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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Restoration

I’ve had some computer problems over the weekend. Windows was running slowly and wouldn’t update, and I eventually had to perform a system restore.

Although this has caused lots of short-term chaos, it seems to be a good long-term solution; it already feels like a new machine. Unfortunately, this episode has taken up so much of my attention that I don’t have a full blog entry for you.

However, I did manage to catch up with some reading earlier in the week. I was on a train to Birmingham and back, a total of around 11 hours, so I’m halfway through the short story collection Arcanum Unbounded by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

Most authors write short stories of mayble a few thousand words long and that stand alone from each other. By contrast, this author’s short stories are more like novel extracts, while some would qualify as novellas. What’s more, almost all of them link into the same universe, known as the Cosmere.

I bought the book when I met Sanderson last year because there were no more copies of his latest novel left. I’m glad I started with this collection as it’s given me an excellent sample of his style, and now I look forward to tackling his novels when I have the chance.

Surprise, Surprise

On Tuesday of last week, I came home to a parcel. I was only stopping for a brief time before heading out again. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was expecting a USB cable.

Just before leaving, I opened the parcel to check I’d received the correct equipment. So imagine my surprise when I found it actually contained the following:

Picture of Good Omens with a personalised gift note

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. There was no sender’s name, only a cat’s face made up with punctuation marks. However, it didn’t take long to trace it to an American friend. Around a week before, she’d heard the BBC radio adaptation from 2014. I’d casually mentioned I’d heard this, but hadn’t read the full novel, so she’d jumped at the chance to send it.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gift, and I’m making good progress with reading it. I’m working on what to send back as I have National Book Tokens that need to be spent before the balance expires.

Ring-Fenced Reading

By the time you read this entry, I’ll be on a train between Edinburgh and Preston. It’s a long journey, so I’m going to use the time to read two borrowed books.

"Derek Robertson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Derek Robertson (CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)), via Wikimedia Commons
The first is ‘Hong Kong’ Full Circle 1939-45 by Alexander Kennedy. The author was a lieutenant commander who had 500 copies privately published to tell the story of his service. Although it’s not something I would pick myself, I’ve flipped through some of the pages, and it promises to be an engaging story.

The second is The Lighthouse Boy by Craig Mair, about the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Arbroath. I originally intended to read the book in the town, ideally on the cliffs overlooking the water, but my plan didn’t work out. Although the overall book is a work of fiction, its characters are based on real people and the plot is based on actual events.

There used to be a Silent Reading Party nearby, modelled upon an event in New York, where readers would sit together and read silently for an hour; attendees were allowed to converse beforehand and afterward. Unfortunately, the organiser hasn’t run the parties for some months now and I have too many commitments to revive it.

I enjoyed attending because the time was specifically set aside for reading. If I’d decided to do it myself at home or even in a cafe, I would probably have become distracted, but the presence of the other attendees kept me what your organiser has focused. So I hope I’m able to employ some self-discipline on this train journey.

It’s Playback Time

Last week, I talked about how I hadn’t been reading very much. By contrast, I’ve had a lot of time to read over the last seven days, thanks to a six-hour train journey to Stockport and the same coming back.

Photo of a recording studio control room durin...
Photo of a recording studio control room during recording, viewing a trumpet part performance in the studio room, for Witches’ Heart of Stone album – http://www.witchesband.com/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s entry isn’t just about reading, but reading out loud.

A friend mentioned last week that he didn’t like hearing back recordings of his own voice. I sometimes forget that most people feel the same way. I’ve long been accustomed to hearing mine through volunteering at student, community and hospital radio stations. I’d often listen back to shows and figure out how I could improve them.

I don’t recall exactly when I stopped paying attention to how I sound to myself, but it’s a useful skill to develop. When I play back my work, I can focus on the words, the timing and the structure without distraction.

I sometimes say on this blog that reading your own work out loud to nobody is a key step to refining it. On top of that, the ability to listen back can be just as useful.

A good example is The Purple Spotlights EP, which I released almost exactly two years ago. When I listen to it now, I can hear that I focus too much on the technical quality of the recording and not enough on the performance. When I release my next EP, I’ll aim to correct that balance.

Anything but Reading

One piece of advice commonly given to new writers is to read widely: to read within and beyond their genre, read classics and airport paperbacks, read Western authors and works in translation.

A sheet of bingo cards.
A sheet of bingo cards. There will be no whistling at ‘Legs eleven’, thank you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s great advice. The more books an author is exposed to, the richer their writing will probably become. Exciting things can happen when two styles meet; I’d read two Chris Brookmyre titles before I found out they’re supposed to be crime novels, not comedies. But lately, I feel as though I’m doing anything but reading.

I’ve been to see a couple of documentaries about Hedy Lamarr and Michael Caine respectively, I went to the StAnza poetry festival, I’ve seen I, Tonya and Lady Bird, I’ve played bingo, I’ve been to a lecture about the Higgs boson particle, I’ve seen a production of Spring Awakening. In short, I’ve been having a ball – and that ball was on Saturday two weeks ago.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a wasted experience. In fact, there are some authors whose real-life experiences are inseparable from their written work.

Andy McNab first came to prominence with Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS mission in the early 1990s. He’s since gone on to write fiction that draws upon his knowledge and skills. PD James worked in the criminal justice system and the NHS for a long time and infused her expertise into her books.

It probably doesn’t hurt if you don’t read as much as you’d like. There are experiences everywhere, just waiting to be written about.

A friend of mine has a phrase: ‘Better felt than telt’. The last word is the Scots way of saying ‘told’, and the phrase means you can gain more insight from being somewhere then reading about it.

The Second Reading

On Thursday of last week, I went to the cinema to watch a National Theatre Live screening of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was disappointed to find it was a recording of the show I’d seen in 2015, particularly I’d specifically asked about this and was assured that it was a new live performance.

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...
Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during filming of Sherlock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nonetheless, I’d consciously chosen to see the play again. In this case, I felt I would understand the story a little better the second time around as there’s an additional barrier of decoding the Elizabethan English. Having an actor apply inflection and pace to the words helps enormously.

This is an unusual move for me, as I normally don’t revisit works I’ve already read or seen. Yet it happened recently, when I saw the latest film version of Stephen King’s It with some friends, then I was invited again by a different person. As I’d seen it so recently, I knew very much where the story was going, but there were elements I picked up the second time and not the first.

The last time I read a novel again must have been more than 10 years ago. It was Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. At the time, I was at the end of my first degree, so the theme of university life appealed to me enough to tackle it again, though I don’t recall gaining much extra from the second occasion.

The one circumstance where I do reread old work is when it’s my own. I use this as a yardstick to measure how much I’ve learnt in the intervening time.

I recently rediscovered a 200-word story I’d written in 2012 with the intention of adapting it for a competition. While the concept is sound, I can now see where my sentences are too flabby and where I might focus on different details. I could even trim the story to just 100 words without losing any of the sense.

Of course, I might read back over this entry in five years’ time and see the same problems.