Years ago, I hired someone via friend who called himself a "reading coach." He was an actor who ran a theatre in New York and had recently published a collection of short stories through one of the Top Five publishers. I was in Baltimore, but I e-mailed him anyway, asking if he made out-of-state calls and how much he charged. Turns out he had friends in the area and was already going to be in town in a few weeks, so we scheduled a session. So you don't think I'm crazy, I won't tell you the ridiculous amount he charged.
For two hours, he put me through my paces. I read poems softly, then loudly. I moved from loud to soft and back. I did the same with fast and slow. I stood and did stretches. I hummed and did scales. I lay on the floor and breathed in various ways while he pushed on either my upper chest or my stomach (he made sure I was comfortable with that first) to indicate where I should center the breath. The ultimate was me standing in the middle of the room reading while he circled me in his loose, fluid way of moving, and called out instructions: "Faster, slower, louder, softer, look at me, pause," occasionally coming over to pull my shoulders back or lift my head. I often felt pretty silly.
I'd have to say that the experience was interesting, but not useful in the way I was looking for—focused and concrete. In an abstract way, I'm sure I could draw upon the techniques he taught me, as basically they were intended to encourage me to focus on how to speak and move, how not to disappear, and how to receive energy from the audience. It was too much of a performance, though, which I've never thought works well for a reading. Then it becomes too much about the reader and not the material. It can also create a wall between the reader and the audience. Not what you want.
So, to save everyone the crazy fee and experience I had, over the years, working with clients and students, I've put together this list that I refine whenever I host a reading because so many people make so many mistakes such as 1) believe it's "their show" and reading much longer than the allotted time, thereby stealing time from the other readers (very rude), 2) read poetry at a fiction reading and vice versa (???), 3) show up late then are pissed when you move them to the end of the reading because you thought they were a no show and have already passed their slot in the lineup. And on and on.
These tips are about giving a good reading—practical tips—but pay attention to the 3 mistakes I just mentioned. The first tip should really be: do whatever the host of the reading tells you to do in terms of time, page count, etc.
My advice is to practice alone with a mirror to see how you move and what the audience sees and also with a voice recorder to concentrate just on how your voice sounds. If you can stand it, go to open mic nights at local cafes and try out what you've learned. Make mistakes. Forgive yourself. And celebrate the successful readings.
Again, it takes practice. Even knowing all these techniques, you'll have good and bad times, where perhaps the audience isn't on the same wavelength as you. And other times you will feel them hanging on your every word, which is heady stuff.
It's give and take. Don't try harder to pull them in, be true to your style and your material. Somehow, in some way, however small, you will connect. Even if just with one person, that's what writing is all about, right?
Here are my tips for giving a good reading.
1. Rehearse many times before giving a reading. Including a few hours before.
2. Not all material lends itself to being read aloud. Dialogue, for example, is difficult. Choose appropriately. If you have something in first person, read that. It gets to the heart of things and really connects with the audience. An action scene is good, background/exposition is not. Anything that requires too much explanation should not be read.
3. Read something with a beginning, middle, and end to it. Even a short scene can have an arc. You don’t have to read a long piece to have an impact. It’s how you read that makes the biggest impression.
4. If you do choose to read dialogue and there’s no ‘he said, she said’ in the text, add it for the benefit of the audience so they can follow who is speaking.
5. Set up your reading: "This is the opening of a non-fiction book about___________." Or "This is a poem I wrote about _______________inspired by____________." If there's something in the piece (a word or phrase) that they'll need to understand prior, explain it quickly.
6. Practice the pre-reading set up and between pieces set up as much as the pieces themselves. Write it all out on cards if you have to. KEEP IT BRIEF.
7. Keep tone of the reading and the 'between pieces patter' in keeping with the tone of the work (e.g., Don't giggle and make jokes if the piece is serious).
8. Don't staple pages so you have to flip them. It causes too much rustling, which can be amplified by the microphone and ruin the mood. Keep pages loose so they can be slid under one another or to the side as you read.
9. When you begin the reading: pause for several seconds. Longer than you think you have to. It quiets the room, gets people’s attention, creates a feeling of expectation, and helps segue into the reading itself.
This is also a good time to take a deep breath. If you don’t, you'll start losing your breath faster and breathe too shallowly and that will make you anxious. Set the rhythm from the beginning.
(If you’re reading poetry, don't rush into poems right after your explanation or after the previous poem. Pause a few seconds, then say the title, then pause again. You need to allow the audience to move into the space of the piece (prose or poetry). Rushing between explanation and title and poem makes it hard for them to follow you. You know your work. They don’t! Give them time to keep up with you.)
10. Memorize the first sentence or paragraph of material so you are looking at the audience as you deliver it.
11. Slow down as you read, but not too slow. Reading too slow eliminates the rhythm of the work, interrupting its natural cadence.
12. Deliver punctuation orally. Pause in the appropriate places.
13. Speak clearly and enunciate.
14. Speak up and out to the audience. Don’t hang your head or (if a woman), hide behind your hair (put your hair back). Let them see and hear you.
15. Pick a place to look and keep your eyes there as much as possible without looking forced. Don't look up and down quickly or let your eyes dart around. It makes you look anxious. If you’re anxious, the audience will pick up on it and feel anxious too.
16. If your hand shakes, don't hold the pages. Rest them on the podium and hold the podium to steady yourself if you have to.
17. Don't drop the ends of sentences. You may drop in tone to indicate an ending, but don't drop in volume. Especially true for the end of the piece itself. Don't rush it. Make sure it's heard. Say it a little more slowly than the rest of the piece. It will linger in the air afterward.
18. Allow the audience to smile if it’s called for. Often audiences aren’t sure if or when it’s okay to laugh or smile. If there’s a moment in your material that calls for either, smile so they have permission to do so as well.
19. Fill yourself with the spirit of your work (funny or serious). Enjoy it.
There's a lot to work with here. Do what you can. Get used to some of these and then add more at subsequent readings. Remember: the audience is there to support you. They want you to do well.
Christine Stewart is program director for arts in education, literary arts, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council and director of Maryland's Poetry Out Loud program. A former artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore, she is the founding director of the wildly successful Write Here, Write Now workshops. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, and other literary magazines. Check out her Facebook