Presenting Brilliant Sessions at Writers' Festivals and Schools

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Asian Festival of Children's Content, Singapore, June 2015

One of the most exciting things a creator can be asked to do is present at a book or writing festival. Not only is it an enormous profile boost, it’s a fantastic experience that will sharpen your skills, expose you to brilliant content and, of course, provide priceless networking opportunities.

Creators are either asked to present at festivals or they can submit an abstract or presentation proposal for festival organisers to consider.

When proposing any kind of presentation, it’s important to check the festival outline carefully, so you can align your presi with the expected themes and outcomes. It’s also important to offer a presi you feel comfortable with. Focus on what you know and are passionate about. If you do this, your session will be engaging and enriched by your knowledge. Side bonus: when you know your stuff, there’s less nerves.

Sometimes, a festival committee may ask you to present on a certain topic or concept of their own making. If their suggestion doesn’t resonate with you, or you feel you don’t know it well enough, don’t feel obliged to say yes. The agony and stress of presenting unfamiliar content is simply not worth it—and any good event organiser would not expect you to go so far outside your comfort zone. You could either offer something similar that more closely aligns with your experience, or something completely different but just as attractive.

As for presi ideas, think about a session that will appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Too niche—too little potential audience. Fill it with varied content that changes pace and intensity, and always, always teach your audience something they may not know. Research. Fact-seek. Dig deep. Stretch your own knowledge as much as those you’re presenting to, and you can pretty much guarantee rabid note-taking by your audience.

When it comes to actually presenting your session, here are my top tips for making it shine, for making yourself look like a pro, and for thoroughly engaging your audience.

1. STICK TO TOPIC. This is rule number one. There’s not much more frustrating than dashing off to a session, full of anticipation, only to meet with content that’s nothing like it promised to be. This happens surprisingly often and it’s exasperating for both delegates and festival organisers (who won’t be asking you back again). Keep focus on your topic, and deliver it SOLIDLY.

2. BE CLEAR. When you set out your visual presi, ensure it’s divided into clearly-delineated sections that aren’t repetitive and have a natural flow about them. Don’t jump from section to unrelated section, and be sure to refer back to your session topic as much as possible. Make the presi a journey of sorts.

3. DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOURSELF. Unless you’re supremely famous and have been asked to present a creator biopic (rare) or have been asked to present a full session on your creative processes (also rare as this is something that’s usually covered in Q&A), don’t spend the session talking about yourself, your awards, your achievements, your recent opportunities or projects. It’s boring for the audience and honestly? you just look like a braggart. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to mention a few things about your books or journey or processes, but it should be succinct and totally in sync with your presi content. Sneak-peeks and mentions are fine and can even be fun for the audience, but make them relevant and brief.

4. DON’T READ YOUR WORK unless it’s a small, dynamic, interesting, clear and session-related excerpt. If it’s short and relates to your topic, it’s fantastic, but reading an entire chapter or long excerpt is unacceptable and a complete waste of session time. People can read your work at home.

5. NO OBSCURE SESSION TITLES. Don’t bamboozle your audience with session titles or descriptions that are cryptic. Tell it like it is. Be clear.

6. MAKE IT ATTRACTIVE. Take the time to make your visual presi look good. Use harmonious colours and layouts. Images are key. Dot points are great prompts but make them succinct, as reading out a series of dot point sentences will send your audience to sleep.

7. BE A PRO. Unless you’re an experienced editor, have someone proofread your slides, especially if you struggle with spelling, grammar or punctuation. Use professionalism all the way. It’s hard to take someone seriously (especially as an author!) when their slide is full of typos.

8. GO OFF-THE-CUFF. Release your perfectionism and control, and spend time practicing off-the-cuff speaking. Reading your presentation may be more comfortable for you but it will eventually numb your audience (it really does begin to sound deadpan, no matter how dynamically you read). As you develop your skills, go out on a limb and try to speak from concise dot points or visual prompts alone. You’ll be surprised how quickly you improve if you practice, and it really does make for a more engaging talk. Remember, audiences LOVE ‘imperfect’.

9. BE ORGANISED. Don’t waste yours or your audience’s time by fossicking around in a pile of paperwork, looking for things, or having disorganised slides. Be well-prepared and things will be less stressful for you and more pleasant for your audience.

10. PACE YOURSELF. Don’t speak too quickly. Not only will you hyperventilate, lose breath and exhaust yourself, your audience will experience head spins. Slow down. Take lots of pauses. A few seconds silence may feel like an eternity to you but the audience will relish a quiet pause and you'll actually look more professional. Take a drink. Give both yourself and your audience breathing space—most especially a long pause between sections. A pause can be a nice segue for your audience and allow them to process all you’ve just said.

11. KNOW WHEN TO SHUT UP. Be concise. Always. Don’t go on and on about something and don’t go off on tangents or repeat yourself. Don’t waste your time telling a ‘story’ about something that happened in another time or place unless it’s absolutely vital for the topic at hand. Stay focused and in the now. Keep question responses short, too--and be sure to actually answer the actual question. Many's the time a response ends up having nothing to do with the question.

12. IF YOU’RE ON A PANEL. If asked to give an intro about yourself, make it really short. Make your panel contributions short. It’s absolutely horrid when someone monopolises a panel—both for the audience and for the panel participants. Don’t over-speak and don’t interrupt others. Try to make things conversational (good festivals have a mic for every single panel member)—banter and laughter is good. Try to imagine you're having a coffee with friends.

13. WATCH YOUR UMS. Umming is a subconscious, nervous reaction that’s very common when public speaking, and is used to fill pauses. Consistent umming can be exasperating and grating on your audience so the solution is to allow the pause to happen. Pausing may seem weird to the speaker, but it’s a relief to the audience, and will wipe out those irritating ums. Remember, you don’t need to fill every moment with noise.

14. LOOK AROUND. It’s important to look around the room when you speak so the audience feels engaged and included. If you find this kind of eye contact difficult, do the old ‘looking at the top of people’s heads’ trick. Also, don’t look at the same person over and over again. It may make you feel more comfortable, but it’s really unnerving for the person being looked at. If you must focus on one spot, choose a plant or a chair instead.

15. WATCH YOUR MOVEMENT. Yes, move. It’s refreshing and engaging to watch a presenter move but be wary of repetitive movement and constant pacing. It will start to make your audience seasick.

16. BE HEARD. It’s very hard for an audience to engage with you and enjoy your presentation if they can’t hear you. If you’re not using a mic, you'll need to project your voice very loudly (and just when you think it's loud enough, be even louder!). If you have a mic, put it close to your mouth--an absolute minimum of two centimetres from your bottom lip. Hold it vertically underneath your mouth so it doesn’t cover your face (a good tip is to rest it gently against your chin). If you can’t hear your voice quite prominently when you speak, you're not close enough to the mic and will need to hold it closer or speak much louder. Just ask your audience if they can hear you okay, and be conscious, throughout your presi, that your mic doesn't drop too low (this happens all the time!). Rest it on your chin and you can't go wrong.

17. TAKE HANDOUTS. Delegates love them. Even a page or two of summarised points is valuable. If you're travelling and don't want to carry handouts, take cards with your website address on them, and tell delegates that notes will be available on your site for download. This is a great way to get people to visit your site. I try to avoid asking for email addresses, as I think it's a turn-off. You can also have collateral like postcards, book brochures or business cards available for delegates to collect at the end of your session. Put them near your books so they can have a browse.

18. MENTION YOUR WORK AT THE END. If you are doing a book signing at the end of your session, don’t rely on your moderator to advise the audience of this. Tell the audience you’ll be signing books at x-location and that you’d love them to come and say hi or ask more questions. I always have my books on display if I’m doing a presentation, no matter the topic. I don’t make a song or dance about them, but there’s nothing wrong with displaying them, and people will always come up and take a look at the end of the session.

19. FINISH ON TIME. You simply cannot go over time. It’s not fair on your audience or the festival, which relies 100% on the clock. It’s really simple—practice your session timing beforehand to ensure you’ll be on track time-wise. Be sure to factor in an agreed amount of question time at the end (usually a minimum of 10 minutes).

What I find helpful is to delineate the half-way point of my presentation (during practice runs) and when I reach that slide, I look at my watch. If I’ve gone a little long, I know I need to speed up the second half and if I’ve gone too quickly, I know I can slow the second half down. This is a great technique for staying on track.

You can also ask someone for a five minute warning bell.

If you do, for some reason, finish super early, you could call for more questions, do a little exercise with participants or show some pre-prepared slides that sit quietly at the end of your presi--perfect for such urgent occasions.

20. BE IMPERFECT. Make mistakes. Laugh. Be a little kooky or silly or vulnerable. Talk to your audience like they’re old friends and let go of the formalities. It will not only make you appear ‘real’, it will energise your presi and endear you to your audience like nothing else. If you're supremely nervous about speaking or worrying what people might think of you, you might like to try my personal confidence trick:

The Two 'Stuffs'
Don't give a stuff what people think of you.
Remember ... you know your stuff.

See my post on being a super successful festival or conference delegate right here.

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