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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Patchwork Poetry

Many writers like to post their work on the Internet. People I follow here on WordPress do it regularly.

But it’s important to remember that publishers generally won’t accept work that’s available online. It’s difficult to persuade readers to pay for a book when the material can be found on the author’s website free of charge. That’s why you rarely see my work here.

Today, however, I’m making an exception, as it already appears on a friend’s Facebook page.

The friend in question posted about the patch notes for the computer game The Sims. These notes detail which bugs have been fixed and which features have amended. Out of context, some of the notes sound ludicrous.

I then combined this with a list published by Beloit College to help their colleagues understand the worldview of the 18- to 22-year-olds who enrol in their classes. The Mindset List throws up similar gems that sound ludicrous out of context. I’ve long been taken by the phrase ‘Dean Martin, Mickey Mantle, and Jerry Garcia have always been dead’ from one of the lists, and finding the notes for The Sims was the perfect companion.

The last verse should have a hanging indent, but this is difficult to achieve in HTML. Nonetheless, I hereby present:

Dean Martin Has Always Been Dead

Alien abductions have been disabled on houseboats.
Top Spook is an equal opportunity post.
The bed has been made less lethal.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

‘Dude’ has never had a negative tone.
‘Become Enemies with Child’ wish no longer appears.
Fixed a tuning issue so they vomit at acceptable levels.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Spray paint has never been legally sold in Chicago.
There has never been a Barings Bank in England.
Fire engines maintain functionality in Egypt, China, and France.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Carbon copies are oddities found in attics.
Fish are no longer duplicated in the fridge.
Babies and toddlers will no longer go into a frozen state.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Their parents’ car CD player is so ancient and embarrassing.
An issue caused unicorns to lose their special powers.
As kids they probably never got chicken pox.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Americans and Russians have always co-operated in orbit;
they have never really needed to study at a friend’s house.
Fairy children will no longer stretch into adult size.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

They no longer play detonated pianos.
Televisions no longer play after they are burned or broken.
They have never attended a concert in a smoke-filled arena.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Fixed an issue that could cause a teen to be trapped in a child’s body when travelling to the future at the exact moment of a birthday; they have never needed directions to get someplace, just an address.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Input vs Output

There won’t be much of an entry this week. I’m still busy chewing over the wonderful shows from Edinburgh last week; at the same time, I’m struggling to commit a couple of poems to paper.

Instead, let’s both go for a walk, albeit in different physical places. That always helps me loosen my mental sawdust, and I hope it does the same for you.

Derailed

I mentioned last week I would be spending a lot of time on trains, thus giving me time to read.

File:Fraud.jpg
By Nick Youngson – http://www.nyphotographic.com/ Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/ – CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

When travelling by rail, it’s always prudent to expect delays. In this case, another train broke down near Penrith station and the passengers on mine were allowed onto the platform while the obstruction was cleared. This gave me time to finish one of my books, but I also needed to work on a presentation.

Every month, Creative Dundee holds an event called Make / Share. This is a night where people such as designers, artists, computer programmers, or anyone who creates something, are invited to speak about their work. The next event is on Tuesday 10 July and I’ve been asked to speak on the theme of impostor syndrome.

I’m not a lifelong fiction writer and certainly not a lifelong poet, and I’ve always been upfront about this. Even so, it’s difficult not to feel an outsider when you’re among people who’ve been creating fictional universes since they were in primary school. I’ll be telling the audience about five times I felt I didn’t belong on the writing scene.

I also mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, when I appeared on  The Beans Podcast. This is a weekly show compèred by my friends Valerie Mullen, Erin Farley and Sam Gonçalves. Like Make / Share, which Sam hosts, the podcast also invites creative people to give their story; indeed, it’s also worth listening to their previous episode about learning to like poetry.

But until the real writers figure out I’m one massive fraud, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

Gibson and Goodfellow

On Wednesday, I saw one of my idols at The Mash House in Edinburgh. Andrea Gibson is a non-binary poet who uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun. This was the very city where I’d been introduced to their work.

It seemed to be the convention that the audience sat on the floor, so I was battling with needles and pins for much of the evening, not to mention a wet patch where someone had accidentally kicked over my wine.

Image result for mash house edinburgh

But in spite of the setbacks, the gig itself was amazing. I enjoyed Gibson’s often dense wordplay and imagery, which engaged and touched us in equal measure. Many of the poems were accompanied by recorded music.

Just about everyone in the audience queued up to have merchandise signed after the gig. I didn’t, but I wanted to tell them how much their work had helped me write mine. From nowhere, I found myself ready to cry as I spoke. They seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the thought.

The support act was Suky Goodfellow. I’d heard of her before but this was the first time I’d encountered her poetry. She commanded the stage as she spoke about wealth creators and why swear words shouldn’t be rude.

If I have the opportunity to see Gibson and/or Goodfellow again, I shall definitely take it.

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.

News Round-Up

My normal method of writing blogs is to pick one subject and write a few paragraphs about it. However, nothing major has happened over the last week so no single topic could be extended to a full entry. Instead, here’s a round-up of what’s been occurring.


At the end of last month, I spoke about the open-mike night I run for writers and that we’d found a new venue. I’m pleased to report we had a marvellous time, with a record 17 people reading stories and poetry, and many more eager ears in the audience. It would be great to see this sustained over the coming months.


Last week, I mentioned I was redrafting a one-woman play I originally wrote for my Masters dissertation. Since then, I’ve boosted the word count to 11,000 and it now lasts for an hour, even delivered at a reasonably fast pace. This means it can be stripped back if necessary.

In the same entry, I mentioned I was redrafting a short story. I haven’t had a chance to send this away yet, but I will soon. I have an annual target to submit 53 pieces to publishers – an average of one a week, plus one for good measure – and I’m nowhere near on par.


Yesterday, a friend reposted a short piece called Humans Are Adorable, written from the point of view of an alien looking at the human race. Number 12 is about reaching the moon, described as humanity having ‘made it to the end of their yard’. A mutual friend then quipped, ‘Thank [goodness] I don’t have to mow it.’ And this image stayed with me, so I simply had to make it into a poem: