Live readings can be daunting, especially if you are not used to standing up in front of others. They are a performance, as much as singing a song or acting in a play is a performance. You are reading words aloud for others to hear. The most important thing you need to remember is two simple words: don’t panic.
By preparing you will begin to feel less worried about your reading, and a sense of self-confidence will settle within you. Yes, you’ll still be nervous, but it will feel more manageable to you.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.Sun Tzu, The Art of War
To succeed when reading your writing in a live setting, you will need to prepare, and that preparation is, in my opinion, essential. This first lesson will address how to prepare, not just to deliver a reading, but to afterwards feel victorious.
Choose Your Words
Before you consider preparing, you need to know what you are preparing for. Attend a similar event—or even the same one—as you have been invited to, booked for, or would like to read at, either in-person or by watching a livestream online, depending on the particulars of the event. Whether you are starting out and this could be your first reading performance, or you have been attending these kinds of events for a long time and are familiar with them and the requirements of performers, you still should not go in blind.
This benefits you twofold. Firstly, you remove the element of the unknown, and secondly, you are aware of the parameters within which you will need to prepare. Anticipatory anxiety is a reaction to an uncertain threat, and, according to a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, “elicits a generalized feeling of apprehension and hypervigilance.” The response to a predictable threat is a reaction based on the fight or flight cascade of freeze-flight-fight-fright-flag-faint (Schauer & Elbert, 2010) and is created through a combination of learnt and ingrained behaviours. In other words, knowing what you are walking into means you can react to it more effectively and without as much initial anxiety.
You are then freed up to decide what you are going to read, knowing what the audience is likely to expect. If you are planning on reading an extract from a novel you have written, you need to decide what to read. If you are reading a short story, will it be a complete tale, or a part of one? If you are going to read poetry, ask yourself which poems, and how many?
A writer planning a reading is much like a musician planning a set-list for a concert: start with impact, then perhaps experiment a little, and end memorably. This, of course, is within the parameters you have been set.
Ten minutes is a well-regarded and often-used time limit for live readings, and is backed by extensive academic study. The opening ten minutes of a lecture contain the highest quantities of written notes from students, with note-taking dropping significantly after fifteen minutes. Scientific research of a sample of 10,000 people showed that attention span peaks in adults in their early 40s and then declines with age. Considering all these factors, ten minutes seems a sensible choice of time specification. That being said, and from an audience’s point-of-view, a good performer can blast through ten minutes in a few moment of brilliance, whereas a poor performer can drag out ten minutes to feel like hours of boredom.
If you have been given a time limit, work to that; however, if not then assume ten minutes will be specified as a performance time. You will likely want to say something at the start of the reading, possibly at the end too. That time needs to be factored in, and I would recommend you come up with an idea of what you want to say as well. That leaves you around eight minutes of reading time. If you are reading multiple items such as poetry or micro-fiction, you might want to speak between readings, so take off reading time accordingly. Work out your actual reading time within the overall time limit.
Now you need to pick what you will be reading, so think about the audience. Is it a family-friendly event? If so, try and avoid adult subjects or bad language. Is there a theme? You want to stay on-topic, at least vaguely, so be sure to investigate. When you know all your parameters, you can line up a few options.
Choose something with impact that will resonate with the target audience. Whether you are reading a short story, a poem, a monologue, a book extract, a speech, or a factual piece, you need to make sure it will engage the people you are addressing. The only thing worse than listening to someone read a dull piece is being the person reading it, so make sure you pick something good.
The main issue people face when deciding what to read is embarrassment due to bad jokes, swear words, sex scenes, horrific character traits, or sections that are too personal to share. If you are worried about a part for that reason, consider your audience. Will they be comfortable hearing it? Will your relatives or friends be there? Decide on your piece wisely. If you feel embarrassed about it, you will automatically lose confidence, and you want to be confident in your writing. Aim your piece at the rough level of the people who will be listening to it and you will find that it feels right to say the words aloud.
