Like many writers, I was shy and self-conscious the first time I read my poetry to strangers. I felt as though I were splitting my chest and handing my heart to those people. I was terrified they would throw it on the ground, stamp on it and kick it around. So frightened was I that I wrote down every single word I planned to say when I stood before this small crowd, even to “good evening, I’m so glad you are here tonight” to “thank you all for coming.” I rehearsed this reading at least ten times and still my hands were sweaty and my heart racing when I stood behind the podium. That was ten years ago. I was on the right track and didn’t know it. Planning is the key to being self assured and being comfortable in front of a group.
A professional writer knows the value of planning a performance of his work. A reading is a performance. As Tom Bradley says in “How to Give a Rousing Reading” from The practical Writer, “Literary events are theater, not literature per se.” Vocal quality is about 82% of everything. Some writers study drama to better project their voices. Bradley insists the writer should always stand but not behind a lectern, and never let anyone hand you a microphone without a stand. He says it is best to avoid a microphone entirely, even if your vocal ability is not the best. Personally I like a lectern to hold my script, especially when I’m reading poetry from different collections, but I enjoy moving away from it at times to be closer to my audience.
Brenda Kay Ledford, award winning poet and writer, is also a storyteller. Her southern mountain accent suits her tales of life in Appalachia. At a recent gathering she read a couple of poems from her chapbook, Shew Bird Mountain. She then stepped from behind the podium to dramatize a story of her childhood using all her storytelling skills. No minds ever wander during this woman’s readings.
An author who decides to read a chapter from his novel has the most difficult task. He must do an outstanding job of setting the scene, making the audience care about what he is going to tell them before he reads the first word. This kind of reading is hardest for a new, unknown author. His audience has not read any of his work; therefore, his job is to sell them on himself and his words. At a recent reading, I looked around at the group, mostly writers, as a long-winded fellow read chapter after chapter of dialogue between his fictional characters. His audience had no idea who these characters were or why they were important in this story. I was not surprised to see lots of heads bowed and eyelids drooping, nearly closed.
Carole L. Kelley, author of two books, And Now Hello, and its sequel, And Now Goodby, part of a trilogy, was in our town, reading and signing her first book. She began by telling how she, the owner of her own company, a business woman who had never written a book, made the decision to choose the setting of Brazil where she had never been, for her story. She told us how she developed the characters, and a brief synopsis of the entire book without giving away the ending. By the time she finished this buildup, we could hardly wait to hear her share parts, not complete chapters, but selected parts that sparked the curiosity of those present. This reading was designed purposely to draw the audience into the story, a little at a time, until we were totally hooked.
In all the years I’ve observed writers promote, read and sign books, I’ve learned one thing. Most Americans have and enjoy a sense of humor. You can’t fail if you begin and end with something humorous. Sandwich the most serious subjects in the middle. Just as a story needs a good beginning to entice an editor to turn the pages, you want the first words of your reading to intrigue your audience.
Some writers end their readings with a section from the book that stimulates extreme curiosity in the audience. This motivates the crowd to make an immediate bee line for the book table. Thomas A. Williams tells us in his book, Poet Power, how he prepares his audience before he reads. He encourages them to applaud whenever they feel they want to, not wait until the very last poem has been read. Williams even tells them to stamp their feet, call encouragement or do whatever the work inspires them to do. He makes friends with those eager faces who are expecting him to “entertain” them with his work. The smiling face and personal attitude of the poet or writer is often the first step to breaking the ice and winning over the crowd. Follow these suggestions to enhance your performance:
• Tell an anecdote about yourself or your writing.
• Read sure-fire work from other outstanding poets or writers, and tell stories about their struggles.
• Ask questions. Do anything to get your listeners involved.
• Introduce each poem or story before you read it.
• Lighten up the crowd with humor.
When you deliver an outstanding presentation or performance, your audience loves you and wants to read your book, and you will not have to wake them up when you finish.