Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Author events from the other side - by Nicola Morgan

No, not visits from dead authors. I mean seeing author events from the other side, the side that's not the author's side. And not from the audience's side, either. From the event organiser's side.

I was thinking this the other day, after writing another blog post about organising author events, which was aimed at organisers. It struck me that sometimes we - the people giving the talk - spend a lot of time working to make sure that the audience has a beneficial experience and also a fair amount of time afterwards fretting about whether we've been given coffee, treated well, introduced properly, paid sufficiently, respected. Those things - how well we prepare and how well we are looked after - are very important to the overall experience of not just us, but our audience, because if we are relaxed and positive we are likely to do a better job. But they are far from the whole story and we may have become blind to something else important and useful.

How about we walk a mile in the shoes of the event organiser? I'm not talking about stealing their shoes, though if they were gorgeous I might well be tempted. I'm talking about looking inside their heads, properly, sympathetically, and then using what we find there to help create a really good event, one that is not only great for the audience and us but great for the person who bridges the void between the audience and us, person who can make a real difference: the organiser. Because just as the event is better when I'm happy, the event is better when the organiser is happy, too.

Let's call the event organiser Mary. (This is not code for "I'm thinking of an actual person called Mary but let's pretend I'm not." As far as I can remember I don't know a Mary who has ever organised an event for me. It's just a name, and a very nice one.)

Mary may be nervous about meeting us. This is apparent from phrases we often hear Mary use when introducing us to people, such as "real live author" or "famous author", or from her high-pitched laugh or her exasperated voice as she tells a group of kids, "I told you five times that the library would be closed at lunch-time - we have an  author visit." To Mary, we are not just a stranger, we are a stranger who has been dominating her emails/work/life for a few weeks or months; we are a stranger who may be strange - and often are; we are a stranger who may wreck her day and reputation by delivering a bad event; we are a stranger whose services take up some of her department's precious money; we are a stranger who may actually be "famous"; we are a stranger who may be judging her and leaping to wrong conclusions about her.

Mary's nerves may also be apparent from the fact that she forgets to introduce us, or introduces us badly, or says, "This is Nicola Morgan, who needs no introduction." She may genuinely think I need no introduction. I do very need one, because without one I feel inadequate, but Mary doesn't know that. She just wants to get the hell off the stage and back into the audience. I had one organiser once who was so nervous that she forgot my name entirely, at the very moment when she said, "I'd like to welcome..."

Mary has other things to do than my event. My event is not actually the most important thing in her life. It may well be the most important thing of that week, possibly even longer, but it's not the only thing she's worrying about.

Mary has no idea what I'm feeling. She has never had to "perform" in front of a large audience of 14year-old strangers. She probably thinks, if she thinks about it at all, that because I've done it for years I am totally relaxed. She would almost be right, but it's that "almost" that's crucial. She certainly doesn't know that there are several innocent things she can do which will topple my equilibrium. Years ago, before I was published, I had to organise an author visit to my daughters' school. I'm cringing as I think about how little I understood what those "famousauthors were thinking or how cack-handedly I treated them, but I know that I was wrapped up in my own stress.

Mary is worried that she might have forgotten something. She's made a huge list on the back of her repeat prescription form, but, although she knows she's done everything on the list, apart from order her repeat prescription, she's still worried she might have forgotten to put something on the list in the first place. Which is worrying.

She is also worried that George is going to do his mad-March-hare-crazy misbehaving thing again and she is particularly worried because she's just noticed that George is sitting next to Michael, which she'd expressly asked the teachers to make sure didn't happen, not least because Michael is supposed to be leaving early for his anger management class.

She is not only worried: she is also excited. She has a lot invested in this day. She had to bid for the funding and she's going to have to justify the outcomes. She really wants it to go well. She wants the pupils to be inspired by the talk, library borrowings and reading interest to rise in the ensuing weeks, the teachers to feel it was worthwhile and me to be happy and impressed with the school, the pupils and the library and...and...she's studying my face as I arrive and I'm looking a bit tense and now she's worried that I've just had the experience of walking through the foyer while Year 9 were stampeding to lunch. Or meeting Shannon and Donna from Year 10, who she's pretty sure are waiting outside the Head's office. Because they often are.

So, Mary is nervous, worried and excited and that's a recipe for things not to be completely perfect.

