Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Top Tips for Tip Top Events - by Nicola Morgan

Lots of hard work goes into producing the best school/library* events - hard work from the author/illustrator* and hard work from the organiser. Based on hundreds of different sorts of events over the years, and after learning more from my mistakes than successes, I thought I'd put together my top tips for each side.

(*I'll just say "school" from now on but I'll mean "school or library etc" and "author" will mean "author, illustrator or storyteller" - btw, see Sarah McIntyre's excellent post about authors/illustrators.)

Top Tips for Organisers

  1. Before sending the invitation: choose your author because you genuinely want that author, not just any bod with a pen; investigate their website so you know what they do; work out your budget; get relevant staff on-side.
  2. In your invitation, say you'd really love to invite them and what for; ask about fees and expenses; say what you are hoping for during the day (eg two workshops for Y4 and Y5 and a ten-minute assembly slot). 
  3. During the conversation, make sure you are clear about year groups, audience size, timings, etc, but be as flexible as you can. The author will know what works for her/him and you'll do no one any favours by making an author jump through hoops if that authors doesn't jump through hoops. 
  4. Discuss bookselling. Some authors prefer to bring their own books to sell; others prefer you to use your normal supplier. (Note that authors earn very little per book, so this does not make much difference to income, but we like to foster bookselling, for many reasons.) Don't forget to build time into the day for this.
  5. Ask the author in advance what support they need on the day: Being collected from station? Or directions. Lift/taxi back to station? //  Coffee etc on arrival? Other food during the day? Time-out?  //  Technical equipment. (Powerpoint presentations are always best sent in advance and set up ready.) Any other equipment?
  6. Well before the event, brief all relevant staff and generate excitement. Relevant subject-teachers should know about the author and have read some of their works, and class or subject-teachers should brief pupils, get them excited and have them prepare interesting questions.
  7. If you're having bookselling, make sure every child who wants to buy a book can. In practice this means sending a letter home and somehow making sure it gets there. There is little more upsetting for an author than carting dozens of books around, or expecting a bookseller to, and then no one buying one because a) time was not set aside b) book-selling was not advertised and c) money did not appear.
  8. Always introduce the author to each audience in a positive and upbeat way. "Today we have a famous author..." is a great way to boost the spirits of an author facing a class of kids who really don't know who he/she is. It boosts the audience's spirits, too.
  9. Make sure the author's books are in the libraray. It's fantastic to arrive in a school and see a display about us: could you get selected pupils to make one?
  10. Follow up: for the event to have the most effect on the pupils, the following equation is the only one to go for: preparation + good event + follow-up = great event + long effect. So, get pupils to write about or respond to the event in some way. What did thy like about it? What did they learn?
In short: positivity, clarity, professionalism, preparation, detail and excitement.

Top tips for authors
  1. Make sure your website is very clear about what you do and don't do.
  2. When the invitation arrives, wave your crystal ball and listen to the twitchings of your finger-tips. The forewarnings of a good/bad experience are usually there. The following are good signs: the organiser has obviously read your website; the organiser knows fairly clearly what she/he wants; your fee will be adequate; they really do want you. These may be bad signs: the invitation is to "Dear Sandra," when that's not your name; they try to beat your fee down to an amount you don't feel happy with or tell you what a good promotional opportunity it will be. I don't blame a school for trying, but it suggests a lack of understanding of what we do and how we (don't) earn a living. Some great events can be run on a shoestring but enthusiasm, efficiency and respect have to be 100%.
  3. Be very clear at the start exactly what you are agreeing to do and for what fee+expenses. Create a T&C document, which organisers must agree to. (Mine is on this page here - scroll down to "What to do next".) 
  4. Learn from each event what you need and what makes you work most effectively. If you need a break between each event, say so. If you need to have lunch-time on your own or go for a walk, say so. If you need a ball of candy floss, don't say so - that's just annoying. 
  5. Prepare perfectly and be über-organised. But always have a Plan B.
  6. If you're having book-selling, check that the organiser has done the requisite sending home of letters about bringing in money. And check again. 
  7. I find that the "geography" of the room makes a huge difference to how comfortable I feel and therefore how well I perform: the distance from the audience, the lectern or table, the acoustics, the position of my laptop if I'm using Powerpoint, whether teachers are pacing up and down the edges like security guards. Some of these you can't control but two things help: seeing the room beforehand, so you can adjust your table as required and stand there absorbing the vibe and imagining the event; and recognising what things make you tense and learning to breathe through them when they happen.
  8. Take easy snack foods with you - my preferred ones are nuts and dried fruit. They keep for ages and are easy to snack on when blood sugar drops, either just before or just after your talk. Ideally not in the middle, as pistachio nut in teeth is not a professional look.
  9. Remember that the organiser will very likely be stressed and nervous. Usually, they want everything to go well and a lot rides on it for them. A warm smile and a kind remark go a long way. 
  10. If something goes wrong, whoever's fault it is, keep smiling and always be professional. Learn from it, if necessary. If it goes right, be proud - and say thank you. When an event goes well, everyone gains.
In short: positivity, clarity, professionalism, preparation, detail and excitement.

I think a lot of it comes from trying to put ourselves in each other's shoes. We need to understand what schools want and they need to understand what we can give and how to help us give it.

I love the mutual buzziness of a good school event, one where they wanted me and they knew what they wanted from me, and I worked my posterior off to give it to them. 

Thinking of asking me to come and do an event on the brain/stress for your pupils? I have a better and much cheaper idea: buy a Brain Stick™ :)


Sue Bursztynski said...

I don't get a chance to do school visits, myself, because I work in the school system, but I do organise visits for my school. Mostly, here at least, you deal with the author's speaker agency, not directly with the guest speaker herself. That costs more, because the agency wants a fee on top of the author's fee, but it means you don't have to go through all the negotiating, on either side. Most writers here, unless they are very famous(in which case my school just doesn't have the money to invite them anyway) charge the Australian Society of Authors' suggested fee - again, that simplifies things. It also means you have to be very precise about what you want. They sometimes want travel costs, even if they live in the same city.

I don't request workshops, because that means only a few kids can enjoy the visit. I set up the library and whatever year level is doing it sits on the floor since that's the only way to fit them all in. I do all the things you mention above, plus I offer to contact the local papers, who sometimes send out a photographer, though not always. And I always, always, feed our guests!

I ask them if they want to sell some books, but warn them most of our kids can't afford to buy any and suggest they just bring a few. By that time, I will have bought some for the library anyway, and encouraged kids to read them, but I usually buy some from my own pocket, from the author to offer as prizes for good questions( they choose the winners).

Hopefully, the guests are happy with all this; in any case, I haven't yet had complaints and I usually stay in email contact with them.

Heather Dyer said...

Great post Nicola, and your information on your events is wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, heather :)

Sue, it sounds as though you treat your guest speakers brilliantly! We don't have suggested fees here. And I don't think it would work, as there are so many different parameters, taking very different amounts of time for the author. Useful having guidelines, I agree, and we (UK SoA) have a document giving some examples of what some authors charged last year. I think the main thing is openness: the organisers have to say what they want/need and the speakers have to say what they can/can't do. Mutual respect :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

The suggested fees are just that - suggestions. They don't have to abide by them. I know of one lady who asks for a very small amount per student with a minimum number of students. That works for her, and for the schools, because it means they don't have to charge lots of money to kids who can't afford it and for her it means she has a minimum fee, with the possibility of more, depending on the numbers in the school. Win-win.

But the ASA rates give somewhere to start."This is the ASA rate and I'm not going below it."

Of course, as I've said, the big names can charge what they like and the wealthier schools will pay it.

PS Thanks for the snack food suggestion, next time I'll offer it, as well as lunch and tea/coffee. ;-)

Candy Gourlay said...

Terrific post, Nicola. I like that you did it from the two different perspectives. I will link to this from my school visits page

Nicola Morgan said...

Sue, the snack food is something I recommend the author brings her/himself, tbh. Different foods suit different people and i have my own patent blend of things :) Though i think providing or offering some food is really important, as the author may not have eaten beforehand, especially if travelling a distance.

The fee thing is endlessly interesting. I don't think most UK authors charge by level of famousness. I know very big names who charge very little and others who charge a lot. I think people charge a combination of what they can and what feels right, right for them and just "right and fair".

Thanks, Candy ;)

Nick Green said...

I also ask for a bowl of only green M&Ms.

Ask, mind you.

Ah. One day.

Nicola Morgan said...

You can have my M&Ms but you'll have to pick the green ones out yourself ;)

C.J.Busby said...

But if you leave the other colours in, he won't know you've REALLY paid attention to his list of requirements, Nicola!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Nicola. really helpful.
Schools and festivals need feedback. I think if you've had a really positive experience, it goes a long way and helps the industry if you write pretty snappliy afterwards to say how much you've enjoyed the experience/ the helpfulness of the teachers/ the front of desk/ evn the great artwork in the passages. Just written to a school on the Isle of Wight this morning and bingo they want to put the email in their newsletter. When a school has a good experience they'll be happy to invite other authors in.