Virtual Literary Festivals

Elizabeth Ducie

This week, CWC member, Elizabeth Ducie, talks about the current spate of virtual literary festivals, and how her experience as a member of the audience shaped her behaviour when it was her turn to be a speaker.

“One of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is that many, if not all, of this year’s Literary Festivals have been cancelled or postponed. But several of them have taken advantage of technologies such as Zoom, Teams or Crowdcast to set up online alternatives.

Audience Member

On 16th May, I was a member of the audience for the Tolkien Symposium which brought together six eminent fantasy writers for a question and answer session on writing in the time of pandemic, which went on for ninety minutes. It felt a little remote, as the speakers were talking among themselves, rather than direct to camera. But there were some great quotes such as: ‘the world has finally slowed down to my speed’ (Terri Windling); and ‘all fiction attempts to make sense of a world that doesn’t care if it makes sense or not’ (Kij Johnson). But for me, the best part was watching, and taking part in, the discussion that was going on in the chatroom.

Later in May, I booked places on several of the sessions at Hay Festival, and enjoyed a great mix of talks, interviews and performances. Particularly memorable was Jon Sopel’s talk on Inside Trump’s White House; David Crystal on conversation; and Hilary Mantel on her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy. So inspiring was the latter that this non-historian who prefers contemporary crime or fantasy to historical literary fiction has added all three books to her To Be Read list. (So that’s the rest of lockdown taken care of!).

But I was also watching these sessions with my other hat on, learning lessons that I could hopefully apply myself.


On 6th June, I was a speaker at the one-day Crediton Literary Festival, organised in conjunction with Crediton Library. My topics was 40 Years An Indie, looking at how technology changes have made life much easier for indie authors over the past four decades. For the first time in three months, I put on a decent jacket, make-up and jewellery (although in true sitting down presenter mode, I was still wearing tatty jeans out of camera shot).

Having watched some very experienced speakers, I was conscious that slight movements that would not have any effect if seen on stage, were greatly exaggerated in close up. So I tried hard to keep very still when I wasn’t holding up examples of my books.  With hind sight, I should have sat back in my chair, a more relaxed pose, rather than leaning forward and possibly looming over my audience. But at least I didn’t wriggle around!

Mind MapI had also watched closely how other speakers had dealt with their notes. For interviews, they hadn’t needed them, but for formal presentations, they usually did. Some obviously had them off to one side, and the way their eyes occasionally slid away from the camera had been off-putting. I toyed with the idea of having my notes on screen, but knew if I did that, I risked sounding too stilted. And there was also the possibility of screwing up the broadcast by hitting the wrong button while changing pages. In the end,  I put all my points onto a mind map which was taped to the wall just above the camera and hence I was able to read it without moving my head.

Speaking to a live audience can be both a nerve-wracking and enjoyable experience, depending on how much positive feedback one gets. I used ‘speaker view’ on the screen while speaking, which was a mistake, since I missed any smiles or nods from the audience as I was speaking.

The general consensus is that people’s ability to concentrate is reduced when viewing a talk on screen rather than in person. So the sessions were set at twenty minutes talk plus Q&As. This time flew by, and I was very glad I had set a timer to run down on the desk behind the screen (a tip I picked up from watching Tedx presentations). I’d also rehearsed in advance, so I knew how long my talk would take.

I had an excellent Chairman in Mark Norman, who also fielded the questions typed into the chat box by members of the audience. When I am speaking to a room of real live people, I am quite happy to manage that side of things myself, but with the current technology, it needs another person to do that, leaving the speaker free to concentrate on talking.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable experience, and I am now working towards my own series of webinars. If anyone else is considering having a go at this sort of thing, my advice would be to go for it. But, as always, plan well and practise in advance.”

Elizabeth Ducie

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