The Wonder of the Webcam: Tips for Virtual School Visits

Webcam_IconBecause I live in London, England and much of my professional life as a children’s and YA author happens in the North America, I often do virtual school visits via Skype and Facetime.

Regardless of what a technophile may tell you, I wouldn’t quite call virtual visits a perfect, painless substitute for an in-person presentation (nothing’s as good as interacting with readers in person), but that doesn’t mean virtual visits don’t work. In fact, they can be great fun and allow to connect with readers you would never otherwise meet.

The important thing is making them run smoothly. Here’s what I’ve learned to help make that happen…

1. Test Your Connection Beforehand

By this point in the millennium nearly all of us have had at least one epic struggle with the technical requirements. (Shudder. If anyone reading this craves writing a modern update of Dante, make Meeting the Technical Requirements a circle of hell. I’ll read it.)

Hellish or not, it’s true that if your visuals and especially your audio aren’t clean and crisp, everything falls apart. So let the host organisation know you want to do a separate, advance test of your connection as early as possible.

I usually try to arrange a test one week prior to the actual visit, at around the same time of day, so as to mimic the approximate web traffic for that period.

2. Screen-Sharing = Blegh

When I present in person, I often use slide projection to show the relationship between text and illustrations, or how the freedom of poetry lets words move across the page—as they do in Zorgamazoo, like this:

Zorgamazoo pp 74-5

It is possible to screen-share via Skype and Facetime, allowing your audience to see your own computer screen, but I’ve found this is a risk. Depending on their size, images can take a while to transfer, which can fiddle with your audio and make communication difficult. Worse, when you screen share, your own image vanishes. Vanishing is also blegh.

Better to have the images printed out, along with a prop or two if necessary, ready for when you present. All you have to do is hold them up to the webcam and interact with them physically. Trust me, it works better than screen-sharing.

3. Expand the Q&A

When I did my first virtual presentation, I thought I could something very similar to what I do when I visit a school or library in the flesh. I figured I would give my talk, lead a simple activity, and then have 10 mins at the end for questions.

I quickly learned that what readers want from a visit—especially a virtual visit—is you, the author. The reason for this is obvious: You’re far away. Why else are you doing a virtual visit in the place? But when you’re just a talking head on the wall, some of your ability to interact is lost.

This means you ought to maximise interaction, and the simplest way to do that is with direct questions and answers. I’ve found it goes a long way to making up for the lack of physically sharing the space. Finally, if you’re worried there won’t be enough questions, arrange for students to pre-prepare questions in advance.

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That’s it. If you’re also an author with experience presenting your books in virtual school visits, please share your experiences, and if you have tips to add to these, please feel free leave them as a comment below. Thank you! RPW

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