How to Host a Visiting Author or Speaker

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At one of my favorite stops, the JCC in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo taken by my childhood friend, Kate Carey Mutschler.)

I wrote yesterday about what I learned about touring as an author. But I also—as you can imagine—have many thoughts on what made a good or less-good host for my events:

  • Make sure your speaker has a way to get to and from the airport.
  • It’s lovely if you’d like to offer to show your speaker around town, but give her an easy out; i.e., don’t just plan to usurp her entire day taking her sightseeing. Always make every extracurricular activity optional and easy to decline. (Great way to ask: “Do you have time this afternoon to …?”) She might want to sightsee on her own or spend the day holed up and working. When you’re touring, it involves a lot of talking to people, and many authors, especially, are introverts who need alone time. Also key to remember: Though it looks like your speaker is on vacation, she is not. This is work, and she probably also has other continuing work to do while she’s there.
  • Make the event into an event. I talked yesterday about how much better it is when an event seems like it’s really about something—themed food or drinks or a trivia contest or somesuch go a long way toward this, depending on the subject matter. Really, any indication that a host gave some advance thought to the event, and that the host seems to actually know who you are and what you wrote about, helps.
  • Ask about your speaker’s technical needs—AV setup, etc.—and do your best to make setup easy for her. She’s gone to a bunch of places, and every setup has been a little different. She needs your help.
  • Yes, you should introduce her before she speaks. Don’t ask, just do it. If you ask if she’d like an introduction, it makes it seem as if an introduction is some grand proposition that she’s some kind of diva for requiring. In fact, an introduction helps your audience focus and settle in, and allows you to brag about your speaker so she doesn’t have to brag about herself. (I’m not going to get up there and say, “Hi, I’m bestselling author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong …”)
  • Oh, hey, about that … Yeah, I want you to use my full author name: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. That’s why I put that name on the book. Because I want to use it. I know the Keishin is the hard part, but great news! You actually can ask me how to say it. (It’s like vacation without the va-.)
  • It can be good to check the bio you have with the speaker before you introduce her. I had an event recently where they’d somehow managed to pull up a bio from the distant past in which I was still on staff at Entertainment Weekly (which I left in 2011) and my key book credits were Sexy Feminism and Why? Because We Still Like You, my history of the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club. Not the best intro for me to talk about Seinfeld.
  • Have a standard pre-talk briefing: Tell the speaker how long you’d like her to talk, how big you expect the audience to be, and who will likely be in the audience. (Is this mostly seniors? Will there be kids? Do they get cranky when they can’t hear, or when a talk goes too long? Is there going to be that one guy who just falls asleep in the middle of your talk no matter what? Or that one lady who always asks confrontational questions?)
  • I’m told that a good video recording of a talk means a lot to some speakers. My partner, Jesse, speaks a lot at tech conferences, and he says this often makes the difference as to whether he’ll agree to speak somewhere or not. He can share the videos and it also helps get him other speaking gigs. I haven’t explored this as much because my presentations include clips of TV shows, which gets complicated when you share online. But it seems like a good tip.
  • Yes, your speaker would like water while she speaks. Have something ready for her at the podium.
  • Don’t apologize if the turnout is small. I know you’re doing that because you think it’s your fault, but it makes the speaker feel like it’s her fault, too. As long as anyone is there, a good speaker will do her best for them. There’s no reason to dwell on the size of the crowd. She’s not Donald Trump.
  • When no one bought a book at one of my tour stops, my host did. I appreciated that.
  • If there’s a book-signing element: Have pens there, but for the love of God, not ballpoint pens. If you have to sign multiple books, ballpoint pens are seriously going to add entire minutes and agony to the proceedings. Sharpies are standard, though one tour stop introduced me to the lifechanging Pentel Sign Pen. I literally use nothing else to write things on paper anymore, period.
  • Please also organize the line for your author, with someone taking money and giving customers their books before the customer then steps over for signing. People are always looking at me as if I’m going to also take their money. I am not.
  • Bonus points if you have Post-Its on which people write the name to whom they’d like the book signed. This is rare, but beautiful. It eliminates the part where I ask them to spell the name, then I can’t hear them, and it’s all very awkward and confusing and time-consuming.
  • If you notice your speaker getting bogged down by question-askers afterwards, rescue her with a “We should get you back to your hotel!” or whatever works.
  • A couple of places had little gift bags for me at my hotel, which was really nice. It was even nicer, at least for me, when it contained any of the following: water, healthy snacks (Kind bars all day!), and local pleasantries (Kentucky bourbon, yes please!).
  • Do whatever you can to make her life a little easier while she’s there. She may have visited a lot of places already, and she’s most likely tired.
  • Overall, the trick is this: Make her feel special, but do not smother her with attention.

If anyone has other tips for speaker and author hosts, I’d love to hear them!

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One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing some insights based on your experiences. I definitely agree with the idea of giving the author a chance to opt out. Depending on how long and how varied the tour, time alone is often needed.

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