I know many, many writers who get terrified by the idea of reading aloud to an audience. But readings are part of the business of post-published writing, especially in the world of novels. Readings give you an opportunity to sell your work. Readings are your way to woo readers.
Here are some tips on how to read your work aloud in public.
1. Practice, practice, practice
I like to keep my reading style conversational and a bit adlibby. This does not mean I stroll into a bookstore or library, unprepared, and dazzle with off the cuff banter. Hell to the no. I practice my damn heart out. I time myself. I stand the way I think will most likely mirror the room’s setting. I make sure I am not mumbling or talking too fast or not breathing sufficiently. That way when I arrive at the venue I feel prepared. That allows me to wander from the script occasionally, to respond to the audience mood. Because I feel ready.
2. Do NOT read like you’re on stage at the Old Vic
I used to read in front of my high school class sounding like the bastard child of John Giegud and Maggie Smith. I thought an English accent sounded elevated. I thought that adopting an upper class touch of ooh la la made my words sound fancier. Or better. Nope. People want to hear your words the way you wrote them. Try to sound just like you would when you’re talking about the weather with a neighbor. If you sound like you’re putting on an act the audience will recognize it.
3. Don’t panic
Nothing is harder to watch than a public speaker who is terrified. It makes audiences very uncomfortable. I once took a class where the instructor said that all speakers should be focused on the audience and how they are feeling. He asked us, “When you’re self-conscious and scared who are you thinking about: you or the audience?” The answer is you. You’re turning inward. You need to turn outward. Thinking about others oddly frees up the terror in your head. So does Xanax. Take as needed.
If anyone invites you or allows you to speak at their venue, it’s an opportunity. Try to regard it as such. Remember that this is a way for you to share your work with strangers and friends. It is not an elaborately constructed torture plot dreamt up by your ex. Or most likely it is not.
5. You DON’T have to read the words as written
This is a mistake I made many times when I first began to read in public. I’d read every word as it was written. Was I worried someone in the audience was following along, keeping track? Let’s face it, some passages are improved by skipping a sentence or a paragraph, or two! You get to choose how to present your material and if that means switching words, skipping sentences, or moving between chapters that’s your prerogative.
6. Bring a friend, or twelve
If making eye contact with strangers freaks you out, let your eyes rove to those people you do feel comfortable looking at. Staring at the book or papers in your hand is bad. It cuts your connection to the audience. And makes you appear nervous. And when you, the author are nervous, so is the audience. So bring some friends and just stare the heck out of them!
If your novel deals with genocide, no one expects you to begin by reciting a limerick. Not everything needs to be funny. Be sure that your work’s tone influences the evening. This doesn’t mean you have to be Debbie Downer. You just want some breathing room between tragedy and comedy.
8. Say thank you
Always be sure to give thanks where they are due: to your hosts, any special helpers that got you where you are, and to the audience. Those people came to see you read at the expense of other fun things they could be doing. Give ‘em props for it.