Have you ever been to a reading where the author creeps apologetically to the podium and then stammers through page after page without once changing expression or making eye contact with the audience? Plenty of good writers give bad readings.
It’s painful to watch gifted colleagues sabotage their work with self-defeating behavior when they’re reading. Giving a bad reading may not harm a renowned author, but it could hinder the progress of an aspiring one. Regardless of how elegantly, a piece is written, poorly presented material can bore or irritate your audience, including that agent, editor or publisher who may be attending.
Whether you are a famous author or an unknown beginner, how can you improve your public reading style and give a compelling reading?
Useful Psychobabble-Do Not Skip
Some writers regard public speaking with the same amount of enthusiasm as putting their heads on the executioner’s block. If you can identify with that sentiment, your first step in preparing for a reading is to deal with your emotions. Talk with an insightful friend or a good therapist to find out why you feel this way.
Some people lack the confidence to give a reading because they lack confidence in themselves as a writer. They are plagued by feelings of being an impostor. These folks think, “How can I be sure I’m even a real writer? What make me think I have the right to get up and read?” Even writers with a solid publishing history may be plagued by these self-deprecating thoughts.
The anxiety is legitimate. Precisely at what point does an aspiring writer transform into a “real” writer? Other professions have an easier time determining this. Doctors go to medical school and are awarded an M.D. upon completion. Plumbers, electricians and hairdressers earn licensees. You know a police office when you see one—the badge and uniform are dead giveaways that he or she has finished training. But how does anyone identify a real writer? Are you a real writer after you have been published once? Twice? Does your transition from aspiring to real depend on the quality of the publication in which your work appears?
Some writers, especially beginners, torment themselves over this issue. Ultimately, you have to answer the question. At some point, you must confidently say, “I am a writer”—and not let a stack of rejection letters or a scathing review dissuade you from that statement. Just stick to your self-definition and march into a reading with confidence.
Imagine the Worst that Can Happen
When you ask people—those who would rather jump out of an airplane without a parachute than read from their work in front of a crowd—why they are so reluctant, they come up with a million reasons. What if I trip on the way to the podium?
What if I look down and the tip of my tie is stuck in my zipper? What if I attempt to say “hit” and it sounds as if I said a terribly rude word instead?
All of that can happen and worse. However, most of what we worry about never happens. More often, we are blind-sided by events we lacked the imagination to anticipate. So why bother to worry?
If you must worry, try to identify your worst fears and think them through to a logical conclusion. Imagine yourself inadvertently saying “pee” instead of “be.” The audience giggles. You move on. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Making a mistake is not the end of the world. Your friends will have amusing material for the biographies they will write about you later. And your enemies? They never liked you anyway.
Think of Your Readings as Performance
Once you have soothed you psyche, your next step is to choose and prepare the material you will read. This may be more challenging than it sounds. Clyde Edgerton is a writer who is known for his entertaining readings. He says you cannot assume that the imagination of a person listening in the audience works the same as that of a person reading silently.
Therefore, he advises writers to think of their reading as performances. Try to spot the passages that are too dense for a listening audience. Don’t read long blocks of material. Instead, Edgerton suggest that you select from your written page exactly which sentences should be read aloud. If you want to read certain scenes, you don’t have to read aloud the transition material between the scenes. To keep the pace moving, you can summarize that information verbally for you audience. (This is also helpful as you revise your writing.)
Once you have selected and revised your material, read it aloud. Written words may present thorny challenges when spoken. Your characters’ names may become tongue twister. “Nicaragua” is simple enough to writer, but it can be a nightmare to pronounce, especially if you are nervous. Find troublesome words and phrases in your writing and practice saying them.
If you feel brave, videotape yourself. Eliminate any nervous tics you find. They may have endeared you to your mother, but they won’t endear you to audience. Be expressive without being overly dramatic. Get a sense of when you should pause or when you should read more rapidly through a section.
Know your material well enough to be able to look up at an audience. Eye contact is essential to gauge audience reactions.
Make sure that whatever you read can stand alone and is satisfying in itself. That doesn’t mean you have to read an entire essay or tell a story from beginning to end. If your goal is to entice people to buy your mystery, you may want to leave them at a suspenseful point in your tale. However, don’t leave them feeling cheated. When you stop reading, you want them to be thinking, “That was good. I want to hear more.”
If you are reading several selections from your work, choose the order carefully. If each of your pieces dramatically differs in the emotions it may evoke, warn your listeners. Once I heard a poet read two short, humorous poem. The audience was still laughing when he briskly launched into a third poem, a somber reflection about death. He gave no introduction. Most listeners were so confused and shocked by the abrupt emotional shift that they were unable to fully comprehend and appreciate the third poem.
If possible, check out the site where your reading will be held. If you are unable to visit, ask questions. Will there be a microphone? How many readers will there be? Will the lighting be bright or dim? How big is the room? How far away will the readers be from the audience? Eliminating surprises will lessen your anxiety.
Stack the Deck
Does the thought of an audience full of strangers intimidate you? Stack the deck. Invite a few friends, people you can count on to laugh at the funny parts and weep when appropriate.
As you are about to read, be aware of you body language. If you look tense, you will communicate that to your audience. Think about the last time you heard a nervous person speak. Everyone in the room tends to become anxious. No one relaxes until the person sits down. When you step up to the podium, capitalize on any opportunity to make a spontaneous joke that will loosen up the group.
When the Audience Seems Comatose
As you speak, assess your audience. Are they wide awake? Sleepy? Are you the last person on the program? Do they need to move around a little before you speak? Do you have their attention or do you have to figure out a way to grab it?
Sometimes the audience seems comatose. You try your hardest, but they sit there like potted plants. Don’t necessarily take the blame for a dead audience. Once I was asked to read to student attending the summer session of an exclusive prep school. I delivered my best material with pizzazz. Thirty students stared at me. If they were breathing, it was hard to tell.
I drove home in a funk. Fortunately, it was a long ride home during which I realized that these kids were not in summer school on a voluntary basis. I had been reading not to a captive audience, but an imprisoned audience. Later, the school sent me student evaluations of my presentation—all of which were high. Go figure.
Mind Your Manners
Think about how your words might affect your audience and make adjustments accordingly. Once at a bookstore reading, Melissa Bank (The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing) noticed some children in the audience. Before she started reading, she let the parents know that her story would contain an R-rated word. The parents assured her that the kids had heard worse on the playground, but everyone appreciated her courtesy.
If you hope to be asked a second time, practice good etiquette. Pay attention to other folks on the program. Don’t read or rattle papers while they are reading. Don’t go over your allotted time.
Later, ask for feedback from honest friends and colleagues. Forgive yourself for mistakes, congratulate yourself for successes.
One final word: What should you wear to a reading? As you select your outfit, keep in mind Sinclair Lewis’s observation, “When audiences come to see us authors lecture, it is largely in the hope that we’ll be funnier to look at than to read.”