Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Value of Time - John Dougherty

Time is money, they say, and there’s a truth to that. But you can take it too far.
I’m thinking about school visits. I know I’m not the only author ever to have told a school how many sessions, and of what duration, I’m offering, only to have the organising teacher try to add in a few more with the cheery explanation, “We want to get as much value as possible out of the day!”
Now, most teachers and most schools don’t do this sort of thing. In fact, most things that can go wrong with a school visit simply don’t, on the vast majority of occasions. So before I go any further, I want to say a great big ‘Thank you!’ to all the lovely schools, teachers, teaching assistants, librarians & most of all children, who have made most of my school visits such fun for me. 
That said, there will always be a few teachers who oversimplify the relationship between time and money, and always a few authors who feel guilty enough about the need to provide value that they’ll allow themselves to be over-timetabled and over-stretched. 
Best value on an author visit, however, does not mean making sure the author works every possible moment of the day. It means making sure as many children as possible get to meet the author in a way that will most benefit them. And these are not necessarily the same.
Take me, for example, My sessions - especially with Key Stage 2 (or ‘juniors’, as we used to call them, when we thought of them as children rather than as pre-productivity economic units) - are high-energy performances in front of large groups involving readings, poetry, music, comedy, inspiration, information, Q&A and a lot of thinking on my feet, and I don’t normally do more than 3 hours in total. Yes, you could ask me to do 5 hours of sessions for smaller groups instead, but:
  1. for the first 3 hours, I’ll be trying to hold some energy in reserve for the final sessions, and so the children won’t get my best
  2. for the final 2 hours, I’ll be tired and drained and less focused, and so the children won’t get my best
  3. I tend to give better performances in front of larger groups (Foundation Stage sessions aside), and so the children won’t get my best
  4. my voice is likely to give out after much more than three hours non-stop talking and singing, leaving me hoarse and unable to speak or sing well enough, and so the children won’t get my best 
  5. a day that involves, say, an early start, a 2-hour drive, 3 hours of performance, a break of only half an hour for lunch (during which I advise one teacher who would rather be a writer and two more whose classes “don’t like reading”), 2 further hours of performance, another hour of chatting with children and adults while I sign books, and then the prospect of a further 2 hours in the car, or possibly more because it’s almost rush-hour by the time I set off, may end up with my falling asleep at the wheel and dying a horrible and agonising death, which would not only make my fee seem insufficient but would also ruin the memories of the day for those children who had otherwise benefitted from it.
And it’s not just me. Someone who offers a single 2-hour workshop for no more than 30 children isn’t doing it because they’re lazy, or because they’re scared of crowds. Perhaps the numbers limitation is because experience tells them that with more than 30 children they won’t be able to give the individual attention each child needs to make that session properly valuable. Perhaps the restriction to a single session is because if they do more than one workshop they’ll spend the first session worrying about what might go wrong in the second, and the second worrying about what did go wrong in the first. Perhaps they’ve simply tried a number of formats and settled on the one which, experience tells them, provides best value for money.
The thing is, when you book an author, you’re not just booking somebody’s time. You’re booking their skills and experience. And sometimes the latter offsets the former.
For those of you not yet convinced, I offer the following anecdote, the experience of a friend of a friend.
This friend once removed - let’s call him Bob - was a sound engineer in a recording studio that specialised in voiceovers for commercials, and on this particular day they had booked - for a sizeable fee - the celebrated actor Ian Holm to provide the requisite vocal skills.
At the appointed hour, the great man arrived and sat before the microphone. Bob gave him the script; the actor perused it and nodded at the producer. The producer pressed a button; the future Bilbo Baggins read the script into the microphone, and looked up enquiringly.
The producer listened back and said, “Thank you very much,” and Ian Holm got up and left.
Bob was astounded, and slightly appalled. “You mean to say,” he said to the producer, “that we’re paying him all that money for only thirty seconds’ work?!?
The producer turned, looked at him in the way that people do when delivering the punchline to this sort of anecdote, and said,
“It’s because he can do it in only thirty seconds that we’re paying him all that money...”


John's next book:  

 Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, illustrated by David Tazzyman & published by OUP in January 2014


Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant post, John!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like you give excellent value for your pay. :) I work in a secondary school, so you wouldn't be required to do all that song and dance, though if you had personality you would win them over. It also helps to be young and good - looking as our recent guest was - he had the girls drooling over him and annoyed a few boyfriends. ;-) I had to take him to my literacy class because he arrived way too early, and he charmed my students. I fed him before and after his talk to the kids and got in the newspapers to promote him.

Point taken about Ian Holm.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Hear, hear! I wish every school (and some bookshops) would read this! I put all my energy into a single talk to big numbers. I love the dynamic of big groups and the teachers can then run with whichever of the balls I've tossed out. I do events every day two months out of the year and sometimes travel up to six hours return trip.

But what you say is right: it's the number of kids you reach and enthuse that counts! :-)

Penny Dolan said...

Great post, John! There's another apect to author visits too, although harder to pin down : a spirit of generosity and sharing. Time and again, when schools and staff seem to value and empathise with the process of the visit, and do their best to engage with the writer's work, the whole experience takes on a more satisfying flavour. Pays back all round.

Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent points, John. And something schools can do if they want (as they should) to squeeze the most "value" out of an event, is to prepare pupils beforehand and, more importantly, follow up afterwards. The most demoralising experiences for me have been when i can see that the teachers are just baby-sitting during my talk and have no intention of using anything I've said as a springboard for anything later. After my brain events, i provide quizzes and activities that pupils can follow up on their own or (even better) the teachers can use to increase the benefit from my visit.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Brilliant post John and very timely. It gives us all courage to make rules for ourselves on what we can or cannot do. And Caroline... two months every day! You must be superwoman! Demoralising for me is when the teacher sits and marks books.

Jon Biddle said...

I'd better go and have another look at the timetable for when you visit after Christmas then...