A school assembly provides a wonderful platform for promoting your book and introducing yourself to your audience, but you’d better be ready to put on a show.
There’s one thing I was unprepared for in my career as a writer: how much public speaking and performing I was going to have to do. It makes sense for a musician to have to put on public performances as a way to promote their music, but for an author, it has always struck me as kind of weird. Frankly, part of the appeal of becoming a writer in the first place was that I wouldn’t have to do anything in public. But let me tell you, if you write children’s books, the best way to promote and sell your books is to get out there and put on a show. Literally.
Schools love having authors come in to do school assemblies. It’s a fun way to promote literacy and a nice change of pace for students and teachers.
Now that it’s summer, this is the perfect time to hone your presentation and start to get some gigs lined up for the coming school year.
Classroom visit vs. assembly
By the way, there are two different kinds of school visits: classroom visits, where you are speaking to one or possibly two classrooms; and assemblies, where you are speaking to possibly hundreds of kids. Both are great, but there’s a difference that goes beyond just the number of students you’ll be speaking to. A classroom visit is a quiet, intimate event. You can simply read your book (or part of it) aloud and take questions. This is especially true for younger children. That won’t work for an assembly. There you’re going to be expected to put on more of a spectacle.
You’re going to want to double check this when you’re booking your visit, but a typical assembly is going to last one period, which is 50 minutes. That doesn’t mean you need 50 minutes of material. You really only a good solid 20 minutes. The rest of the time will be taken up by getting the kids seated, introductions, answering questions, and (hopefully) some time for kids to meet you and buy a book.
Keep an eye on the clock. Don’t go too long as kids’ days are tightly scheduled and they have places to be.
The key to a successful assembly presentation is to make it 50% educational and 50% fun. You don’t have to do anything truly deep or sophisticated — this is especially true if you’re going to be speaking to younger (K-2) kids. You just need to get kids involved.
If you are promoting a book with a strong message, then your presentation should be about that. Not only will that help you sell more books, but it’s also a subject you’re already familiar with.
If your books don’t have a strong moral, then you want to do a presentation that is in the spirit of your book. For example, my Mr. Pants books aren’t really about anything, they’re more just excuses to explore sibling and parent-child relationships. I could have chosen to do an assembly on family relationships, I guess, but my books are irreverent. They’re like Seinfeld for kids. Anything the slightest bit serious would have been out-of-step with the books. Instead, I did a presentation on the art of storytelling. This allowed me to be funny and to talk about something kids are interested in.
If you’re still not sure what to talk about, you can ask the teachers what they’re studying in school and see if there’s a way to tie that in to your book. Teachers will love you if you can do an assembly that relates to what they’re teaching.
Don’t panic if you are expecting to do an assembly for first and second graders and then find out that the entire elementary school is going to be there. That happens. Again, teachers love assemblies; I have found that, more often than not, every class is going to want to get in on the action—especially if you’re performing in the winter, in the middle of a long stretch between holidays. This shouldn’t be a problem for your presentation unless you’re really focused on something only younger kids will be interested in. Again, keeping things light and general is going to appeal to a wide age range, so you should be fine.
However, if you are visiting a school that is K-8, be sure to let the school know what age range you’re targeting, because, unless you’re a magician, you’re not going to be able to please that wide of an age gap. You can easily do a presentation that will appeal to 6-8 graders, or K-5, but not both groups.
Visual props are great. These can be as simple as puppets or printed pictures (though make sure they’re large enough to be seen from 50 feet away). But doing a more AV-centric presentation is better.
Be sure to let the school know what you need, like a microphone, and/or a projector and screen. I’ve learned from experience that your computer may not be compatible with their projection system, so either bring your own collection of AV cables or bring a thumb drive with your presentation on it so you can use their computer (which is probably already hooked up to a projector). If you put together your presentation on a Mac computer, make sure whatever program you’re using is compatible with the school’s computer, which is likely to be Windows.
And don’t forget to project your name and book title at the beginning and the end of your presentation. A little branding never hurts.
Unless you’re a professional comedian, you’re going to lose your audience if your presentation is just you talking for 20 minutes. Be sure to engage the kids to keep them interested.
Ask questions. In my presentation on the art of storytelling, I began by asking the kids who they’d rather be, Batman or Superman. This got them involved right away and they were immediately excited because I was asking about a topic they don’t normally get to discuss in school. Warning: if kids are excited about the question and have strong feelings about it, they will shout, so be sure to emphasize beforehand that everyone should raise their hands.
Ask for volunteers. Get kids to come up and help you. This always lights up the room. Maybe have a prepared activity for them to do, like act out a simple play, or ask them to hold props.
Take a poll. Maybe you have an overarching lesson you want to teach. A good way to begin your presentation is to ask kids how they feel about the subject, then poll them again afterward to see if you’ve changed their minds
Tell a story
Stories are how we learn. They offer us a way to see the world from a different perspective. Plus, they’re inherently interesting. At some point in your presentation, if you can, you should tell a story, which will help you pull your kids in. It can be fiction or it can be from your life. Stories also offer you great opportunities to ask questions: “And do you know what happened next?”
Sing, dance, juggle…
Hey, if you have any fun performance talents, here’s a good time to show them off. Heck, if you’re a terrible juggler, that could be a great gag. Kids like it when adults are good at things, but they absolutely LOVE it when adults aren’t afraid to be goofy and make jokes at their own expense.
By the way, when talking to kids, make sure you just talk to them in a normal voice. Don’t talk down to them. Use the same tone of voice you’d use when talking to an adult. It helps to modify your vocabulary, but don’t be afraid to use big words. Remember, kids are smart, most of the time they’re going to figure out the gist of what you’re saying through context. If you use a word and you think kids don’t know what that means… this is a good opportunity to ask a question: “Does anyone know what I mean when I say ‘antagonist?’”
Kids will want to ask you questions, and this is often the most interesting part of the assembly, so be sure to leave plenty of time for this.
Note, however, that younger kids aren’t necessarily going to ask you questions, they want to tell you things, and often these things will have little to do with what you’ve been talking about for the past 20 minutes. They’ll tell you things their brother did or how they went to the zoo last weekend. Don’t panic or think that your whole presentation has gone completely over their heads. This is normal. See if you can tie it back in to your point. If you can’t — and trust me, it’s often not easy — you can just reply with a short, positive quip (“Wow, that’s great!” or “Your brother sounds like a real comedian!”) and move on to the next question.
Putting on a great assembly is not a “set it and forget it” kind of deal. You’re going to find that some things work better than others, and things you may have thrown in as a side note will unexpectedly make a huge splash. Keep tweaking your presentation, and don’t be afraid to try something new.
Also, every audience is different. So something that worked great in your first show may bomb in your next, and vice versa. It’s not always clear what’s going to work or why it works. I made an off-the-cuff joke at one show that killed, so I used it in my next few appearances and each time it was met with crickets. If something bombs, don’t stress, just keep going. Kids quickly forgive and forget.
Tune in next time
If you are nervous about the idea of performing in front of hundreds of kids, don’t be. In the next article I’ll go over how to get school gigs, and to properly prepare for them so your audience will love you even before you arrive.
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