Preparing may reduce anxiety, but practise makes perfect, as the saying goes. It is through practise that you will become fully prepared. After all, every day that passes brings the date of your reading closer.
By now you should have picked a suitable piece or selection of pieces, checked what you are planning to read is engaging and within the required time constraints, and started figuring out how you will perform it. You will have hopefully chosen an outfit, or at least have an idea of one, and now you are ready to get practising.
We are not always humiliated by failing at things; we are humiliated only if we first invest our pride and sense of worth in a given achievement, and then do not reach it.Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety
In deciding to read your writing before a live audience, you have set yourself a challenge which will either result in success or failure. If you approached it without caring whether you succeeded or not, you would be able to avoid humiliation if it went wrong. However, you would not have taken this class, nor would you have invested your time in preparing for a live reading, nor decided to do it in the first place, if you did not care. Of course you are invested in it; what matters now is what you do about that investment. Whether you are full of confidence, or feel more nervous than you’ve ever felt before, this lesson will help you get in the psychological state of a performer.
Always Be Yourself
Many authors and poets write with honesty and integrity, yet their performances feel shallow as they are desperately putting on a character to get on stage. If a writer feels their real self is not enough, then that vulnerability is what should be shared, not a front that audiences see through. Writers should show themselves, not caricatures.
Some writers put on mannerisms or accents—usually to show an element of their cultural or social heritage or upbringing—which can either be incredibly successful if undertaken with raw honesty or a horrific failure if the intention behind it is fickle. Even comedic writing being read or performed, using accents to deliver impressions, will fail without a level of honesty in the underlying nature of the poem itself. Why is this character being portrayed, and what does that tell us about the writer? Without a fundamental answer to that question, the façade crumbles under the slightest scrutiny.
Other writers do perform as themselves—or slightly enhanced versions thereof—yet all their readings sound the same as they are read in a repetitive, obvious manner at the same speed, with the same tonal inclinations and vocal flexing and high and low and fast and slow and hard and soft so it becomes a tedious pattern of predictability. For a one-off performance, this can work well, but for a reading of several pieces—for example a selection of poetry—it can become very dry very quickly.
Indeed, some writers share vocal stylings with their peers. Small groups of poets who write and perform together, for example, moving in the same circles and only really influenced by each other, all begin to sound alike. No matter how great the writing, the performance becomes tribal and loses its individuality.
This can all come about from a variety of reasons. The writer may be nervous, or lack confidence in their own delivery, and so adopt what they feel is an ‘author’ or ‘poet’ voice. They could be attempting to imitate as flattery, or to ape the success of another, or might not know any different. Indeed, the writer may simply not realise the subconscious absorbing of the styles of those around them.
The simple fix is twofold.
Firstly, increase your influences by reading and watching and listening to more performances from wider ranges and places. As T.S. Eliot said, “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” Look at how Shakespeare is performed, or how stand-up comedians work crowds. Watch actors in films or TV for speech delivery techniques. Listen to radio broadcasts and podcasts. Steal from more places and put it to better use.
Secondly, be yourself instead of trying to be someone else. Imagine you are talking to someone in person, in a café or bar or wherever. Picture yourself telling an anecdote. The way you tell that story, the way you captivate those around you; that is how you should perform. Not some over-emotive performer who is acting-up how much they care about some words they came up with. Not a cheap knock-off of another poet or author who has garnered moderate success within—or outside of—the local circuit. Not an easily-seen-through cardboard cut-out attempt at being what you think the audience expects. If you are quiet, be quiet. If you are funny, be funny. If you are weird, be weird. Be you—the best, most performance-ready, confident, connecting-with-others-by-honestly-sharing-your-soul version of you—and be proud of it.
Rehearse Your Performance
Stand up, as you will be on stage, and read through your piece over and over again, out loud. Practice looking up from the page, glancing at your imaginary audience.
If you suffer from stage fright, or are nervous about reading in front of others, then rehearse whilst facing a wall. Stand as close to it as you can, with your face almost touching the wall, and then read. This creates a barrier that you cannot pass and induces a sense of claustrophobia; but whatever you do, don’t step backwards or the effect is lost. You have to face the fear, the anxiety, and the pressure, not back away from it mid-performance.
Most modern phones have a voice record function. Put your phone on the other side of the room and then stand facing it and read your piece. This is both to practice vocal projection, to ensure you are loud enough in case there isn’t a microphone, and also so you can critique your own reading. Listen back to it whilst going through the piece on paper. Any moments where you need to alter your delivery will stand out to you immediately. If you sound too monotonous, or are not putting across the right emotion at a particular point, you can then highlight and address. Make notes for yourself on your practice sheet and then go through it again a few times. When you are happy, record yourself for a second time and listen back to check you are now speaking in the most effective and engrossing way possible. Repeat until you achieve the desired result.
It often helps, once you are satisfied with your performance, to read it to someone. Persuade a friend or partner to listen, and watch their reactions. Do they smile and laugh in the right places? Are they interested in what you are saying? Ask for feedback—not on the piece, but on your delivery—and use it to enhance your presence.
Build Your Confidence
By practising you should feel a lot more confident about your delivery. This will build your confidence, and you can increase it even further using simple techniques.
Confidence is a choice, not a feeling, and one which you are in control of. You cannot fake confidence as it is not a personality trait; it is a display, an active thing you are creating, not a passive reaction to the world around you. Simply put: you can choose to be confident.
A large part of confidence is body language. Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal, no matter the situation. If you slump your shoulders or bow your head, your mind will alter your blood chemistry and increase your stress hormones. Similarly, if you stand straight and tall, looking your audience in the face, your brain will lower your stress levels. Avoid barriers between yourself and your audience like folded arms, standing facing sideways, or anything that gets in the way of you exposing your heart.
Your tone of voice can make a huge difference in how you are perceived, and will alter your blood chemistry as much as your body language. Speak clearly and with control, enunciate, but most of all: use your own voice. You are you, so be you. Take control of the situation—not as a bully, but as an assertive and strong individual—so that it does not control you.
For some, external validation can be of benefit, even if it comes from you. Try this out by looking into a mirror and tell yourself—out loud—you are good at live readings. Tell yourself you will not be nervous. Tell yourself you are confident. By hearing these words aloud, rather than just as thoughts in your head, your brain will interpret them as external signals rather than internal, and give them more weight in your mind. Combined with the visual of seeing yourself looking into your own eyes whilst speaking, you can help your brain believe that what is being said is true.
Keep practising, right up to the day of your performance. You may still feel nervous, but at least you’ll be prepared and practised, which means you will know what you are doing and be able to do it. That is the strongest way of building confidence of all, as it is true confidence, not a projection.
You should now have an understanding of how to be ready to succeed, prepared for victory, and practised to brilliance.
Your assignment is to practise your performance. Use the techniques outlined in this lesson, and take them seriously. The temptation may be to laugh them off, or think of them as ridiculous, however they are very serious and backed by psychological study, and—most of all—they work. Invest in them, and they will invest in you.
Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 14(7), 488–501. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3524
Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety
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