Thanks to electronic publishing and print-on-demand, there are more ways than ever to read fiction. It is, however, as important as it’s ever been for a writer to be able to stand in front of a crowd and read out his or her pieces.
A good live performance means engagement with your existing audience, a chance to have your name known by more people, and – if you’re published – to shift more copies of your work. I was performing on Thursday just gone, and I’m scheduled to take part in three more over the next fortnight.
To that end, I’ve put together some advice for speaking to an audience. These should be treated not as unbreakable rules, but as guiding principles to bring out a better performance.
Think about your introduction. At a minimum, people want to know your name and the title of the work you’ll be reading, but you’ll sometimes need to include other information. To make this part sound natural, I like to make brief notes which I’ll expand as I go along. The list below is totally fictional, but it might read:
- Give name
- Thank Tracey Jones
- Piece is called On the River Tay
- Taken from collection The Pie Seller
- Brought copies, happy to sign
When it’s read out, it might go, “Good evening, my name’s Gavin Cameron. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The Pie Seller. I’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”
Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise. A good example is when you’re reading an unfinished piece of work. In December, I read out an unedited piece I’d written during National Novel Writing Month. I felt I needed to explain that what they were about to hear wasn’t as highly polished as they were accustomed to, but I was still willing to share with them as an example of what can be done in a month. Should you feel the need to apologise, it’s worth reconsidering whether you want to read out that particular piece.
Before reading to someone, read to no-one. Find a space where you’re on your own and hear how it sounds. Check the inflections you use in the piece, and whether there are any long sentences where you need to take an extra breath in the middle. If you’re reading a new piece, this is also a prime opportunity to make edits.
Practice your page turns. Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note on each page to help turn them more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, make sure you practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page, as there is a delay on some devices.
Keep your mouth where everyone can hear it. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words. Always speak loudly and more slowly than you would in normal conversation. If a microphone is available, keep it at the same distance from your mouth; I’ve seen too many readers wander around the stage and it sounds like a Norman Collier routine. Where possible, work with the sound engineer to set the level before the gig begins.
Sometimes the audience reacts in the wrong places. I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh in a place I’d expected; don’t point out it’s a joke or tell it again, just move on to the next part without comment. There might be occasions where they react, positively or negatively, in an unexpected place; in this case, pause until it dies down and move on without comment.
Signal that you’ve finished. Just lower your manuscript by your side and/or say, “Thank you.” The audience will take the hint and applaud.
Do it again. This guide doesn’t cover how to deal with nerves. There are many tricks you can use to overcome them: the classic advice to imagine everyone naked, or more unusual methods such as looking at people’s eyebrows to avoid eye contact. However, the only effective way of becoming a confident public speaker is by doing it again and again. It’s worth remembering that the audience sometimes is nervous on behalf of the speaker and most will be forgiving even if you make a mistake.
Speaking of which, even the best of us experience the occasional cock-up. In October, I was invited to a poetry reading at Dundee University and I attempted to read one of them from memory. I managed the second time, but here was the first attempt: