Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How To Give A Public Reading

Yesterday Tricia J. O'Brien over at Talespinning mentioned an article on reading out loud. I also learned that some of our blog friends here are about to go on a writing retreat that includes a public reading. So, I wanted to give a few tips on the subject.

I've had the opportunity to study the art of public reading with voiceover artist David Thomas. I've also had the amazing opportunity to have one of my stories read out loud by actor Joshua Harto in WordTheatre in Los Angeles. Seeing how the pros interpret words on a page and perform them was extremely educational.

Before the reading

Practice a lot. Read your piece over and over several times so that you have it nearly memorized. Understand the landscape of the piece: slow down and speed up according to the story's dramatic points. Practice using highs and lows in your voice to emphasize key points, multiple characters, and so that you don't sound like a robot. You don't need to do anything fancy like using accents--in fact, a lot of people are annoyed by that.

Two tricks: a) practice reading with a wine cork clenched between your teeth. You'll sound horrible while you are doing it, but it works the weakest muscles of your mouth, and if you read immediately afterwards without the cork, you'll notice that you pronounce everything much more clearly. b) practice speed reading through your piece. Get through it as fast as you can, but make sure that you hit every word and every sound.

At the reading

1. Make sure you have the attention of the audience. You made need to wait a few seconds. You can even have a drink of water in front of them so that people know that you are preparing. Often, the opening of a passage contains key details that let the audience orient themselves, so it's important that everyone gets that information.

2. Go slowly. Go slower than you think you should, especially in the beginning. Every word in the first sentence should take plenty of time--it will seem too slow to you, but not to the audience. You can speed up later to fit the mood of your piece if you need to.

3. Use the landscape that you created during practice. Don't be afraid to emote. An audience will be more engaged if they realize that you are engaged yourself. And, keep in ming that audiences are on your side. They want to see you do well because they want to be entertained. No one wants to see a bad show.

4. Don't forget to make eye contact with the audience. Or, at the very least look out toward the audience. I usually pick out three places--one on the right side, one in the center, and one on the left--that I try to look out at regularly.

5. If you're given a time limit, stick to it. Better yet, stay under the limit by a few seconds or minutes. No one likes to be thrown off schedule.

Note: If you are using a microphone, try to practice on it ahead of time. Test to see where your mouth has to be relative to the microphone. Some require you to be close while others sound better if you are further away. Figure out where you are going to put your pages, or how you're going to hold them before you start reading. Don't let the pages cover your face or block the path of air from your mouth to the microphone/audience.

I've had the opportunity to do public readings at some book fairs, and I'm happy to say they have all gone well thanks to the advanced preparation I've done. A strong reading will get people interested in your book and make them want to read more.


  1. Those are some wonderful tips, thank you for sharing! The first time I did a reading, I was scared to death. But after the jitters subsided, it was FUN. And unlike agents and editors, they can't stop you when you reach page 10. Even if they hate it, they have to be polite and clap at the end. That alone builds confidence!

  2. That is interesting about the wine cork! I will have to remember that if I ever get the opportunity to do a reading.

  3. The majority of people fear public speaking worse than death.*

    I have experience in professional voice recording and in public speaking, and your advice is spot-on (although I have never tried the cork exercise).

    This was a really good post. I hope that we can all put this to use in the future, because that will mean we are published and out promoting our work!

    *Statistical data provided by the Institute that Provides Important Sounding Statistics. Although to be fair, there is no stipulation regarding the manner of death. I can think of several scenarios that would probably make people jump on stage and embrace the microphone.

  4. Thanks for continuing the discussion with so much useful information, Davin. And extra thanks for linking me. Your comment caused a mini-uproar in my comment section and led to great silliness. Fun was had, so thanks for that, too.

  5. Other keys to public readings: Many poets get blitzed on one substance or another before a reading (see Charles Bukowski's HOSTAGE CD). Substances can be very useful, and often enhance a reading with the unexpected. Also, concerning the mouth exercises Davin mentions, I am gay, and have several other exercises that writes might want to explore.

    Less is more. If you plan to read for an hour, stop at 50 minutes. Definitely use a timer, and let the audience know in advance how long you will read. And stick to your committment. Many writers fall in love with themselves all over again at public readings, and just won't leave the f-ing stage. If you're reading with other writers, it is also most important to keep to your time parameters. (Which many writers don't do.)

    Consider a variety of formats. The Lannon Foundation, when they were still in LA, had a wonderful format the the downtown LA main library. The poet would read for 45 minutes; there would be a 15 minute intermission; then a scholar familar with the poet's work would have a 45 minute interview with the poet, both sitting in easy chairs on the stage, and they would take questions from the audience as well.

    No matter what the format, plan the entire reading in advance. Leafing through books and manuscripts looking for what you will read--horrible.

    Photographer Robert Turney has an act called "Poetry-warm-up." He as collected all the worst reading techniques he has seen in his 40 years of attending readings. His poetry warm-up act then goes through all the worst, from pulling poems crumbled into balls out of his pocket to taking 37 seconds to find the right piece to read, to putting himself down for being a bad writer. If you can ever see him do it, it will improve the performance aspect of your readings.

  6. Davin, you have no idea how perfect this is for me right now. Thank you! I am married to an actor, and he knows a lot about "public presentations" but this is still very helpful, and gives me a great place to start since he's never home these days. Hah. I would love to hear you read one day!

  7. I've done a few conference presentations and other public speaking engagements (no readings of my works -- yet). The one thing I'd suggest is to engage your audience by looking up from the text occasionally. It's not as hard as it sounds if you include looking at your audience as part of your practice reading. I used to go so far as to place reminders in my text.

  8. Thanks to the people who gave us additional tips, I went ahead and added them to the post so that other people can use it as a reference.

    Amy, I agree, it can be fun to read in public once you feel comfortable. For me, preparation gives me confidence.

    Annie, I'm always afraid to mention this cork tip because I'm worried I'll make someone choke. So, here's my official warning to everyone: Be careful not to choke!

    Rick, Thanks for the support. Yes, hopefully everyone gets to read in public. And, let me assure you, it doesn't have to be only upon publication. I've yet to publish a book, but I got to read excerpts at a couple of book festivals.

    Tricia, I try never to be silly. Never ever.

    Craig, Thanks for the tips. I added them to the post. You brought up some good points. The longest reading I've been offered was 10 minutes, so the idea of doing a 50-minute reading seems quite difficult.

    Michelle, I'm glad you found this post useful! You inspired it!

    Jim, thanks for your tip as well. I added it. That's a very important point.

  9. Great post! My only addition to this advice is to wear a turtleneck. If you are like me and your nervousness sprouts up around your neck, I've found that a turtleneck is one's best option. :)

  10. This is all fantastic advice, Davin! Thank you so much!

  11. Excellent advice! I love the cork tip.

  12. I love the cork idea. Never heard that one before. I may even use it when rehearsing for the play.

  13. This is all so, so true... at a conference a few weeks ago, I was shocked at how poorly many writers spoke, even when just sharing a paragraph or two of their work for critique. Public speaking is such a critical skill for writers, it's a shame so many of them figure they can just write their book and then hide away until the next one is finished.


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