Well, I’ll tell you: dry mouth, sweaty armpits, and the urge to call for your Mom. And the reason, of course, is that you are taking the product of many nights, months or years at a keyboard, and offering it up for judgment. When I stand before the microphone, I know exactly how gladiators felt. Will the crowd allow me to live another day?
If you’d rather stick pins in your eyes than give a public reading of your work, the following tips may help.
These pointers are distilled from several coaching sessions I’ve attended, including workshops in the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA residencies given by Marc Acito (a novelist and playwright now based in New York) and by Elizabeth Austen (a Seattle-based poet and performer), and most recently, a workshop with Kathrin Lake (a Vancouver writer and coach) through “Off the Page”, a Toastmasters Club.
The common themes of the coaching sessions are: Prepare, Practice, Perform.
Pick your material and write a short introduction. Select a passage that will showcase your writing, engage the audience and, when combined your introduction, will fit within your allotted time. If you are reading only an excerpt from a longer piece, try to find a passage that has its own beginning, middle, and end (you can edit the passage to remove extraneous segments). This will help you capture and keep the audience’s attention. The introduction should orient the audience. Keep it short. For example, “This is an excerpt from my novel Big Deal. In this scene, Joe Deal has just stepped off the heavy-duty weigh scale.”
Practice, practice, practice. Out loud. If you can videotape yourself, do it. Or practice in front of a mirror, or a friend whose assessment you trust. Look for distracting habits that will make the audience focus on your tics instead of your words.
When you practice, you may notice the words that trip you up. You may find places where the written words don’t have the rhythm you thought they did. Assuming you’re reading from a yet-to-be-published piece, this gives you a great opportunity to revise.
Remember to breathe. Listen for a monotone delivery that will make your audience nod off. Put some expression into your voice. Make a note of places where you need to pause, or add inflection, or vary your tone, in order to convey the meaning or impact of your words.
Time your presentation. Scrupulously. Make sure that you can deliver the introduction and the reading within the time allotted. Respect your hosts, your audience and the other writers on the program by not running over.
When it’s showtime, be confident. Let me rephrase that: pretend you are confident. Do not say to the audience “gee, I’m shaking in my boots up here.” Take a deep breath, look at the audience, introduce your material and begin.
Because you have practiced, practiced, practiced, you know your material well enough that you can take your eyes off the page as you deliver the lines. If you read directly from the page, your eyes are on the page and your voice is directed downwards, away from the audience. Glance at your page, register the line you need to deliver. Lift your eyes, engage with the audience, and perform your words.
Remember to breathe. The audience becomes nervous when a writer collapses in a faint on stage.
One additional tip:
Pick your venue. If you write lyrical prose or poetry, a reading at the SciFi Lovers annual meeting might not be your best choice. Then again, your subject matter might fit right in. Many readings occur at coffee houses or restaurants – you’ll be competing with the espresso machine and dishwasher, so be prepared to step up the volume a bit, or repeat a line if it is lost in the clatter from the kitchen. Finally, in order to gain confidence, search out friendly audiences who encourage new writers and novice readers. Often there will be open mic opportunities at bookstores or coffee houses. Or join a Toastmasters Club (like Off the Page) where you can gain experience in a supportive environment.
I know what you’re thinking – if these tips are supposed to help, why the dry mouth, sweaty armpits, and urge to cry Mommy?
Because that’s me after the coaching. Without following the 3 Ps of public readings, I would be offstage. In a fetal position.
These tips aren’t guaranteed to cure you of performance anxiety. But they might, just might, help you pretend that public readings don’t scare you at all.