Today’s guest post is an excerpt from the writer’s guide book How to Read for an Audience: The Stuff Nobody Teaches You, co-authored by public speaking coach and creative mentor James Navé (@JamesNave) and author and workshop leader Allegra Huston (@allegrahuston).
When you’re nervous about reading in public, you tend to picture the audience as the enemy, distant and judgmental, just waiting for you to mess up. If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realize that it’s an illusion born of fear. In fact, your audience wants to love you and your work. Some of these people probably already do.
The audience is on your side. They love writing just as you do; that’s why they’re there. These wonderful people have taken time out of their lives, probably traveled some distance and spent some money, just to hear you read. They’ve come to witness your imagination at work. They’ve come to be moved, entertained, motivated, validated, informed, provoked, stimulated and inspired. In short, they’re receptive.
They are your allies.
So, what are you going to read? Here are things to keep in mind as you make your selection.
Crafting an emotional connection
The strongest impact you can make when reading aloud is emotional, not intellectual. For that reason, you will do best if you choose content you have a strong emotional connection with: passages that make you laugh or cry—if you let yourself.
- Pre-select more material than you will have time to read, with a wide emotional range. You’re not a robot. You’re not going to feel the same way every day, or want to read the same material.
- Make your final selection on the day of your reading. If you’re going through a difficult time in your personal life, you may want to present material that reflects your emotional state—though if you don’t trust yourself to keep control of your emotions, go with something safer. Include as wide a range of emotion as you can manage—or, if it’s a short reading, choose material that builds to a powerful climax. Either way, take your audience on a journey.
- If the event has a theme, take it into account. Even if you have to stretch to make a connection between the material you want to read and the theme, make sure you do. The organizers will not invite you back if you totally ignore the brief they gave you.
- If you are one of two or three readers at an event, you will probably have about 20 minutes (more on timing below). Unless you are an expert at this, DO NOT choose one continuous passage or one long poem. You will find it challenging to hold an authentic emotional connection for that long, and your audience’s attention is pretty much guaranteed to wander. Instead, choose poems of varying lengths or three- to six-minute passages from different parts of your book. For an event where you are the sole author reading, select five or six passages or 12-15 poems.
- Even though you have been asked to do a reading, it doesn’t mean that all you’re allowed to do is read. You may do better to structure your presentation as a talk about your work.
Timing your reading
After you’ve identified the passages or poems that you might include in your reading, or developed a talk about your writing, the next step is to get an accurate timing. This is where many rookie readers run into trouble. They don’t time their reading in advance, they time it inaccurately, or they decide it’s okay if they run over a bit. Almost always, it’s not okay.
Find out how much time you will have for your reading. Open mic slots run three to six minutes. Curated multi-writer readings allow 10-20 minutes. Solo events can run an hour or more: usually 30-40 minutes of reading followed by an interview and/or a Q&A.
Staying within your allotted time is one of most professional moves you can make. Less is more. If you have 5 minutes, prepare for 3 minutes. If you have 10 minutes, prepare for 8 minutes. If you have 20 minutes, prepare for 16 minutes. The extra time allows for introductory remarks, pauses, off-the-cuff comments, and audience response. If you finish under time, your audience will want more, your fellow readers will appreciate you, and your host will ask you to come back.
If you’ve ever been to an open mic, you’ve almost certainly seen a reader exceed the time limit. This is not only unfair to the other readers, especially those last on the list; it’s unfair to the audience. Some people have come specifically to hear those people who have just been elbowed off the program. Everyone has come to hear a variety of voices. Being greedy, even unintentionally, makes a reader unpopular all around.
We’ve often heard people say, “I only have five minutes. If I read fast, do you think I can get through all five pages?” Sure, it’s possible if you read like an auctioneer, but you’ll lose your audience. It’s always better to read less and read it well.
Time your pieces with the stopwatch on your phone. Begin by reading each piece aloud at what seems to be a normal speed. Chances are it will take longer than you expected. If that’s the case, trim your material rather than speeding up your pace. As you rehearse, your pace is likely to slow down even further, so cut your selections down far enough to give you room to expand.
Editing your material
Many writers don’t realize that they’re “allowed” to make changes to what’s on the page. You can leave out words, sentences, even paragraphs, if that serves the reading. The reading is its own thing: It’s not “a chunk of the book” or legally binding testimony of its contents. It’s an event, and your task is to engage your audience.
What should you leave out?
Wherever possible, omit phrases and sentences that refer to other characters or plot lines that will distract or confuse your audience. And leave out anything that starts to feel inauthentic or clumsy in rehearsal. It happens frequently that you’re happy with a passage when you read it over on the page (perhaps you’ve read it over a hundred times on the page), but when you read it aloud, putting full emotional weight into the words, you realize you’re not happy with it at all. If you’re uncomfortable with even one word, cut or replace it.
When you stand up in front of your audience, you’re making a bargain with them. In return for the effort they’ve made to be there, you will give them an experience of human connection, though the emotions you share may range from ecstasy to hilarity to rage. This sense of shared emotion is why we read. It reminds us that we are not alone, that life is infinitely sad and infinitely sublime, and that there is always something new to fascinate or appall or delight us.
For more insight on reading or performing your written work, check out How to Read for an Audience: The Stuff Nobody Teaches You by James Navé and Allegra Huston.
James Navé is a public speaking coach and writing mentor who has taught creative writing for institutions and schools worldwide. He co-founded Poetry Alive!, performers of classic poems for over 6 million students, and has produced creativity workshops with Julia Cameron. James directs the Taos Storytelling Festival and has written two books, The Road (1998) and Looking at Light (2012). He holds a poetry MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit his website.
Allegra Huston is the author of Love Child, Say My Name, and How to Work with a Writer. Editor at major London and New York publishers for 30 years and an editorial director for six, Allegra has run creative writing workshops for universities, conferences, and the UK’s Arvon Foundation. She has also worked with authors such as Sir James Goldsmith and Jane Goodall. Allegra’s English Language & Literature degree comes from Hertford College, Oxford. Visit her website.