Tuesday, 9 September 2014

10 Top Tips for Great Virtual Author Visits

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.


Are you Skyping comfortably? Then I'll begin.

A couple of years ago two school children in North Carolina emailed me to ask if I’d make a Skype visit to their elementary class. The class had read my picture book The Princess and the Pig and wanted to ask me some questions about it. I’d been thinking about offering Skype visits for some time, so I agreed. The visit went really well. I read the book to the children who'd prepared some great questions to ask me afterwards. The visit had been very quick and easy to arrange and although I’d only spent half an hour talking to the children it was obvious they'd become very enthusiastic about my books as a result.

Skype author visits are very popular in the US with many US children’s authors offering short virtual visits for free as well as longer visits for a fee. It seemed like a great way to connect with young readers both in the UK and beyond, so in June last year I started offering a limited number of free Skype school visits through my web site.

One of my virtual visits to a school in Wisconsin

I did my twentieth virtual visit last term and already have another five lined up for this autumn. Some of the schools I've visited have not had an author visit of any kind before and every school has been very appreciative. Teachers often follow up with classroom activities and schools have sent me letters, drawings and even an ebook the children created in response to my visit.

virtualauthors.co.uk
Although the technology is in place, virtual visits don’t seem to have caught on in the UK in the way they have in the US and only three of my virtual visits have been to UK schools. I think their popularity in the US is partly due to web sites such as the Skype an Author Network and Kate Messner's “Authors who Skype” web page which lists authors offering free Skype visits to US schools. So in March this year I set up virtualauthors.co.uk a directory of UK authors and illustrators offering free 15-20 minute Skype visits to UK schools.

The Virtual Authors site includes a page of advice for authors and illustrators on how to set up virtual visits, but I thought I’d offer some further advice on this blog. So here are 10 top tips for great virtual author visits.


Arranging the visit


1: Set up a web page for your virtual visits

My virtual visits page
Since I don't charge for my virtual visits, I like to keep the admin time to an absolute minimum and most of my visits are arranged with one or two short emails. The virtual visits page on my web site attempts to answer all the questions that schools might want to ask such as ‘how long does a visit last?’ or ‘is there a minimum group size?’. There’s also a booking table showing which dates are currently available. If this information wasn’t on the site I’d have to spend time responding to these questions by email. Similarly, you can ask schools to email you their visit requests, but a visit request web form with ‘required’ fields is a good way to ensure that schools provide you with all the information you need in one go.


2. Confirm the school’s Skype-name in advance

One of details you need to get from the school is their Skype-name. Teachers sometimes get this wrong, so it’s worth making sure you have the correct Skypename by sending a “contact request” via Skype in advance of the visit. I usually do this as soon as I receive the booking request to get it out the way. Ask the school (via email) to make sure that they accept the contact request and then check that they've done so a couple of days before the visit. This eliminates any problems with making contact on the day.


Five minutes before the visit


3. Make sure you'll be presentable and in frame

On a real school visit, if you have spinach in your teeth or your flies are unzipped, someone will probably point this out to you before you appear in front of a room full of children. The first time anyone will see you on a virtual visit is when you appear on the screen, so take a quick look in the mirror to check that your hair’s not sticking up at an outrageous angle or make sure you haven’t got toothpaste smeared across your chin – unless that’s the look you’re going for!

You might also want to check that your webcam is angled so that the children can see your whole face and not just the top or bottom of your head! You can check how you'll appear on your webcam by using the preview window in Skype's preferences. On a Mac, click on Skype on the menu bar, then Preferences > Audio/Visual. On a PC, click Call > Video > Video Settings.

Make sure you don't look like you've just crawled out of bed and that your face is well-framed.

4: Be seen in the right light

You don’t want the children to see you as a sinister silhouette, so make sure your face is adequately lit when you’re on camera. If you're Skyping during daylight hours, daylight from a window will often provide the best lighting. If you’re using a Mac or a PC with a large screen to Skype, bear in mind that the screen itself is a light source. If the desktop on your computer is bright green and there’s not much light coming from your surroundings, your face may be bathed in sickly green light. This might be perfect if you’re reading a horror story, but if you're not then a neutral-coloured desktop (or a blank white document) behind your Skype window will illuminate your features without a colour cast.

Unless you're deliberately going for sinister and spooky, make sure you're seen in a good light.

5. Take the phone off the hook

You don’t want anything distracting you while you talk to the children, so five minutes before the visit take your landline off the hook and switch your mobile to silent. You might also consider quitting or turning off any alert sounds for your email and Twitter accounts.

Eliminate any distractions before you Skype

6. Know who you're talking to

Even though it’s a virtual visit, you want it to feel as personal as possible. So if like me you’re not very good at remembering names, write the name of the teacher, the class or year group, the school and the school’s location on a small piece of paper and stick it right next to the camera where you’ll be able to read it without looking away from the screen.

Some tips on how to set up your screen

During the visit


7. Look at the camera – not the screen

One of the things that can make Skype conversations feel less real than face to face conversations is a lack of eye contact. Skype users tend to look at the other person’s face on the screen rather than straight into the camera. Most authors will be using a webcam that’s built into their laptop or desktop PC. It’s tempting to make the Skype window full screen so that you get a bigger image of the children, but if you have a large screen it’s worth keeping the Skype window relatively small and right next to the camera (see screen photo above). That way you can see the the whole class while keeping your eyes close to the camera, which will look a lot more natural from the children’s point of view. When I’m reading a picture book, I try to look straight into the camera for most of the time so that the children will feel I am reading directly to them.

Try to look straight at the camera when you're speaking to the children

8. Don’t shout

Try to speak at a natural volume. If you find yourself talking loudly without meaning to, it may be because you have the speaker volume set too low on your computer; the children sound quiet so you subconsciously raise your own voice to compensate for the apparent poor connection. Similarly if you’re Skyping to a large hall full of children there’s no need to raise your voice so that they can hear you at the back (as you'd do if you were there in person). If your audience can’t hear you, the teacher can turn up the volume at the school's end.

9. Ask the teacher to prompt the children's questions

My Skype sessions usually include a question and answer session. On my actual school visits I can select which children ask questions by pointing at them myself. This isn’t practical on a virtual visit as the class can’t accurately judge who you’re pointing at from your screen image. An easy way around this problem is to ask a teacher to pick and prompt each questioner in turn.

10: Take advantage of being at home

A virtual visit is no substitute for a real school visit, but speaking to the children from home does have some advantages. For instance, if you’re able to move your camera around, you can give the children a guided tour of your office. I only take a small selection of my books on my actual school visits, but on a virtual visit I have them all at hand. So If a child asks me about the first book I ever wrote or my favourite picture book by another author, I can take a copy from my bookshelf and show it to them!

Show don't tell!

I hope this post has made some of you – authors and teachers – want to give virtual school visits a try. If you're already an experienced virtual visitor and have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them, so please post them in the comments below!

And If you’re a traditionally published author or illustrator that would like to be listed on virtualauthors.co.uk, please fill out the form on this page. Most of the authors that are currently listed on the site write for older children, so it would be great to have a few more picture book authors and illustrators.



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