Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Three Ps: Tips on Readings

I swear, this will be my last post on this sort of thing for a while (at least two weeks, that is; on the 17th, we’re doing another public reading at another local arts center). At least this one is going to be useful–I hope!

Many people quake at the notion of reading their work in public. I do, too, and I’m a person who has pretty much made a living standing up in front of groups of people talking. Reading your own work is a lot different than walking around with a turkey vulture on  your arm, however; the bird is the attention grabber, the focus, and if you find yourself stuck for any reason, you can always say, “Wow, look at that, isn’t he fantastic?” When you’re reading your own work, there’s no vulture to hide behind; there’s just you, and your words.

Fortunately, you can take some steps to make the reading go well. It comes down to three Ps–Print, Practice and Posture. Here we go.

PRINT. This is probably the easiest step along the way. I recommend you print out a copy of whatever it is you’re going to read. Double-spaced. Large font, if needed. The reason is simple: It’s easier to read. The font is likely going to be larger than what’s in your book. Double-spacing helps you keep your place–and gives you plenty of room for making notes (more on this below). In addition, printed sheets of paper won’t have the same annoying habit that books have where they want to flip closed all the time. You don’t want to have to wrestle with your reading material in front of an audience. One member of my writers’ circle argued we should be seen reading from the actual book, and I saw his point, but printed document was the only way to go, as far as I was concerned. I’m glad I did.

PRACTICE. This is huge, and also fairly easy. Read the selected passage out loud. Several times. Read it alone, read it in front of a few volunteers. Many of you probably do this at some point during your editing stage because it forces you to see things in a slightly new way, and allows you to hear dialogue. Hearing the words in your head and hearing them with your ears are two very different animals. Practicing will show you where you need to breathe, where you want to pause for dramatic emphasis, where you want to stress a word or group of words. Breathing, by the way, is kind of important. You don’t want to run out of air in the middle of a key sentence.

Practicing will also familiarize yourself with trouble spots and clunky word combinations. I had two particular sentences that gave me trouble in Katydid Nights. One of them was as smooth as custard when I read it in my head, but was like a spoonful of peanut butter out loud. The first time I read it out loud, I stumbled badly over it. By the time I got to my public reading I had been over it enough that I knew when it was coming and was prepared. The second was this line “…the beer makes a cold wet circle on your chest.” For some reason, my brain kept trying to change it to “…the beer makes cold wet circles on your chest.” On my manuscript, I took a red pen and wrote a big block letter ‘A’ over the trouble spot. Practice, make notes on your manuscript, and now we’re on to the last big tip:

POSTURE. I actually started drafting this a week before the reading, and I was going to emphasize posture. Good posture–head up, shoulders square, back straight–is important for a couple of reasons. First, standing straight will take advantage of the natural resonance of your chest and lungs. You’ll breathe better, speak louder and project more. With your head up, you won’t mumble down into your paper, and your voice will sound better.

You will also look good. Standing tall (but natural–don’t stand so straight and stiff you look like a guard at Buckingham Palace!), you’ll look confident, and as ‘Fernando’ used to say, “It’s not how you feel, it’s how you look–and you look MAH-velous!”

Yes, I am once again dating myself, because I remember when this used to be a thing.

It is important, however. When I started drafting this, I did some searching to find a good scientific explanation for posture and resonance. I figured there was a reason vocal coaches worked with their students on posture that went beyond looking good, and I found some interesting links between posture and confidence. Most notable is this TED talk from Amy Cuddy. It’s 20 minutes long, but well worth it.

For those who don’t have the time right now, the Cliff’s Notes version is this: standing in a posture of confidence can boost testosterone and suppress cortisol–in turn making us actually feel more confident. Keeping this in mind, while I waited my turn, I stood at the back of the courtyard in a confident posture. When I was introduced, I resisted the urge to head to the stage as soon as the ’emcee’ started talking about me. Instead, I waited in the back and when she called my name, I strode forth (yes, that’s how I would describe it) with purpose, determination and confidence. At the podium, I focused on maintaining good posture throughout my reading, and I believe it helped quite a bit.

