I was terrified when I gave my first public reading, and I’m sure my audience didn’t enjoy the occasion any more than I did. But then I learned that preparation is the key to a good reading, that there are ways to build audience interest—or destroy it—and that many of the problems that arise, including a case of the jitters, can be anticipated and controlled.
Most of us dread public speaking at first, but once you learn how to plan for a reading, you may find you actually enjoy it. Here are 10 essentials to get you started.
1. REMEMBER: LESS IS MORE. A reading always takes more time than anticipated and, inevitably, there are delays and interruptions. So don’t plan to fill all the time. If you’re given an hour, planning about 35–40 minutes of reading will leave listeners wanting more, not checking their watches.
2. VARY THE PACE AND CONTENT. Choose poems or stories that differ in subject matter, length and tone. If you’re reading from a novel or story, consider choosing two or three 10- to 20-minute excerpts rather than one long selection. This allows for shifts in pacing, interspersed remarks and fresh starts for listeners who’ve zoned out or failed to connect with an earlier piece.
3. SELECT LIVELY MATERIAL. Narrative summary, exposition and long descriptive passages are rhetorical sleeping pills. Select a passage with a strong story line, vivid imagery, a unique voice and minimal dialogue. Humor makes a good choice, and first-person stories tend to read well.
4. PROVIDE A CONTEXT. Ideally, whatever you read should be self-contained, but if that isn’t possible, explain how the selected passage fits into your larger work. Orient the listener by briefly summarizing the plot or discussing the themes and background of the piece before you begin.
5. PUBLICIZE YOUR READING. Don’t rely solely on the organizers of the event. Create a simple flier on your computer and post it in libraries and bookstores. About 10 days before the reading, e-mail your “groupies,” telling them where and when you’ll be reading, and send press releases to the calendar sections of the local newspapers.
6. CHECK OUT THE SPACE. Visit the site of the reading in advance to familiarize yourself with the space and make sure you’ll have what you need. It’s usually easier, for example, to read from behind a podium or seated at a table. A microphone is a must for large rooms. If these aren’t provided, ask for them.
7. EDIT YOUR TEXT. Mark places you need to add emphasis or pauses in the pages you intend to read. If a word or phrase seems like it will give you trouble, cut or rewrite it. You don’t have to precisely mirror what’s on the page.
8. REHEARSE. Read the work s-l-o-w-l-y, out loud, pausing briefly at the end of each sentence and paragraph to build in time for the audience to absorb your words. Enunciate clearly, almost exaggerating the pronunciation. Experiment with volume, speed and emphasis. If possible, practice in front of a friend and ask for feedback. Time yourself, factoring in time for remarks and discussions.
9. STAY FOCUSED. When you begin the actual reading, ignore the audience and focus on exactly how each sentence should sound. Use what you learned in rehearsal. Concentrating on the sound of the work as you read it is the best way to control nervousness and avoid fumbles.
10. ADD INFORMAL REMARKS. In addition to hearing your work, audiences like to learn about writing itself. Interweave comments about your process, the origins of the piece or your research. Listening isn’t easy, and your audience will welcome a break. Also, take questions at the end. That’s often the best part of a reading.