Reading your work aloud is the key to connecting with your audience, especially if your work is not yet well-known. A good reading hooks your audience, engages them and makes them want to get more of what you’ve given them in the reading. A reading is not an ordeal to be endured. It’s an opportunity!
Writers are notoriously solitary, working in isolation. There’s something safe about being alone with your computer — pencil/pen? Typewriter? Having to go in front of an audience is scary to most of us. It scared me at first, but the more I did it, the more comfortable I got.
Reading aloud is a bit like acting – you have your script, your lines. You are playing all the parts, including that of narrator. A lot of actors would be terrified if they had to get up in front of an audience and talk about themselves. But the role gives them confidence. They know just what to say and what is expected.
You need to have that confidence in your material. You know it’s good (and even if you aren’t sure, give yourself the benefit of the doubt). Your job is to let others know how good it is. Never apologize, never let the audience see your doubt. Never, ever start by saying anything like “I’m not very good at this,” or, “I can’t really do voices so well.” Be confident in yourself and do the very best you can. Don’t judge yourself; let the audience be the judge. And don’t let yourself worry about what they are thinking. Believe in yourself and your work, because if you don’t, surely no one else will.
A few elements of a good read:
Smile: A smile is the basic unit of human social commerce. Everybody recognizes it. It says, “Hey, I’m so glad to see you!” It invites people to like you, and they do want to like you! If they’ve come to your reading, it’s because they are already disposed in your favor. You already have an advantage. So smile! Show you’re enjoying yourself, and invite them to enjoy themselves, too.
Okay this might seem kind of obvious, but others before you have failed at this:
Make sure you have the right notes or excerpt in front of you: Duh, right? But I’ve seen pros who were so much in a hurry that they grabbed the wrong print-out on their way out the door and didn’t realize it until they were up there in front of the mic. Double check before you get up there.
Be sure you have water available before you start. If your mouth goes dry or you get an annoying tickle in the back of the throat you do not want to break the mood by stopping and pleading for somebody to fetch you a glass of water.
Get the mic adjusted right: Haven’t you all seen a public speaker who doesn’t seem to know how to use the mic? Either they are scared of it, or oblivious of how they sound over it. Don’t be afraid to get right up to it and make sure it’s adjusted correctly for you. Test it out ahead of time if you can so you are confident that your grand performance is going to reach your audience.
Volume: If you aren’t using a mic, then for pity’s sake, speak up. Don’t be shy. That audience wants to hear you. If you tend to be soft-spoken, bellow! If you demure in modest humility you’ve defeated the whole purpose of your being there.
Enunciate and Project: Don’t mumble. Speak clearly. I once was at a reading which was being videotaped by the publisher to promote a book the author had just released. She sat in a chair with her head down, mumbling into her notes. It drove the cameraman crazy and nobody could understand what she was saying Stand! Face your audience and speak up clearly! As much as you might want to, don’t hide behind your paper. Look up from your notes and make eye-contact with the audience. Speak to the back of the room, and the front will hear you just fine.
Another real problem that many of us succumb to is reading too fast. Slow Down! There is a real temptation to rush through it and get it over with, maybe because you’re nervous that your audience is going to get bored. Or perhaps you have a limited amount of time and you want to fit in as much of your scintillating prose as humanly possible. Wrong priority. If you have a time limit, find the best of what you have to read and focus on that. Test it out beforehand by reading it with a timer. If you have to, cut it to easily fit into the time allotted.
Allow yourself to pause where you need to pause, to allow points to sink in, jokes to get laughed at. That’s really important. If you have humor in your work, you have to allow time for your audience to laugh. Wait for them to get their yucks in before you continue or they will hold their laughter for fear of missing something. And you don’t want that! Let them enjoy it. Audience laughter feeds on itself. (Why do you think they have laugh tracks in situation comedies?) It’s infectious! Give it time to spread.
Which brings me to —
Breath Control: I know a writer who gets so nervous when reading aloud that he literally forgets to breathe. Then he overcompensates by hyperventilating. The poor man can’t read more than a page without being in danger of passing out.
There are natural breaks in the rhythm of prose, between speeches and paragraphs. Part of pacing yourself properly is allowing yourself time to breathe naturally, without gasping. A writer friend of mine literally rewrites her reading, adding carriage returns, breaking it up into chunks to be sure she remembers where to pause and breathe.
Another reason to rewrite your prose for a reading is to remove unnecessary words. Narrative and description, unless it’s written with exceptional beauty or is indispensable to the plot, tends to be less engaging when read aloud. Trim it down if you can. And if you are reading a speech with good characterization, you don’t need qualifiers like “he shouted” or “she whispered.” This is especially true if you are doing distinctive voices for your characters. The audience will be able to follow who is speaking by the way you are reading, and they’ll know if the character is shouting, whispering, or saying something sadly or excitedly.
Show some emotion: You can’t just stand up and recite. I said it was a little like acting. You have to put some life into it. Even straight narrative has some drama to it. If it doesn’t, you’ve chosen the wrong material. It should be interesting, gripping, funny, exciting. Inject life into the material by putting some emotion into your reading.
Try giving distinctive voices to each character. A slight change in register, higher for female, lower for male, or a lisp, or nasal tone. Listen to some audiobooks, some professional audio performances to get ideas.
Action can enrich your performance. If a character shakes his fist at someone, shake your fist. If she hangs her head, hang yours. Walk back and forth if the venue allows it, so you are addressing different sections of the audience (but don’t pace like a caged animal). Keep these motions spare or they become distracting. They must complement your prose, not draw attention away from it.
The best way to learn is by example: Go to open mics and readings and watch the reader. Pay close attention to how they read, not just what they are reading. Make notes about what they do that works, and what doesn’t. Try recording yourself and make the same evaluation. Get a trusted friend or colleague to watch you and get some feedback. We tend to either be too self-critical or too blind to our own faults. Another person’s perspective can be enormously helpful.
Most important is to enjoy yourself. Even if you hate being in the spotlight, at least pretend that you enjoy it. Do it often enough, and you might realize that you really are beginning to enjoy it. And if you can communicate your enthusiasm for your work to your audience, they are likely to share it, and leave the reading feeling excited about it. That’s what you are there to achieve.
Good luck, and believe in your material, and believe in yourself!
Reading your work aloud (download PDF)