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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In With the Old

Over the last week, I’ve been revising two pieces of prose.

The first piece was a 1500-word short story about a female soldier returning home after conscription into an unnamed war. I first wrote this in 2013, but I’ve periodically returned to it, most recently to submit it to a publisher who might appreciate the sentiment.

File:Colouring pencils.jpg

The second is an overhaul of the piece I wrote for my Masters dissertation in 2016. I subsequently turned it into a one-woman play, but the last revision didn’t reach the 60-minute mark. Over the weekend, I’ve been lengthening the script by unpacking and exploring some of the plot points that the original doesn’t address. In two weeks’ time, I have the opportunity to have an extract read by an actor at a new playwriting evening.

When I read back over those two pieces, there were no major problems, but I could find a number of minor ones. Perhaps I’d used a clause too many in the sentence; perhaps a vital piece of information could be shown rather than told.

Whatever the problem, I’ve enjoyed fixing them. I feel the two pieces are better overall now. I keep all my drafts, so I was able to look back at previous versions and I can see that my writing has improved over the years. It’s entirely possible that I’ll revisit these pieces in the future with more experience and be able to improve them in ways I can’t imagine right now.

A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.

The Thick of It

In the middle of last week, the UK was hit by an exceptionally strong gust of snow. My area was given a rare Red Warning, and that led to some cancellations and closures.

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On Thursday, for instance, my office was closed and I was excused from doing the ‘day job’. I instead used the time to send work to a publisher. On Friday, I was supposed to be exhibiting my Fun a Day pieces created during January, but that’s been postponed. In fact, the one event that went ahead as normal was partly outdoors.

So on Saturday, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, whose volunteers are compiling an anthology of written and visual work inspired by the grounds. To this end, they’ve organised Focus Days where writers, photographers and artists are given a tour of the trees and plants to generate ideas. In this instance, the tour was restricted to the heated glass houses, although the participants seemed willing to go out in the snow.

The tour was followed by a lively discussion about the work that should appear in the anthology and how it should be created. Some of us shared our existing work; I read a piece I’d already submitted for consideration and three of the other members inferred religious symbolism where there wasn’t intended to be any.

Frustratingly, no consensus was reached about the anthology as a whole, but we reconvene in three weeks and we’re looking to take it forward from there.

If any new work was generated by Saturday’s visit, it’ll probably be infused by the ambient conditions. Some writers use it almost as a character in its own right and, done well, it can enhance a scene without distracting the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee invokes sticky summer heat; Kirsty Logan steeps The Gracekeepers with a cold sea chill.

Even when you’re trying to create a fictional universe, of course, nobody can escape the weather. Shooting began on the first Star Wars film 42 years ago this month in Tunisia, a location chosen for its desert landscape. On the second day, the country was hit by a rare winter rain that hadn’t been seen for 50 years, destroying sets and damaging equipment.

Monday, Fun Day, Happy Days

Having seen some amazing work produced last year, I was pleased to be accepted into the Fun a Day Dundee challenge. The aim is to work on something new during January; it could be one new piece per day and/or something you append throughout the whole month.

Despite the lax rules, I decided to set three of my own to keep me moving forward:

"Rules help control the fun." Monica Geller, Friends
“Rules help control the fun.” Monica Geller, Friends

I’ve stuck to Rule 1 every day so far. Rule 2 has already been tested when I’ve wanted to start a piece again and I have to tell myself I can’t. Rule 3 has already been satisfied; most of the work is prose and poetry, but I have pieces that don’t fall into those categories.

Those rules are listed in my commonplacing document. I’m experimenting with this practice at the suggestion of a friend; it’s essentially the process of recording how and why your works are created while you’re still working on them. Some people choose to make a scrapbook, others fill their documents with drawings, but I’m recording mine in plain text like a diary.

Fun a Day has been an opportunity to scribe the first draft of some outstanding ideas, which will then be redrafted next month. I’ve also had the opportunity to create ad-hoc work; a case in point is when I received a watch strap from Amazon in excessive packaging, and I’ve turned that packaging into an artwork that makes an environmental point.

You can use Twitter throughout January to keep track of my progress and to keep track of everyone’s progress. An exhibition will be happening in February, so watch out for the details.

The Story Behind the Story

Last year, I completed an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree. For the dissertation element, I had to submit a creative piece for 80% of the mark and a reflective piece worth 20%. In the reflective part, two references are juxtaposed:

  • Samuel Pepys and others, The Diary Of Samuel Pepys (London: Bell, 1970), p.xi.
  • Peter Doherty, The Books of Albion (London: Orion, 2007), pp.322-324

The first book was written by naval administrator Samuel Pepys who lived in the 17th century, and the second is by the musician Peter Doherty from The Libertines who’s yet to reach his 40th birthday.

