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?