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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Adapting to Film, Adapting to Change

On Saturday, I went to see a performance of Benidorm at the Edinburgh Playhouse, based upon the ITV2 comedy of the same name. It even featured some of the actors.

The TV series is already rather theatrical in nature, like a Carry On film with a more modern attitude. As such, it transferred very well to the stage.

Sometimes, though, adapting a story from one medium into another is a hit-or-miss affair.

Those I enjoyed include the 2004 film Layer Cake, then I discovered it’s so closely based on the novel by J. J. Connolly that it even contains direct quotes. Similarly, The Thirty-Nine Steps worked as a mock radio adaptation performed on stage, even though the plot was stripped down to the bare essentials.

Yet I was disappointed by the film version of one of my favourite books, Starter For Ten, perhaps because it deviates from the first-person point of view. And the 2016 Dad’s Army movie opened to lacklustre reviews, with The Guardian asking why we needed a film version of a much-loved TV series.

One classic case of an author disowning a film version is Roald Dahl’s reaction to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He disliked the plot changes and musical numbers so much that no other screenplays of his work were authorised until after his death.

A few years ago, I posed a question to Irvine Welsh at a book signing about his thoughts on adaptation, considering how many of his novels have been on the big screen. He replied that he considered film to be a different medium and he accepted that changes sometimes had to be made.

‘And,’ he concluded, ‘it never hurts book sales.’

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.

The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.

Press play.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered the art of playwrighting. National Novel Writing Month used to have an offshoot called Script Frenzy. In 2012, its last year, I wrote my first and only full-length script: a stage play for two actors. Since then, I’ve become more comfortable with dialogue in prose, and how it can be used to imply action, or indeed how an action can omit several lines of speech. I haven’t yet edited my Script Frenzy work, but I imagine I could tighten up the dialogue and cut out many of the directions.

One thing that strikes me about penning a play is that you must have a clear idea of where it’ll be performed, not just which venue, but where in the world. A radio drama, for instance, will be radically different from a screenplay, and done on a vastly different budget. Even taking a stage play from London’s West End to Broadway will require the script to be laid out in a different format. But once you know where it’ll be set, the rest falls into place.

Scrivener, for instance, offers several different templates, including all the ones mentioned in the last paragraph, and any that aren’t shown by default can probably be downloaded. You tell the program your next action by pressing Enter or Tab at the end of each line. I’ve found this software a joy to work with for novelling, and just as good for scripts.

It’s most important, however, to remember that playwrighting is not for control freaks. The moment you give it to a director, he or she will have different ideas about how your words should be presented to an audience. You might imagine your characters sitting opposite sides of a table dressed formally, but the director might see them in jeans cuddled up next to each other. The writer has limited input in this process. The only way to guarantee it goes the way you want is to become a director yourself.