Know Your Audience!

For the first post in my presentation series, it’s all about the audience! Yes, I know you think it’s all about you—–after all, you’re there to talk about the book YOU wrote—–but you couldn’t be more wrong. While you might have a captive audience when you visit a school (captive is an appropriate word, considering they won’t be able to get up and go back to class until you finish), you shouldn’t treat your presentation as punishment…either for them, or for you! It should be fun, exciting and leave everyone feeling like they got something out of it. So, let’s begin.






The first time I ever did a school presentation, I was there to talk about a reading program.  My audience included 7 – 10 year olds. I’d done lots of work with kids before, made a few presentations in the past (mostly to adults), and knew my program inside and out. It was something they’d really enjoy once they got started. This was going to be easy!



I’d made a list of everything I needed to cover in the quick 10 minute presentation, and had all of my book examples there at the ready. My table was neat, I smiled as much as I could….and I talked straight for ten minutes without engaging them for even 30 seconds. I left the school feeling miserable. Why hadn’t they been as excited as I was about this program? Why didn’t anyone ask any questions? Why did the teacher have to keep interrupting me to quiet the group?



It was a lousy presentation, that’s why. I didn’t even think about the one hundred-plus  kids sitting there uncomfortably on the floor of the library. I thought they were there to see me! Sure, they were probably glad to be out of class for a few minutes, but I might as well have been talking about world finances, or how to properly put down sand when it gets icy outside. They just didn’t care.






When you go into a school to do a presentation, whether it’s a book talk or an author reading, remember that even if they’ve invited you to come, you’re there to see them, not the other way around…at least until you become J.K. Rowling famous. Sure, you have this fabulous book to talk about, and hopefully, they’ll want to know more about it and you (you’re practically a celebrity!), but you must engage them before you even get to that. Ninety percent of the time, this formula will work: it’s what I like to call the ‘Props vs. Wackiness’ choice. You should probably make one.



Whether you have a room full of wiggly seven-year-olds or a class filled with indifferent teenagers makes a big difference in how you’re going to approach your presentation. Little kids need visuals. I can’t say this enough. LITTLE KIDS NEED VISUALS. (Should I say it again? Okay, I won’t, but you can repeat it quietly to yourself while I continue.) By visuals, I don’t mean just bringing along a copy of your book that you hold up once in a while. I mean big bright pictures, or silly props, or even better….both! I know a librarian who has a crazy slipper collection and she wears a pair when doing any kind of school visit. Sometimes, she’ll bring several pair and change into them while talking about books. She doesn’t even need to talk about the slippers…they are enough to get the kids to watch, to anticipate another pair. Anything to get them looking at you and feeling good about being there.



Erin Bow, a Canadian YA author, regularly does a presentation where she brings a two-foot stack of manuscripts which represents her revision work with her editors. Not only is this a great way to talk to kids about the writing process and all that goes into it, she has examples right at her fingertips. She can bring out a page full of red pen and show it to the students. See? Even published authors have their work marked!



At one of my middle grade book talks last year, I was at a loss for something to bring. I’d done giant ninja pig graphics the year before to go along with one of the books, and done magic tricks the year before that while doing a talk that included a magic book. Finally, I hit on the idea that I hoped would work. I went to Dollarama and found the biggest ziplock baggie I could find, a silly pair of kid’s underwear, some laundry detergent and a bottle of water.  When I began my presentation, I didn’t tell the kids what the props were all about. I just took out the bag, popped the underwear into it, poured on some detergent and a bit of water, and then went to town squishing, squeezing, and shaking the whole mixture together while I talked about the reading program. There wasn’t one pair of eyes that weren’t glued to me the entire time, and yes, they even remembered what I talked about when I questioned them at the end of the presentation. (The whole underwear in the bag thing was a little piece of trivia from one of the books in my presentation. Apparently, this was how astronauts washed their clothes up in space early on. Whether that’s true or not, it got—and kept—their attention.)



So, get some props. Use them. Maybe it’s something that will apply to your book. Maybe you haven’t had time for lunch and making that giant sandwich in front of everyone is purely for selfish reasons, but it will do the trick.



Props don’t always work for older audiences, however.  They’ll see through the distraction quite quickly and will make sure you know they know. (Ever see those sullen faces on teens who want you to know they’re bored? Yeah. Good luck with your presentation once you start seeing those.) Here’s where ‘Wackiness’ comes in. I swear, if I were Rainbow Rowell, I’d start every last one of my high school presentations with an “Emergency Dance Party”! Nevermind, maybe it’s something I’ll just start doing myself anyway. Bring along a boombox of some sort, plug in an iPod, announce that you have only one or two dance moves, but that you’re going to have the Emergency Dance Party right now and they’re welcome to join in. Then, turn it on, turn it up and get dancing.  Maybe no one will join you. Maybe everyone will. Doesn’t matter. You got their attention, and now you can run with it.



Not everyone will be comfortable doing the wackiness thing, I know that. But humor is always a great ice-breaker. Maybe you can just tell a funny story about when you were in high school, or something that happened to you on the way over. If anything, it will loosen YOU up and make the whole scary idea of doing a presentation a little easier.



Of course, if you’re there to talk about a book you wrote on the horrors of concentration camps in Nazi Germany, or someone dying of cancer, you probably should avoid the crazy slipper collection and the Emergency Dance Party. (Or maybe not!) This is the other ten percent of the choice. Plan to open with a story related to your book, or even a passage from the first few pages to really hit them hard with emotion and/or danger. After that, you’ll have them.



Always think ahead and have several different presentations based on your target audience. If you’re doing a book signing and reading at a local bookstore, you’ll have the gamut of participants….children (if it’s a kids book), teens, and adults. Anticipate this. Aim for the middle ground and at the very least, have on a great pair of shoes, or a fun sweater. If you’re boring, at least they’ll have something interesting to look at! 😉



Props, audience engagement, and preparation are just some of the things you’ll need in order to do a great presentation. It takes practice, so get out there and see what works for you. It might not go well every time, and what works one place might fall flat in another, but you’ll learn from it each time.



Join me back here on Friday for my next installment of presentation advice where I’ll be talking about office supplies! Trust me, you won’t want to miss this!



Heidi Sinnett






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