I was nervous, yes, I will never not be nervous when doing something like this, but I felt good and read well. The three Ps helped me quite a bit. But wait, there’s more! Here are a couple of other quick things, then I’ll stop, because this is mighty long.

SLOW DOWN. Practicing will help you with your pacing, but the word of advice I was given many, many years ago by one of my first supervisors (or maybe it was one of my teachers in school; it’s been a while) was to really focus on slowing down. When we’re nervous we talk fast. When you speak publicly, I was told, go so slow that you think it’s dragging, because in all likelihood you’re really going faster than you think. When I practiced by myself, I had a nice pace. When I practiced with my group the day before the event, I got nervous, and sped up–never mind that I read to these people every. Single. Week. I still got nervous. Here’s what I did to help myself (and this is another benefit of printing your manuscript):

I wrote it even bigger on page 1

And, last but not least: EYE CONTACT. You don’t want to stand up there staring down at your paper. Look around. Make eye contact. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, all the efforts we go to to build an audience via social media can’t compare to the connections we build up from direct connection. If you are doing a public reading, you have a great opportunity to make connections to actual people who may become fans, who may buy your books and stories. Take advantage of that opportunity. You’ll also find support and encouragement in the eyes of people in the audience (yeah, you might find that guy in the third row with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. Try to connect with him, too), and that’s fantastic to see.

Oh, wait, and now the REAL last thing: if you make a mistake, don’t call attention to it. Unless it’s catastrophic, or you start to sputter and say, “Oh, crap, I messed up, wait a minute”, most people will not notice. This I say based on many years of being sure I screwed up big time in programs, and having people say, “Huh? I never noticed.” Stay calm, stay smooth, maintain that posture, and let the hours of practice take over. Have fun.

That’s it. Have you ever done a reading of your work? What tips do you have?

12 Responses

  1. These are great tips! I use them with my students all the time. By the time they've left my room, they've made at least a dozen presentations and are comfortable for the most part. I think I emphasize it because we never got the chance and I was TERRIFIED!!!

  2. This is a great post. I'm not fussed being in front of people generally, but I still do all those things. The only thing I would add is to do some of your practicing in front of a mirror. It can be quite eye opening.

  3. Slowing down is so hard when all you want to do is get out of the spotlight, because the sooner you finish, the sooner you'll reach that goal. It's the one thing I really struggle with when reading to an audience. That, and speaking up. Thank goodness we had microphones! Glad your reading went well.

  4. These are some great tips, Jeff. As someone who has read their work out loud and as someone who has attended readings as an audience member, I understand the value of the advice here. I hadn't thought about annotating the print-out, but I can definitely see the benefits! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. Thanks, Jemi. I *hated* doing presentations of any kind when I was in school, though I always loved reading out loud (provided it wasn't my own work, that is).

  6. Microphones are helpful, but you still have to enunciate, and the posture helps quite a bit. Keeping to the speed limit is probably the hardest thing, hence the ginormous lettering on my pages!

  7. Thanks, Bonnee. Notes are very helpful, though I should add that minimal is probably for the best. You don't want to confuse yourself or stop to read what you wrote in the margin there on page 2!

  8. I trip over words when under stress in a normal conversation, so something like this would be very daunting for me. I also talk too fast, so that would be a main point to focus on. Your points are very helpful. I've only done something like this once, when I gave a talk in front of my stepdaughter's class about writing. I brought my daughter, who was two at the time, and she acted as a vulture because they were all cooing over her instead. I don't think they were really listening to me!

  9. This is excellent advice. I've only done a few readings but I practiced like crazy. You can tell which authors don't, they'll either read too fast, or mumble. I make a point to read extra-slow, because what feels slow to me sounds good to the audience.

  10. I'm glad you find this helpful, Nick. Bringing the two-year-old is an excellent strategy–well played!

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