Public Readings from A to Z – Part 9 – Digital Performance

Welcome to part nine of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


When I first started working on this series, I envisioned it as advice for people doing readings at conventions or bookstores, or otherwise at a live event. But with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen an abrupt surge in online events — and those, along with podcasting or recording for an audiobook, are slightly different.

Mind you, most of it is the same. Everything I said about practice and pacing and intonation still applies, the tricks for differentiating voices, and so forth. If you’re reading at an online event, you may still have a time limit, though you may not have to worry about “clearing the room” for the next reader. If you’re recording for a podcast or an audiobook, the odds are much higher that you’ll be reading the complete text, so you don’t have to worry about excerpting or providing some orienting details before you begin.

Best practices for recording are a whole massive topic on their own, and you can find much better advice than mine elsewhere online, but I can offer this much as a brief introduction: invest in a good microphone, and make sure the place you record is as quiet as it can possibly be. Even small sounds that don’t normally register on you, like the hum of a fan or the creak when you shift in your chair, stand a very good chance of being picked up by the audio. (You’d be surprised by the number of podcasters that actually record in their closets.) Also, if you make a mistake in your reading, you should handle it differently than in live performance. Clap your hands or make some other loud noise that will register as a sharp spike in the sound levels, pause, and then start again from the beginning of the sentence you screwed up. That spike will make the errors easy to find when the audio gets edited, and restarting at the beginning of the sentence will make it easier to snip out the offending text without a noticeable seam. Finally, if you’re recording a long text (especially a novel), recognize that vocal fatigue is a very real thing. It’s better to work in short bursts and take breaks in between, rather than trying to marathon the whole thing.

Best practices for online events are something we’ve had to invent rather suddenly, but a few basics are emerging. In addition to your personal appearance, you also have to consider the environment your audience will see. I feel that digital backgrounds are of questionable value; if you really don’t want people to see your surroundings, then by all means use one, but they produce weird clipping and can even eat parts of your image if you move away from the camera. (Plus the image itself can be distracting, depending on what you choose.) Authors are fond of staging themselves in front of their bookcases, but a relatively neutral backdrop is just as good — maybe even better, because your audience won’t be trying to read the titles while you’re talking! Definitely don’t sacrifice good lighting for the sake of an interesting locale. You don’t want to be backlit by a lamp or a window, because that will cast your face into shadow, and if the overall light is too dim, the image quality will usually be bad. If you want to get fancy, you can invest in a ring light to cast more even illumination on your face.

For the equipment itself, please, please do not use a tablet or phone if you can possibly avoid it, unless you have some kind of tripod or stand to brace it on. If you hold it in your hands, your every movement will shift the image . . . which is distracting at best, seasickness-inducing at worst. You’re better off using a laptop cam or peripheral webcam — the latter especially if your laptop is like mine and for some reason put the camera right above the keyboard and off to one side. Since I don’t want everybody looking up my nose while I talk, I’m using a webcam. And I’ve chosen to use a headset because it delivers better sound quality, with less background noise bleeding through, than the built-in microphone on my computer.

Online, basically everything about your interactions with your audience changes — and I’ll admit I find the experience vastly less satisfying. When possible, I’ve taken to requesting that anybody who’s comfortable with being on video activate their camera, so that I’m not reading to a grid of faceless names. But even then, that whole notion of “eye contact” gets mashed down to me looking at the camera, and I often see fewer reactions to the good bits of the story. Nor can I hear them: while you can (and if possible, should) arrange a quiet environment on your end, you’ve got no such control over your listeners’ surroundings. Because of this, it’s generally a good idea to mute everyone, so that you don’t have to contend with unexpected barking dogs or sirens passing outside. So an online reading basically has all the stress of an in-person performance, with all the isolation of recording for a podcast — the worst of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. It’s possible that people who consider normal performance intimidating find this version easier, because they can pretend the audience isn’t there; in a way, I hope so. For me, though, a few messages popping up in a chat window when I’m done are no substitute for actual applause.

I do also want to note one wrinkle that has less to do with the performance itself and more to do with outside considerations: if your reading is recorded rather than only being live-streamed, that may constitute use of your audio or dramatic rights. Novel excerpts may be safer in that regard (because they’re only part of the whole), but I recommend not reading a short story that hasn’t already been podcasted, unless you’re comfortable with only selling those rights as a reprint later on.


In its original form, the series ended here. But there’s one more piece now, a coda on the topic of confidence.