Performing to an Audience: Updated Oct 2018

It’s come to my attention that this blog is now five years old. After a few test posts, it officially launched on 14 Oct 2013.

Throughout this time, I’ve periodically updated my guide to performing in front of an audience. From this entry onwards, these posts will have a consistent title format. I’ve placed this one and my previous posts about performing into a single category so you can read them on one page.

If you have time, two other great sources are a guide from Lies, Dreaming and a more detailed post from John Foggin.

My last update was made in January, and wasn’t due to be revised so soon. However, a few incidents happened last week that made me return to the topic. These are peppered throughout the current guide, below. Remember this should be treated as a subjective guide, not a textbook.


Talk with the organisers about what’s required

Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to:

  • How long you’ll be asked to speak for
  • What type of content is required
  • Whether it’s de rigeur to read from paper or speak from memory
  • Whether you’ll be given an introduction
  • Where you should wait before you’re called up
  • Whether any fee is payable

Each event has its own particular character. At Platform Poetry, for instance, each performer is asked to fill a 10- to 15-minute slot. At Blend In – Stand Out, each person performs one poem before the interval, then the reading order is reversed after the interval.

If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.

Think about your own structure

The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own slot so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:

  • Give name, say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
  • Say you’re happy to sign copies
  • Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
  • Tell obesity clinic anecdote
  • Read out And an Onion One Too (page 24)
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • Read out The Crust of the Matter (page 12)

Note that the thanks should be placed second-last, not as the final item. That means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head rather than why you think Tracey is so great, even if she is.

Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise

Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take or infer from the piece.

If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising or telling a long story, either take it out of your set or work on it until only a short introduction is necessary.

Read out loud and time your words

The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out where nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?

When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or to stick a post-it note as a lever. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.

Don’t forget to use a stopwatch to make sure all your words fit within the agreed timeslot.

Make sure everyone can hear you

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you might need to project. 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, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation and don’t be afraid to pause.

If there is a microphone, always use it; it’s generally there because there’s a known problem with people being able to hear the performer. However, unless it’s a major gig, there’s unlikely to be a professional sound engineer around, so ask to test it out beforehand.

A big annoyance for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random. So whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth and speak into the top; that said, there are types of microphones where you speak into the front. Don’t worry about being too loud or causing distortion; it’s almost always better than the alternative.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig

I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look

I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it’s  unnerving to make eye contact for most people. Fortunately, there are some techniques to avoid this.

One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way is to look beyond the back row; again, everyone assumes you’re looking at someone else.

Both of these methods have the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Keep going through distractions and cock-ups

A common issue at spoken-word nights is the audience member who keeps talking. Unlike a music gig, you don’t have the advantage of drowning them out with your instruments. A good host will take charge of silencing any chat, but if they don’t, either carry on as you were or – if it’s too distracting – politely ask them to refrain.

Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps a hundred other unpredictable problems crop up. Keep going as best as you can. It might mean cutting a piece short or shouting instead of reading, but the audience are there to see you perform.

Listen to the performers

This might seem like an obvious and unnecessary piece of advice, but it doesn’t always happen.

I was speaking at an event last week where I talked about Hotchpotch, the open-mike night I run; I was on a panel with others who are involved in the local literary scene in different ways.

Someone in the audience clearly hadn’t listened to what I was saying. At the end of the event, he kept commenting to me how ‘brave’ I was for standing up, then giving me advice about how to handle an audience. I explained to him that I’m completely comfortable doing this, but he didn’t seem to listen to this either.

Later in the week, I went to an event where some of the performers were standing outside the venue rather than listening to their peers’ readings. I found it rather disrespectful to expect others to listen to their work when they didn’t offer the courtesy of returning the favour.

Signal that you’ve finished

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect.

A good clear signal is to lower your manuscript or to step backwards slightly, or even say ‘Thank you.’ At that point, people should take the hint and applaud.

Do it again

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and even which subjects to cover for different audiences.


There are no guarantees that your poetry performance will be a success. But by following the suggestions above, you can maximise the chances that it will.

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Passing the Microphone

I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.

This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.

A microphone
A microphone. It seemed like the best picture to illustrate this entry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.

Additionally, this seems a prime opportunity to dust off my own advice for speaking in front of an audience from earlier this year.

The Next Stage

I’m a big fan of spoken-word events. This month alone, I’ve seen the Scottish Slam Championships final, then the rapper Loki and a couple of support acts on Friday evening, and there’s a student-run event at the University of Dundee tomorrow.

I also like to participate as often as I can, and I’m always happy to give advice to those who want to do the same. I’ve updated my guide from 2016, and I stress that it is only a subjective guide, not a textbook.

