Many years ago when I worked in the theatre, I was intrigued when famous playwrights came during a performance of one of their plays and stood at the back observing the audience. One, the late Dr Hugh Leonard, often wrote notes when a line fell short. A few performances later, I’d find that same line changed. Sometimes it went through a few rewrites before it worked.
Seeing how people respond to your work is a lot harder when you’re a novelist. Besides, for most of us, the chance to read a chapter to an audience doesn’t tend to happen until a book is already published. It’s a bit late then to discover that your favourite funny bits don’t bring the yuks. That said, public reading, though often terrifying, offers a unique insight into how your work is received by your intended audience.
In the list of common phobias, public speaking ranks number one. I don’t know why, but apparently it ranks even higher than death in the scare-ometer. It’s worth trying to overcome that particular phobia, though, because reading one’s work in public is something most writers face from time to time. Some of us enjoy it while others would rather drink molten lava.
For reasons I cannot explain, I have no problem reading my work before an audience. It’s weird because I hate being in crowds and don’t enjoy parties. Perhaps it’s because I see that sort of immediate feedback as a gift. Seeing how people respond to my jokes or my sad bits reveals what works and what does not and helps me improve my writing.
Public reading can increase your audience, give you new insight into how your writing is received, and build your confidence. Next time you’re asked to deliver a reading, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, select your favourite excerpt, and follow these tips. You’ll be glad you did.*
1 Keep it short. Most experts say ten minutes is the longest you should read. Anything beyond that risks losing the audience’s attention span. That said, if you can arrange to be interviewed and answer questions in between readings, you’ll be able to offer your audience 2-3 passages.
2 Choose your passage well. If you’re reading a novel, you should probably read from the opening chapter. After all, this is the prose you wrote to draw people into buying the book, so it’s probably engaging. If it isn’t, well, you have far bigger problems than nerves before an audience.
3 Practice. If possible, practice in front of family or friends, but even if you’re alone, at least practice the reading so the words flow smoothly.
4 Slow down! Read at a comfortable rate of speed. Comfortable for your listeners to follow, that is. Record one of your practice sessions and play it back a few hours later. See if you can understand yourself. See if others can understand you.
5 Don’t mumble. We need to be able to understand what you’re saying.
6 Mind the squirrels. If your passage includes foreign phrases or words you don’t say very often, then make sure you are saying them correctly. You want to be remembered as an erudite, entertaining speaker, not as a dope who couldn’t get her tongue around endoscopic-retrograde-cholangeo-pancreatography (most of us cheat and just say ERCP!) As a side note, I recently learned that the English word ‘squirrel’ is very difficult for non-native English speakers to pronounce. So much so that it was used as a shibboleth by the English to detect Germans during World War II. Then again, ‘eichhörnchen,’ the German word for squirrel, was used as a shibboleth to detect non-Germans. Poor squirrels.
7 Watch your mouth! Sip room-temperature water, or lemon water to keep your mouth and vocal chords lubricated.
8 Focus on the writing and don’t worry about the audience. That’s not to say you should forget about them, but it’s important to remember they are there to hear you.
9 Who are you? If the event is informal, try to begin with a little information about yourself or an anecdote before you start reading. It’s a good way to connect with the audience and they’ll be far more receptive to your reading as a result.
10 Keep it to yourself: Don’t harp on about how nervous you are and how you never do this sort of thing. Your audience wants to hear your prose, not your gripes.
11 Leave the artificial stimulants untouched. Seriously.
12 Finally… Make sure you finish speaking before your audience has finished listening.