I was 19 years old the first time I stormed a stage with a poem in my hand—stormed being the keyword. I had studied writing in high school, and was majoring in it at NYU, so I had had experience reading my work in front of my classmates, at department readings, and at collegiate open mikes. But in July 1998, I was brought to my first poetry slam—a raucous, judged poetry competition, where poets bring their performance A-game to win over the five randomly selected judges from audience. I was in awe from the first poet—as engaging and accessible as he was electrifying—and the very next week, threw my name in the hat. I’ve been storming stages ever since.
In the two decades since that first fateful night, I have made my living as writer, and have performed work—both poetry and nonfiction—in arts venues, universities, and festivals around the country, and around the globe. I’ve learned that knowing how to present your writing well on stage only helps people get to embrace you and your writing on page. And so here are my top ten tips on how to bring the performance to the next level.
Prepare yourself well before public readings.
You can give yourself an edge before you ever set foot on the stage by thinking ahead and preparing well. Wear clothing that makes you feel like the best version of yourself—clean, comfortable, you. As you will likely be standing for the length of your reading, wear shoes that won’t make your feet throb ten minutes in. And lastly, be sure to check with the venue to see what they can provide you (bottle of water, a stool, good lighting, etc…) to make the event run as smoothly as possible, and what they might need from you (a short bio with which to introduce you, etc…) so you don’t have any additional responsibilities the day of!
Prepare your content well in advance too.
Before any event, I make it a habit to plainly ask the organizer of my events what the ideal reading from me for them would be. Sometimes their response is a length of time, sometimes it is an understanding that their particular audience may skew younger, or older, more liberal or more conservative, and to keep that in mind. Sometimes they can just give you tips about what works and what doesn’t. In any case, they will be grateful (and honesty, in the end, you will be too!) that you are both on the same page when you hit the stage, and will be doing an event that best suits that community in which you are performing. Once you understand what works for them, I would suggest identifying a few selections to read, so you can make your choice once you are in the space. Be sure to place bookmarks or post-it notes in your book in advance so you don’t have to waste any time on stage flipping around your book. If the type in your book is too small to comfortably read from on stage, or you fear the lighting will be too dim, don’t hesitate to bring typed pages with a font large enough to easily read. And lastly, be sure to time your selection so that it comfortably comes under the time limit set for your reading—that way you’ll have wiggle room for crowd reaction or banter.
Take the stage with the goal of making the audience feel at ease.
It is easy to forget this part when prepping for your reading, but making a good first impression goes a long way when it comes to engaging with your audience. When you are introduced, walk warmly up to the person who introduced you and shake their hand. Smiling into the audience, thank the venue for inviting you to read and thank the audience for spending their night with you. Feel free to make light banter—talk about the crazy weather, or share a local custom or slang that you were just made aware of, etc…– so that the audience gets a sense of you are as a person before you dive into your writing… and you get a sense of who they are too! Try to make eye contact with as many people as you can in your audience, and make sure that they know it is okay to laugh, smile and react to what you are about to present.
When you start a public reading, meet the energy of the room and then begin raising it.
Having checked with your audience, you should hopefully get a sense of where they are. If they are quiet, respectful audience, it’s okay to meet them with a quieter energy and pacing that says “I see where you are at, but hopefully we can have some fun.” If their energy is already sky-high, ride that wave too. Allow them time and space to have their reactions, and to laugh or gasp as long as they want. Regardless of the audience size, or energy, you want them to think that this is the ideal audience for that night. Make a small audience feel like they have been invited to an exclusive event; make a large audience feel like they are all cherished guests at your party.
When reading, understand that clarity is more important that theatrics.
