Welcome to part eight of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.
- Part One: How Much Should You Read?
- Part Two:What Material Should You Read?
- Part Three: Preparing an Excerpt
- Part Four: Practice
- Part Five: Pacing
- Part Six: Intonation
- Part Seven: Character Voices
- Part Eight: Live Performance
- Part Nine: Digital Performance
- Coda: The Confidence Game
Your performance is more than just the words that come out of your mouth. It’s everything about how you present yourself to the audience, and thinking about that ahead of time can make the performance as a whole come off better.
In general, you want to look good. This applies to male-presenting authors as well as female, though women get judged more harshly if they show up in jeans and a t-shirt, and men are more likely to get side-eyed if they’re wearing makeup — even though male actors and TV personalities wear makeup whenever they go in front of a camera, because looking your best is beneficial for anybody, regardless of gender. If you’re nervous about the reading, try to pick clothing that makes you feel confident and professional, whatever “professional” may be for your genre and audience.
If I’m not going to be emceed onto a stage by someone else and I’m just sitting there waiting to begin, I often try to chat a bit with whomever’s in the audience while the rest trickle in. Small talk may not be every author’s cup of tea, but I find it preferable to awkward silence. If it’s at a con, I just ask generally how people’s cons have been going; if it’s a book tour and I’m traveling, I might comment on how it’s my first time in X place or it’s so nice to be back there again. Anything to break the ice. I’ll generally wait until a couple of minutes past the official start time to begin, and then I’ll speak more loudly, introducing myself (if nobody else is doing that), thanking everyone for coming, and telling them what I’ll be reading. If I’m planning on a Q&A afterward, I tell them that up front, so that people know to be ready with questions.
Should you sit or should you stand? This is mostly a matter of personal preference, though sometimes it will be very clear that the venue expects you to stand at a lectern or podium. Standing often makes it easier to be energetic and expressive, and the simple fact of being on your feet while other people are sitting helps communicate that you’re performing and they should pay attention. On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable with having their eyes on you in the first place, then there’s no point in making yourself even more nervous by standing up if you don’t have to.
Try not to fidget. You can use some gestures if you want — if it fits the story and feels reasonably natural — but you don’t have to; your words are the most important part, and you don’t want to distract people from them. Constantly shifting your weight, fiddling with your hair, or otherwise making unnecessary movements can wind up breaking the audience’s immersion. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t scratch your nose if it itches, of course. These things happen. Just try not to do it all the time.)
If you’re reading an excerpt and the audience needs some context to orient them, keep it concise: don’t tell them everything that’s happened in the story up until that point, just the parts they need to know in order to understand what you’re reading. And give all the context ahead of time; it drives me up the wall when an author pauses mid-story (sometimes even mid-sentence!) to tell me the character who just showed up is the protagonist’s mother, or that earlier she got injured in a fight with a unicorn, or whatever. If I need to know it, either tell me before you start reading, or edit your text a little bit to slip the information into the story. Don’t interrupt yourself!
Speaking of interrupting yourself . . . if you make a mistake, either keep reading, or if you feel it’s truly necessary, just back up and fix it. Don’t make a bigger deal out of it by apologizing or makings lots of faces — that only compounds the disruption.
Decide ahead of time what you’ll be reading off of. A printout? Tablet? Phone? Laptop? Bound book? I almost always read from a printout, even in our technological modern age, because I can set the font and spacing to an arrangement that makes it maximally readable, and because I can shift the top page as I approach the end, allowing me to continue onto the next page without a pause. They’re also lightweight, so holding them for long periods of time isn’t hard on my wrists. But they have the downside of potentially making noise, especially if your hands are trembling with nerves. I’d rank a bound book or a tablet as the next most desirable option — but make sure you have the text already loaded on your tablet, as you don’t want to find out the hard way that the room you’re in has no signal. Laptops usually require a table or lectern to support them, and I think they tend to come across as a barrier between you and your audience. Phones are rock bottom, as far as I’m concerned; judging by what I’ve seen when other people read from them, the tiny amount of text that can fit on the screen at once makes them very sub-optimal, as you’re having to constantly scroll and pay attention to the device instead of to your listeners.
And you do want to pay attention to your listeners if you can. The better you know your text — you practiced it, right? — the easier it is for you to look up from the page periodically and make eye contact with people in the audience. Not only does this help engage them, but it also means you aren’t directing your voice down and into a solid object. You become easier to hear and understand.
If you have a microphone, I recommend using it. Yes, even if you think you’re loud enough without it. While it’s possible to project your voice to the back of a large room, it can be a strain . . . and in my experience, at least half the people who think they can project can’t really, or forget to do so once they get going. Lots of people are a little hard of hearing, and you don’t want them to tune out because they can’t really understand you. But make sure the mic is positioned well, so that you’re speaking into it even when you’re looking down at your text, and you’re not so close to it that every puff of air makes the thing crackle and spit. With many mics, the best thing to do is to place it not directly in front of you, but ever so slightly on the diagonal, so that your breath blows past it instead of into it.
Two tricks I got from Mary Robinette Kowal, who is an excellent performer: first, if you have two or three speakers in a scene, pick a direction for each of them, and turn your head slightly in that direction when beginning their dialogue. If you’re doing different voices, as we talked about in the last installment, this helps remind you to switch, and it also gives the audience a visual cue that you’ve shifted speakers. And second, if you need to change volume to be unusually loud or quiet, change your distance from the mic. I don’t mean lean away for quiet and lean in for loud; I actually mean the opposite, so that you deliver a soft whisper right into the mic, and a shout from a foot or two away. Even if what gets delivered to the listener’s ear remains the same volume, the alteration in your voice will create the desired effect, without risk of losing or blowing out the mic.
Once your reading is done, try to signal that physically by closing the book or laptop, putting the pages down, or whatever suits your medium. With a short story the ending may be obvious, but if you’re reading an excerpt from a longer work, it may not be; you want your audience to know it’s time to clap!
At that point, thank everybody for listening, open up the floor for questions if you’re taking any, clear out the room if it’s time for the next author, whatever. Congratulations! You have survived your reading!
But this all applies to live readings. If your reading is digital, the advice for that will come in the next installment.