English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The ...
English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899). Book editor died in 1917. Samuel Pepys died in 1703. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the reason they’re referenced so closely together is that they both kept detailed diaries. My creative dissertation piece was in diary form and I used both books to figure out how I was going to structure my own work; for example, whether I should use exact or rough dates, how formal or informal the language should be, and so forth.

It was Doherty’s volume that I find particularly interesting since he uses it in three ways, sometimes on the same page: as a notebook for poetry and lyrics, as a scrapbook for pictures and paraphernalia he likes, and as a diary to document where he is and how he’s feeling. It effectively tells the story behind his work.

At the time of writing the dissertation, I was also trying to convey the story behind my own creative piece, albeit in more academic language.

I was reminded of this last week while listening to Creative Chit Chat Dundee, in which the dancer Gemma Connell was being interviewed; I’ve known her for a couple of years now. Out of a dozen subjects discussed that I could have picked up on, the one that interested me most was that she likes to keep a journal of her process.

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve been journaling in a limited fashion. My own notes were functional, mainly reminders or suggestions for the story, but I was also interviewed by the woman who helps me run our NaNoWriMo region, so she has a weekly record of my progress. I’ll report back when I listen to it.

With journal-keeping at the forefront of my mind, I’m going to experiment with the practice for my next major project. I’m planning to take the Doherty approach. The journal won’t be online; it’ll be handwritten and kept separate from the material I’m writing for the project. Once it’s finished, it’ll be interesting to look back and to see how the endpoint compares to the beginning.

The Long and the Short of It

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) officially ended on 30 November, freeing up time to make more detailed entries here. And what a great deal has happened over the last seven days.

Let’s start off with NaNoWriMo itself. I’m pleased to report that I hit the 50,000 word-target on day 29, although I’m still writing the story. Our Tuesday meet-ups will also continue off-season, but not before a Thank Goodness It’s Over party tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I’ve been asked to write a guest blog post for NaNoWriMo on the theme of the ‘Now What?’ months, when the contest is finished and the novel needs to be edited. I found it more difficult than an ordinary blog entry because I wanted to stick as close to the theme as possible. I’ve yet to find out when the guest post will be published, but I’ll point you in that direction when I know.

Speaking of other blogs, I took a snap decision on Saturday to start using Tumblr again after a gap of four years, roughly when I began to use WordPress. I used to keep a weekly video blog there, but I gave it up because I didn’t have the time to generate content. The videos have disappeared because my Flickr account is closed, but the transcripts remain. Tumblr will now serve as an outlet for my Instagram photos, interesting content from other people, and original long-form blog topics that aren’t related to writing.

[Insert fangirl squee]

Another place I’m active is Twitter. Some weeks ago, the allowed number of characters was doubled from 140 to 280. Having had the chance to try it out for a while, I’m ambivalent about the change. On the one hand, a sense of Twitter’s core identity has been lost as you’re no longer forced to find inventive ways to comply with the cap. On the other hand, the relaxed limit comes into its own when I’m advertising our Hotchpotch open-mike events, and it’s now possible to squeeze in all the core points without relying on users clicking the link to our Facebook page.

As well as WordPress, here’s a summary of the places you can now follow me: Google+, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter.

But what about offline activities? There have been plenty of these happening too.

On Thursday, I was invited to a St Andrew’s Day celebration at the Dundee Maggie’s Centre to read Scottish poetry. My friend Erin Farley had pointed me towards, among others, a poet called Violet Jacob from the county of Angus. It was a challenge to read work written in her dialect, but I found it an ultimately rewarding experience.

On Friday, Erin was part of a line-up telling stories related to food while the audience enjoyed soup and bread; hers was a folk tale from Shetland. This event was held in the library – not a place where food and drink is normally encouraged – as part of Book Week Scotland. I wish I’d been able to take part in more events over the week, but it overlapped with NaNoWriMo and then I needed to complete tasks that I’d put off because I was writing.

I could go on for pages and pages about Saturday, but the condensed version is that I met the author Brandon Sanderson in Edinburgh and bought his short story collection Arcanum Unbounded. Unlike the two friends who came with me, I’m new to his Cosmere, the universe in which all his sci-fi novels are set. When I mentioned this, he pointed out which stories I should read first. He seemed such a genuine man and I can’t wait to start reading.

And yesterday, a little light-hearted relief at the University of Dundee as I watched the LIP Theatre Company present their retelling of the classic Cinderella tale in If the Shoe Fits. A hilarious, highly self-referential treat.