One of the largest misunderstandings of what makes for a good performance of your writing is that one needs to be an actor—performing out emotion, or accents. In reality, the most important thing is that the audience understands what you are saying! So first things first: be sure to read at volume that is comfortable for the audience, taking into account the sound system (if there is one) at the venue you are at. Don’t mumble; enunciate! Read at a solid pace. They say a good pace to jog is a pace where you can still have a conversation. Well, a good pace for a reader is one where you can comfortably look up at your audience every few lines without losing your place or losing your rhythm. Once you have mastered reading clearly, loudly, and at a good pace, if you feel like adding some additional theatrics, it’s your choice. But if that’s not your style, please know: it isn’t necessary!
Check in with your audience often.
When I first began listening to recordings of readings of famed writers, I was surprised how often the performance of the writing was different than the writing in the book. Not in large ways, but often small—the skipping of an overly gruesome passage, or the softening of vulgar words. Now I realize what these writers were doing: understanding the audience they were reading to, and tweaking accordingly. If you are surprised at the number of young children in your audience, you should absolutely feel free to soften curse words so their parents—who are likely enormous fans of your work—can stay for the duration of your event. Similarly, if you are sensing that the selection you are reading isn’t quite connecting with your audience, feel free to close that segment of your reading early, and move on to a selection that you feel will resonate more. The goal of the event is always to make the audience connect with you and your work, and so there is no shame in altering your game plan to fit your audience… as opposed to alienating a potential audience because you are too rigid.
Keep track of your time.
There is no better way to anger the organizers, or alienate potential readers of your work, than staying on stage past your welcome. Oddly, this happens the most when the reading is going great. They are really loving this! I’m going to keep going! is the reason writers often decide to push the envelope. But trust me, you would much rather have audience members walking away (with purchased book in hand) saying “Wow! I could listen to that author all night!” than have them walk away empty-handed (as they have had their “fill” of your writing) saying, “That reading would have been perfect if it ended fifteen minutes earlier…” Similarly, the world of literary organizers is as gossipy as a sewing circle, and you don’t want a bad reputation of going long to jeopardize future gigs. So bring a watch, set the timer on your phone, ask the organizer to give you a signal when you have five minutes left: whatever it takes to end at the perfect time.
Close out your reading with style.
Just as opening your reading well can help you more quickly engage with your audience, closing well can help them feel that you are approachable after the event. Once you have concluded your reading, be sure to take a pause, look into the audience, and thank them warmly for being there tonight. Stand for the applause as well, acknowledge it. And if there will not be a Q&A after your reading, let the audience know that you are happy to answer any questions and sign any books they have at the designated signing area. (And if there is a Q&A, have a question you can ask yourself already locked and loaded, so a shy audience member doesn’t have to fear being the first to ask).
Remember that your performance continues after the reading ends.
And by that I mean that interacting with the audience after a reading is its own kind of performance, with many of the same rules: thank them for coming out, engage with them honestly, meet them at their energy level, and speak to them clearly and at a good pace. Once you have made it through your signing line, remember to check in with the staff for your event to thank them, and ask if there is anything more you can do. You may be asked to sign any left over stock, or pose for a picture with the staff for their social media. Keep your good energy and engagement flowing until you leave the event space. And be sure to thank everyone in person who worked for your event. Bonus points for sending a physical thank you card afterwards!
Reflect on what you learned to up your game for future public readings.
The best performers are always evolving. Reflect on what worked (an opening joke, a new approach to a challenging section to read, etc…) and what didn’t (trim a reading selection so it ends where the audience had expected it to end, maybe craft an introduction to a section so you don’t have to stop mid-reading to explain something, etc…). Bring that information to your next reading, so that each reading you give is your best one yet.
As I often tell folks embarking on their first book tour: a good reading isn’t about adding a bunch of performance bells and whistles; it’s about stepping out of the way of your own bad habits so people can actually enjoy your writing. The hard work you put into your work on the page will be clearly seen, and heard, on the stage, as long as you let it—by knowing your audience, meeting them where they are, and speaking clearly, warmly and at a good pace. If you can master that, you’ll have them hooked.
Can’t wait to see you on the road, fellow writers! I’ll be in the front row, cheering you on!