How can we, the authors, help Mary and therefore help ourselves? In my view, it's simple, as soon as weve have recognised what Mary's shoes feel like to walk in. Here are my five tips:

1. Prepare Mary. Make sure that she knows exactly what we need, in advance. In my case, these needs are on my website, on the page which I have asked her to read, and can be summed up as follows: a) she (or someone) will give me an introduction which makes the kids feel they are going to have a great event b) the kids will have been prepared and at least some will have looked at my website and thought about questions c) a few minutes of peace and quiet just before an event and between events. That's all. If Mary knows that, she can stop a whole load of her worrying.

2. Remind Mary. Mary may have forgotten everything in point 1 above, so remind her a couple of days before the event.

3. Forgive Mary. Because you have walked in her shoes and noticed that they are a bit leaky in wet weather and not really as comfortable as they could be. Especially the bit pressing on the toe that the pile of books fell on last week.

4. Smile at Mary. Smile at everybody you meet, even George and Michael and Shannon and Donna. Smile when you arrive. Smile when you shake Mary's hand. Smile as you walk with her to the library and after she's told the kids yet again that the library is closed because there's an author visit. As the well-known saying almost goes: "Smile and Mary will smile with you." And then everything will be all right and, if it isn't, smile anyway.

I honestly think point 4 is far more important than we might think. It's about first impressions, chemistry, putting people at ease. You're a bit anxious, but Mary is more anxious; take control of the situation; don't be a victim of Mary's anxiety or your own - cure it with a smile. Even if Year 9 did stampede all over you on their way to lunch and you met George on a mad March hare crazy day and Michael when he'd forgotten his medication and Shannon and Donna when they were just being Shannon and Donna. George, Michael, Shannon and Donna are probably nervous, too. And Mary. Besides you get to go home and not come back; they don't.

And you have chocolate in your bag. Because that's the fifth tip: Have chocolate in your bag.

You could even share it with Mary.


Farah Mendlesohn said...

I am a regular event organiser, and would be happy to do a guest post. This is a lovely, sympathetic portrayal, but I found it unrecognisable.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Farah. If you are a regular event organiser this won't apply to you at all :). I perhaps should have clarified that I'm talking about school events but I didn't think of doing so because the blog is about children's writers/writing anyway - apologies. And of course not everyone is like my Mary example, but I feel that often enough the organiser (who is not a professional organiser) most likely has those worries/issues - as I certainly did when I had to organise things before I'd done any talks myself.

adele said...

What an excellent post! Agree with everything and would add...If Mary smiles and seems friendly, I'll forgive almost everything. If she doesn't/can't introduce me, I'm happy to introduce myself. But then I'm a show off and love performing. It's not the same for every writer. And I have NO CHOCOLATE in my bag for reasons of girth, etc. But if Mary wants to offer me one afterwards, I won't refuse.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think this is great, Nicola - it's all too easy for us all to get wrapped up in our own particular bubble of need and nervousness!

bookwitch said...

I remember my first, which was waiting for Adele Geras, aka superstar author. It was reassuring to find she was quite normal and even willing to talk to lowly library helpers.

Nicola Morgan said...

Bookwitch - "quite" normal..? I bet she smiled, too.

Penny Dolan said...

Whenever I've organised author or illustrator events (not in schools) I've found they take up a whole lot of admin contacting time beforehand, plus practical stuff like checking of the room and chairs, making sure required materials are present, jugs of water, lunches, and more. Then one is concerned for the speaker too, wanting them to be happy.

Not to mention relying on enough other adults around to cover all the "social" needs, such as showing kids/adults where the loos are, meeting and greeting parents at the door, organising book sales etc etc.

There's even the dreadful possibility that, having set up an event and publicised it, so few are keen to come that one has to cancel the event and tell the speaker. A truly awful task!

All in all,I'd say that in some ways, organising sessions are even more nerve-wracking than doing them myself. A good, thoughtful post, Nicola.

Elspeth Scott said...

Thank you for this, Nicola. As a school librarian who organises author visits (on the rare occasion she manages to get funding) you have summed up very accurately how I usually feel. I'm happy to say that our pupils have always greatly enjoyed author visits and as several authors have made return visits, I think it must usually gone OK in spite of my fears.

Jenny said...

As a children's writer and ex-primary English specialist/organiser of any number of author visits, I can't say how much I enjoyed these useful and humane tips. Many thanks, Nicola. (Hoping to be on the 'visiting' side before long!)

Shrewsbury Bookfest said...

This is a gorgeous, lovely, heartfelt piece on hosting an author visit from the organiser's point of view. Thank you Nicola for taking the time to think about how it feels and to offer such sympathetic advice.