hate it. If you want graphics, use the Internet creatively or very visual PP slides, at the least.
10. Have fun. Kids are crazy smart. They’ll know if you are enjoying yourself, so make the experience as fun for you as you hope it will be for them, and everyone will win.