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.