Reading Out Loud: Tips on Public Readings

June 16, 2016 | By | 2 Replies More

I am currently crowd-funding a book of short stories called In The Future Everyone Will Be World Famous For Fifteen Minutes (Unbound Publishing.) Publishing a book this way means that I have to get people interested in the project before it is published rather than after.

One way of letting people know about a book is by doing public readings. Luckily, I also happen to be a Director of a spoken word group called Rattle Tales so I have quite a lot of experience in this area.

Rattle Tales was established in 2011 by a group of Creative Writing students from Sussex University to get their stories out there.  We have performed at literary festivals and at regular shows in a little theatre in Brighton (UK). The shows consist of readings and then Q&As from the audience.

Many of the authors who read at our shows have never performed in public before. More often than not they are absolutely terrified, and I was too, the first time, but it really isn’t that scary. It can be a massive confidence boost and you will also get to meet and interact with potential readers.

No matter what type of writer you are, at some point, you will have to read to a live audience in order to get your work seen. Even when you are a seasoned Pulizter-Prize-winning author you will still have to read your work to audiences. It may seem like the antithesis of everything else you do (ie, sitting at a desk writing down weird scenes from your imagination) but it’s just the way it is. Here are some tips for getting through.

317493_10150319018592466_670047465_8339200_1288543388_nPractice. I use reading aloud as part of the editing process anyway. After I have finished a section of work, I will read it out to myself. I will often stand up to do this or even walk about. This exercise is invaluable for locating the dead pieces of writing, the weasel words, unnecessary punctuation, missed punctuation and for providing a flow to your words. I urge you to add this to your writing method.

If you are reading a piece at an event always read it out loud to yourself several times beforehand. Make alterations to the piece that arise from this exercise then read it again. If you can bear it, read it to a couple of people you trust. If you do this enough times you will almost know the piece off by heart.

Eye Contact. If you know the piece off by heart you will be able to make more eye contact with the audience. Look up from your paper occassionally, pause for dramatic effect, address your words to them. I don’t mean stare creepily at one person, in fact if you look at a point just at the top of their heads the audience will get the impression you are looking at them without feeling uncomfortable about it. Smiling helps too and don’t forget to introduce yourself or at least say hello.

Fifteen minutes flyerThe Shakes. All authors get the shakes from time to time. Nobody notices. I have spoken to many first time readers who thought the audience was distracted by their shaking hands or legs. My right leg used to shake uncontrollably when I read. No one ever mentioned it; in fact people said I didn’t seem nervous at all.

I have also seen famous authors at big festivals trembling so much their papers rustle. No one minds, they just want to hear the famous author read. If you are uncomfortable with your shaking hands put you pages in a lever file or on a clip-board. Rattle Tales provides a music stand.

Sometimes nerves help the piece, I once cried at the end of a story that was very personal to me and loads of people came up to me to say what an impact it made because it was heartfelt. Try and keep it together til the last sentence though!

Slow Down. Most people read too fast. Nerves make you speed up, make you want to get it over with. My advice is read it to yourself at your normal pace and then slow it down a notch for the event, relish in the pauses, emphasise the important sentences, take your time over the dialogue.

You might want it to be over quickly but the audience want to take it all in. Most spoken word events ask for no more than 2,000 words. This is because after about ten minutes an audience’s attention wanders no matter how good the tale or the reader. If you are reading an extract from a novel bear this in mind, don’t rush to fit longer pieces in.

Acting is for Actors. You are not an actor, well, you might be, but in this case you are a writer. To listen to your story the audience doesn’t need the full Meryl Streep. They don’t want a cast of characters with different accents all competing for attention like a multiple personality disorder. Do appropriate accents by all means but don’t shout as if you are projecting at the Theatre Royal and keep the showing off to a minimum.

Promotion. Don’t forget to tell people about your event. This is especially important if someone else is organising and has asked you to read. If you turn up with ten supporters those familiar faces will not only make you feel better about reading to strangers but the hosts will most probably invite you back again. Event organisers like nothing more than a sell-out show, so get on social media, hand out those flyers and tell everyone you meet!

Erinna Mettler is a Brighton-based  writer. Her first novel, Starlings, was published in 2011 and described by one critic as doing for Brighton what The Wire did for Baltimore. She is a founder and co-director of The Brighton Prize for short fiction and of the spoken word group Rattle Tales.

Her stories have been published internationally and short-listed for The Bristol Prize, The Fish Prize and The Writers & Artists Yearbook Award.  Her career highlight was having a short story read by a Game of Thrones actor at Latitude Festival. Erinna’s new short story collection on the theme of fame, In The Future Everyone Will Be World Famous For Fifteen Minutes, is currently crowdfunding with Unbound Publishing.

Twitter @ErinnaMettler


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  1. Reading Out Loud: Tips on Public Readings | WordHarbour | June 16, 2016
  1. Perfect timing Erinna! I’ve done readings before, so not worried about the one coming up. However, I do worry about the talk I’ll be giving prior to the reading. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot…or maybe I should avoid talking about the plot and speak about my writing experience or how I came about writing a memoir instead. Any suggestions?

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