by Bruce Eschler
Many online resources have great ideas on how to prep for presentations to youth—whether you’re talking about writing, yourself, your book, or whatever topic gets your foot in the school-tours door—so this blog post isn’t going to cover the what and how. I’m going to focus on the who: those tweens and teens to whom you’re presenting. As a teacher, I spend 180 days a year with your target audience, and I’ve observed teens in many teaching scenarios, including while other adults (guest authors or newbie teachers) tried instructing or entertaining them. The sessions that tend to bore the kids and stress out the presenter fall prey to three mistakes—all of which come from not understanding the audience.
Teaching or presenting to tweens and teens can be an intimidating task. After all, kids can be honest—in other words, brutal—about whether they like your book, subject matter, or you, and/or they are often noticeably disinterested in what adults try to share with them. As a veteran teacher, I mentor new teachers and student teachers who have some of the same fears authors bring along when entering the classroom or auditorium.
The advice I’m giving you here is the same advice I give new teachers. Even if you have some experience working with large groups of kids, it’s important to note that no author’s presentation—just like no curriculum lesson—will ever go off perfectly or exactly the same each time; after all, each group of students is different. So in order to ensure that luck is on your side more often than not, you can prepare each presentation based on the needs of the audience rather than the topic.
There are three things to keep in mind any time you’re teaching or presenting to kids or teens—and those are the three big mistakes not to make.
Mistake 1: Thinking It’s About You/Your Book
But wait, didn’t the librarian or that teacher invite you to come to the school because their students love your book (or are going to love your book)? And don’t you have this great activity that will help students learn the craft of writing or learn how to create compelling characters? Sure. But you need to remember that with tweens and teens, the entire world revolves around them—not you (unless you’re J.K. Rowling, and even then only some kids are persistently orbiting the Potter Universe). There are likely to be students in attendance who are reluctant readers, who haven’t heard of you, or who aren’t thrilled about your genre. So you have to do the heavy lifting: you need to figure out a way to make what you’re presenting seem connected to them and their world, to make it relevant for them.
Here’s an example: When I teach junior high students about the elements of fiction each fall, I start with movies, not novels or short stories. Why? Because I know all of my students watched at least one, if not one hundred, movies over the summer. Movies are what most tweens and teens know and are passionate about when it comes to their experiences with “story.” When discussing fiction genres, we talk about music genres. When discussing conflict, we talk about sports and teams. Help the kids see that what they care about is actually connected to what you’re trying to explore with them, thus making it relevant. Figuring out how the content of your presentation relates to something teens already care about will get them involved—which does wonders for author anxiety and your success on school tours.
Mistake 2: Failure to Ask Questions
One of the best ways to get kids and teens involved and to help them make connections with your content is to ask them questions. There might be some trial-and-error on your part as you experiment with the right questions to ask, but teaching and presenting are just like writing: it takes practice to do them well, and that includes learning from previous attempts. Use both closed and opened-ended questions (yes/no answers and opinion-based answers, respectively). For example, recently I went to hear two of my author friends present at a library. In part of the program, they talked about books they were forced to read in school. One of them asked the simple question, “Anyone here ever been forced to read a book you didn’t like?” Then he paused as many hands from the audience flew up, tightening the kids’ connection with the presenters. Later, as the duo started discussing heroes, they asked the group of tweens and teens what makes a hero and then let the audience do the teaching for a few minutes. From my seat in the back, I could see how engaged and attentive the kids were. Most of them had never read either of these authors’ books, but because the authors brought the kids into the presentation, their audience was hooked.
Mistake 3: Forgetting to Mix It Up
Remember that kids have limited attention spans. Each of us can focus on a task or subject for only a limited amount of time before our minds wander and we become distracted. I’ve even heard that companies like 3M and Google dedicate something like 15 percent of the employee workday to free time—knowing that employee concentration suffers otherwise. For tweens and teens, the magic number is also fifteen—ten to fifteen minutes, that is. Every ten to fifteen minutes you want to switch topics, move to a new activity, or change your instructional approach from lecture to discussion or from discussion to something hands-on. Whatever you’re doing, figure out a way to break up your gig into ten-to-fifteen-minute segments.
So before you book your next—or first!—school tour, banish your anxiety and focus on eliminating these three deadly sins. Remember: kids in the classroom aren’t the only ones who can make mistakes—and if you can avoid these three, you’re on your way to a presentation that will keep them talking long after class dismisses!
Do This Now
- Put on your thinking cap and take some real time to figure out what it is about you and the topic of your presentation that is relevant to your audience. Jot down four things that will really connect them to you.
- Look at your presentation from the angle of questions—questions you can ask your audience. With your presentation in front of you, come up with at least one question for every ten minutes or so of talking that will engage the audience and give them a chance to interact with you.
- Write down at least two different hands-on activities that would complement your presentation, then figure out how to make them work.
- With your presentation in front of you, figure out four different techniques you can use to shake things up; space them out so there’s something new, interesting, and fun happening every ten to fifteen minutes.
What’s helped you reach an audience of tweens or teens? We’d love to hear about it!
Bruce Eschler teaches junior high school students most of the year, writes speculative fiction for kids as much as he can, and is hoping he’ll soon be done with his pesky doctoral program so he can focus on producing books for his agent.