Test It Out
Bear in mind length and time. Something that feels like roughly eight-minutes long will likely take a lot longer to read in practice. You need to read it confidently and clearly, which is usually slower than you would internally. Grab a stopwatch or timer and start it running, and then read through your piece or selection of pieces out loud as if you were on stage. When you have finished, check the time. If you have gone on too long, you may have to choose something different.
As you are reading it, think about your performance. Does it start with impact? Does it end memorably? How will you differentiate each line? Which words will you stress, and how will you do so? There is nothing wrong with preparing a performance version of a piece, with extra commas to indicate pauses, and a lot of italics to show stresses and verbal changes. You can make sections bold for greater impact; perhaps adjust the page layout of the piece to make it easier to follow. It is your reading, your script, and your decision.
Some words and phrases can be difficult to pronounce, but practice can help with this. Multiple ‘s’ sounds together can cause words to run into each other, and several harsh staccato-style syllables in a row can result in a stutter appearing. Break these sections up with added pauses or stresses to allow you to speak them freely. If you trip up reading it by yourself, you will definitely trip up before an audience. On stage, everything is tenfold.
Get Yourself Ready
Make sure your piece is printed in a large, clear font so that you can read is clearly from a distance. When you are on stage, in front of an audience, those words will get smaller by themselves. Your eyes will find it harder to focus as your body will be pumping with adrenaline. You need to be able to read it comfortably with your arms outstretched, as that is how it will appear later, even if you hold it closer, as most people would. I would recommend using at least size 16 font, if not larger. It may look ridiculous now, but you will thank me later. Pick a simple font you are used to reading, as well. Whatever you usually use for writing or editing will work.
Once you are happy you have an adequately-timed and prepared script, you will need to think about yourself. Take a few moments in the quiet, close your eyes, and imagine yourself about to walk out before a crowd. Picture the venue with the same audience you saw before. How do you feel?
If you are exceptionally nervous, or even if you are not, you can now start preparing other parts of your performance. A huge element of this will be what you will wear.
Clothes are an often-overlooked yet essential part of any performance, and what you choose to put on will alter how you see yourself and your performance. This is called enclothed cognition. According to Adam & Galinsky in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012, what you wear for a specific task will alter your behaviour and psychology based on “both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.” Tailored jackets and smart clothing encourage your mind to think in broader terms, looking at the big picture over smaller details. Casual dress alters your mood so you present yourself in a more-friendly and less potentially-threatening manner to how you would otherwise. Wearing underwear that you think makes you look sexy, even if no one else will see it, will improve your confidence levels. The more expensive the clothes, the less empathetic you will be. Brighter clothes make you more optimistic, duller colours the reverse. Clothing associated with distinctive activities, roles, or tasks will put you in the accompanying mind-set, such as gym wear encouraging you to exercise, or camouflage creating a more disciplined mental state due to its military connotations. As such, pick out an outfit to wear for your performance that will prepare you mentally for what you are going into. Think of it as a uniform: a superhero dons their cape and cowl, so you will wear your act attire. Get that sorted early so you can use it as a costume when practicing. Whenever you put those clothes on, you are ready to go. Like a superhero, you change into your garments of power and read like you’ve never read before.
Write the performance in your calendar. Work out where it is and plan your route so you won’t be late. It sounds menial, and it is, but if you’ve not been to the venue before the worst thing that could happen would be a last-minute panic to find it. Little things like this will calm your mind, and allow you to focus on getting your delivery to the best it can be.
With everything prepared, you should be mentally ready to succeed, and that is the path to victory.
Your assignment for this lesson is to pick a performance. Pick an event near to you by searching the internet and scouring social media. Ideally, you will be looking for an open mic event. Once you have found one, go and watch. During a break or at the end, introduce yourself to the host and ask about the next event. You may just have to turn up on the night, or you might need to request a slot in advance. Either way, write it in your diary, as you will be going. Then, prepare a reading, an outfit, and a mind-set.
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