Reading Tips for 2014
by Carolyn Martin
In 2011, I wrote a series of reading tips for our online newsletter. I based these tips on forty years of experience standing in front of high school and college students, business leaders around the world and literary audiences here in Portland.
Since VoiceCatcher is offering a record-breaking ten public readings this year, it seemed a good time to update and collate these bits of advice on how to be a well-prepared and engaging reader who honors her work and respects her audience. Take a look. Use what works for you and share your comments and best practices with our community. We are all learners as we try to master this essential skill.
Tip 1. Listen, listen, listen
Writing teachers always advise their students to read, read, read. Yet the first tip for “reading students” is listen, listen, listen. Between Poets.org and YouTube, you have access to an abundance of live recordings that can serve as great, good and not-so-good examples of performance skills.
Start out with a master: Patricia Smith. Search for her work on YouTube or go directly to her 2010 presentation for The National Writing Project. In this performance, she combines a beautifully crafted speech with her explosive poetry. It’s a masterpiece that may move you to tears.
Also, find links to Billy Collins and Kay Ryan. Both are engaging and delightful readers. They are so different from Smith, yet their performances perfectly reflect their personalities as well as the styles of their poetry.
Notice the elements that make them so effective and uniquely themselves: body language, pacing, tonal variety, commentary, eye contact.
Attend public readings around town. Listen not only to a reader’s work, but to how the person delivers that work. Even before the first word comes out of their mouth, notice if and how they connect with the audience. Do they make eye contact? Do they offer a context for their work – a shelf upon which to set their work before they read – thus, getting the audience “listening ready”? What do readers do “up there” that you particularly like? What detracts from their work?
Observe. Take notes. What can you use in your own presentations? What should you avoid? Begin your own list of do’s and don’ts.
Tip 2. Practice, practice, practice
The path to finding your own comfort zone is obvious. It’s practice and more practice. On the seminar circuit, I presented the same eight-hour workshop, ten times a month, twelve months a year. Even at that rate, it took almost a year to perfect my rhythms and timing. But here’s the rub: Most of us don’t have numerous opportunities to present our work in front of live audiences. Without the luxury of frequent public readings, we need to seize as many opportunities as we can to practice.
Four practical suggestions:
- Videotape yourself – then pretend to be the audience. Listen to your voice – its timbre, tempo and intonations. Where do you need more gusto to bring your piece to life? What do you need to tone down because you’re overacting? Your body should support the content of your writing as much as your voice does. What are your hands doing? Your eyes? Your feet? The best way to determine that is to see yourself in action, no matter how initially painful that might be.
- Capture as many practice audiences as possible. Grab your partner, child, dog, cat, a trusted friend. You’re not asking for feedback on content; you’re seizing opportunities to hear yourself out loud. Practicing in your head is not sufficient. You need a live audience.
- Read at open mics. There are many welcoming venues in the Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA area including Figures of Speech at In Other Words Feminist Community Center; the Stonehenge Studio Series at the Stonehenge Gallery, and Three Friends Coffee House. All of them offer writers of every genre airtime every month. But remember, once you’re out there, you’re creating a reputation as an author/speaker. Don’t make the open mic a dry run; practice before you take the stage. While local audiences are forgiving, they will appreciate your preparation.
- Finally, if you belong to a writing group, suggest that an occasional meeting focus on reading skills. When your pieces are ready for performance, what better place to practice than with people who have helped shape your work?
Tip 3. Check out the reading site before you perform
For example, find out if the venue has a microphone, a lectern and good lighting. If possible, “scope” the place out before your event – or, at least, arrive early enough so you can check microphone levels. Is the lectern height comfortable? What will you do if there isn’t one? Is there enough light so you can see your manuscript?
I’m not sure where people got the idea it’s somehow sophisticated not to use a microphone. “Oh, I don’t need one,” they say. “My voice is loud enough.” Perhaps – if you’re in a small room with eight people. In most venues, the mic is for your audience, not for you. If one person has to strain to hear you, you’re doing them a disservice. Besides, you can be much more flexible with your voice when you use one. Highs, lows, whispers, emphasis – the mic gives you a range of possibilities you wouldn’t have otherwise.
However, always check sound levels before you perform. One of my pet peeves is the reader who asks, “Can you hear me?” She should have made sure of that before the program. Also, play with the placement of the mic. Is it easier to keep it in its stand, or does taking it out and holding it in your hand give more range to your movements? Find your comfort zone. One hallmark of a professional reader is knowing how to handle a microphone professionally.
Tip 4. Make wise decisions about your selections
Have you ever seen a reader flip through pages of poems or prose, trying to find the next piece or section to read? Or, worse yet, ruminate out loud, “What should I read next?” The decision about what – and in what order – to read should be made long before you take the stage. Of course, there’s room for spontaneity as you become more proficient at reading, but for most beginning readers making those decisions ahead of time produces a more polished reading.
With that in mind, consider the following:
Unless you’re another Patricia Smith, shorter is better. Your audience has only one chance to hear your piece. Challenge them, don’t leave them bewildered. Some poems or sections of prose are so verbally complex that they are more effective on the page than on the stage.
Unless you’re reading from a book, print out your work in a font size that is easy to read and put it in a folder or binder. That looks so much more professional than pulling a crumpled piece of paper out of your pocket as you walk up to the lectern.
Some authors disagree, but I believe a short comment about your piece – its inspiration or brief explanation about a word or setting or character – gets the audience “listening ready.” But the operative word again is “short.” If you can’t shape an introduction in a few sentences, this may not be the piece to read.
Write out your introductory comments for your piece(s) until you’ve read enough times to have them memorized. Great speakers know exactly how they’re going to begin their presentations and great beginnings set the tone for the entire reading.
Tip 5. Have fun!
You’ve prepared, practiced, know your venue and picked your selections wisely. Now only one thing remains: Go up there and have fun! If you are well-prepared, know your audience, have scoped out the reading area and tested the microphone, what else is there to do? The idea of having fun gives you permission not to be perfect.
One of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, once said, “To be great, one must seem so. And seeming that goes on for a lifetime is no different from reality.” To be an engaging speaker, you must “seem so,” and “seeming” may mean acting as if you’re having fun until you really are.
The best gift you can give an audience is an enjoyable, inspiring experience that makes them laugh or cry or say, “I never thought of it that way before”; that makes them feel their time with you and your work was well spent. Why not have fun doing that?
After forty years standing in front of audiences, Carolyn Martin is blissfully retired in Clackamas, Oregon, where she gardens, writes and plays with creative colleagues. Currently, she is president of VoiceCatcher’s board of directors.