Talk with the organisers about what’s required

Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to: how long you’ll be asked to speak for, what type of content is required, whether you’ll be given an introduction, where you should wait before you’re called up, and whether any fee is payable.

If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.

Think about your own structure and running order

The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own time so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:

  • Give name and say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
  • Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
  • Tell obesity clinic anecdote
  • Read out And an Onion One Too
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • You’re happy to sign copies
  • Read out The Crust of the Matter.

Note that the thanks isn’t placed at the very end. This structure means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head.

Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise

Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take from the piece.

If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising, either take it out of your set or work on it until no apology is necessary.

Read out loud and time your words

The best way to identify weak parts in your set is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly?

When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.

Don’t forget to use a stopwatch so your words fit within the agreed timeslot.

To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.
My USB condenser microphone.

Make sure everyone can hear you.

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. 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, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.

If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig

I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look.

I know a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier.

One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Keep going through the cock-ups

Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody keeps chatting during the show. A performer has no control over these factors.

The audience will normally forget the problem if you ignore it and keep going. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who dries up and leaves the stage or screams at noisy attendees. However, if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.

Signal that you’ve finished.

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly or say Thank you, whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.

Do it again.

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, and so on.

Ultimately, a good performance can increase your fan base and help sell more work.

From Stage Fright to Stage Right

I spoke a little about my upcoming gigs in the last entry. This week, I want to pass on some of the advice I’ve picked up in the years I’ve been performing.

A live performance is a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience, and to add extra enjoyment for your existing fans. So it’s crucial to make a solid effort. The advice below should be treated not as strictly unbreakable rules, but as guidelines to make your event flows as smoothly as possible. Some of the points were made in a 2015 entry, but have been updated as I’ve gained more experience.

Think about your introduction.

Check with the organisers what content you need. Sometimes you need to give an introduction; other times, you’ll be asked only to read the piece. If you do need to introduce your work, it’s worth making brief notes, such as:

  • Give your name
  • Thank Tracey Jones for organising
  • Story is called On the River Tay
  • Taken from collection The Pie Seller
  • Published by Law Hill Books
  • Brought copies, happy to sign

Then on the night, you might say, “Good evening, my name’s Mary Walker. 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, and that’s published by Law Hill BooksI’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”

Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise.

Some pieces do require an explanation. Perhaps the work is unfinished; perhaps it’s an extract from a longer work and needs context. But whatever you have to explain, keep it as brief as you can and certainly don’t apologise. If you feel an apology is necessary, ask yourself whether the piece is ready to be heard in public.

Before reading to someone, read to no-one.

The best way to identify any weak parts in a piece is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly when grouped together? Can you add or take away any alliteration or rhyme?

If you don’t have the luxury of solitude, the next best method is to use text-to-speech software and listen to your words through headphones. There is plenty of suitable software available online, and some programs allow you to adjust the speed and the type of voice.

Make sure you also time yourself and keep it within the constraints laid down by the organiser. This might mean writing a longer introduction to expand a short piece,  or reading out only a section to reduce it.

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, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back to help turn it more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page. Make sure to account for any delay, as not all devices instantly show the next page.

To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.
To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.

Make sure everyone can hear you.

In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. 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, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.

If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one.

Most microphones collect sound from the top, but some designs mean you need to speak into the side, like mine (pictured). Either way, make sure you know which one has been given to you. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that vastly increases and decreases, especially at random. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth.

Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig.

I fully understand why many people need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig, so strictly control your alcohol intake. It takes some concentration to perform, and too much booze impairs that concentration.

My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee. Afterwards, however, I sometimes enjoy a red wine. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.

Decide where in the room to look.

I know one poet who deliberately looks at individual audience members and delivers a few lines before moving on to the next person. However, this is not what most people do because it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier. One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.

Sometimes the audience reacts wrongly.

I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh when I’d expected, or chuckled at a serious point. You have no control over this. Should it happen to you, don’t point out the anomaly or repeat it. Wait for the laughter to die down if there is any, then move on without comment. But if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, you might consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.

If there’s a cock-up, keep going.

In a live event, something is likely to go wrong. Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody walks out. The best course of action is to keep going. The audience will easily forget a slipup if they’re engaged with your narrative. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who stopped the show early, and they’ll remember for the wrong reasons. It’s true that there is no easy way to recover from forgetting your words, other than picking up from the last section you remember, but keep saying something.

Two years ago, I was invited to read at Dundee University Students Association. I was debuting a poem called Housekeeping. I now know this piece back to front, but if you’ll excuse the terrible picture quality, here was my first attempt at memorising the words:

Signal that you’ve finished.

At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly, or say, “Thank you,” whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.

Do it again.

It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, &c. Ultimately, a good performance can sell more books.

Anticipation, Oration, Ovation.

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: