I try to keep the time arranging a visit to an absolute minimum and most of my visits are arranged with one or two short emails. The virtual visits page on my own web site attempts to answer most of the questions that schools might want to ask such as ‘how long does a visit last?’ or ‘how much will it cost?’. 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 relevant information in one go.
One of the most common shortcomings of video presentations filmed on a laptop computer is a poor camera angle as a result of the laptop being below the eye-line of the user. The image on the left below was taken from a laptop sitting on the desk in front of me and gives a great view of the underside of my chin and the loft-hatch in my office ceiling. The image on the right was taken with the same laptop camera but raised to my eye-line by placing the laptop on top of a couple of boxes. The eye level version gives a far more natural view of both me and my office.
On a real school visit if you have spinach in your teeth 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 usually check how you’ll appear on your webcam by using a preview window in your software settings window.
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 presenting 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, 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 video window will illuminate your features without a colour cast.
You don’t want anything distracting you while you talk to the children, so five minutes before the visit take your land-line 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.
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.
One of the things that can make video conversations feel less real than face to face conversations is a lack of eye contact. Computer 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 computer or tablet. If you are using a computer, it’s tempting to make the video 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 video 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 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.
I have a couple of googley eyes stuck either side of the camera on my iMac to encourage me to keep eye contact with my virtual audience.
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 presenting 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.
My virtual visits 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.
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 and. Having done hundreds of online Q&As over the last few years, I know which questions are likely to come up and keep books I can show to illustrate the answers in a magazine file beside my computer. The contents of this file include: