by Jackie Shannon-Hollis
Mom used to recite poems to us kids. She recited them beautifully, with upbeats and downbeats, pauses and accents. “The Raven,” “The Highwayman,” “Little Boy Blue,” “The Spider and the Fly.” I got lost in the stories of those poems. When I grew older and had to recite poems for school, Mom coached me on how to have just the right inflection here, to raise your arm there. I wanted to do it as perfectly as she did. I wanted others to feel as I did when she spoke those poems to us. With her encouragement and with practice, I came to love reading out loud as much as Mom did.
Years later, when I was invited to read one of my stories at a public event, it was time to refresh my skills. I was nervous. I was excited. I would be reading my own work, and not just to a bunch of kids who had to sit and listen. This audience would be there by choice, and with different expectations. I asked a friend – a stage actor – to coach me. Her tips and Mom’s early guidance have been with me as I have prepared for every reading since.
Here is what I have learned.
I get nervous right before a reading. This can be helpful in creating a good kind of energy. But if it overwhelms us, we do not do such a good job. Usually we get nervous when we think the focus is all on us. The best remedy for this is to direct your focus outward, to your audience members. They want you to do well and you are there to give them an experience, to be moved, to be touched in some way, to laugh, to recognize themselves.
Your job is to provide them the experience of your story. Consider the tone of your story. What is the feeling or emotion you want to convey? Your pacing, your tone of voice, your beats and pauses should reflect the emotional tone of your story. Where do you speed up, where do you slow down? Where do you pause? Where do you gesture, or do you? Mark your pages, to remind yourself as you are reading: pause here, slow down, staccato. Breathe.
Ask a friend to coach you. Or, better yet, find a coach. Jane Geesman is a friend of mine and an actor. She coaches other actors, writers and others who speak in public. She and her business partner, Sarah Lucht, also offer classes applying acting techniques to other areas of life. You can find them at Act Natural. The classes, or individual coaching sessions, can help improve your diction, reduce nerves, and improve your sense of presence and intention.
Practice. Yes, you are a writer not an actor; no need to have your lines memorized. And you need not over-dramatize your reading. In fact this can be a turn off unless you do it really well. But it is important to commit to the story. Do not over do, but do not under do. And watch out for taking on a “This American Life” voice. Use YOUR own voice.
Practice some more. You are telling your story. The more you prepare, the more comfortable you will be. This is the place where the emotional tone of the story walks in. Practice in front of a mirror. Look up and see yourself, so that when you are in front of the audience you will feel comfortable looking up and away from your pages. Maybe even make eye contact. It is far better for the audience to see your face than the crown of your head.
All this practice will improve your writing. It will force you to examine every line, pause and word. You will find flaws in logic, language or pacing and clean them up. That is good news for your work. I have had several stories accepted for publication after I read them in public.
Think about what you will wear. What is the venue? I seem to get colder when I read, but then there is a sudden burst of warm. Wear layers for varying temperatures. Avoid noisy jewelry or items that might distract the audience. If you have long hair, wear it so we can see your face. Dress comfortably but keep in mind that you are there for the audience. Prepare for them.
Prepare your pages so they are easy to read in any kind of light. I use a big font so I can avoid wearing reading glasses. Make sure your pages are in order. At my reading for VoiceCatcher my pages were not in order. A silly mistake, but a good reminder to check and check again.
Arrive early. Speak with the event host. Go stand at the lectern or on the stage, and see what the light is like and where it is comfortable for you to stand. If you are part of a line up of readers find out where you are in the order so you can pace your energy accordingly. Be present and supportive of any readers before you. Be a part of the audience, be entertained, maybe even learn a few tips for your own reading.
When it is your turn, take a moment to take in the moment. Say something to ground yourself and connect with the audience. An acknowledgement of the occasion. An appreciation of their attendance. What the reading means to you. Then begin reading. Commit fully, with intention, to the beauty of your work.
Say “yes” to whatever presents itself in the course of your reading: people entering or leaving, a loud noise, messed up pages. Go with it. Keep reading if you can. Acknowledge the distraction if needed. If the noise is too loud for the audience to hear you, stop and wait until the quiet comes again. If you lose your place, pause and find it again.
This is a wonderful opportunity to share your work. Have fun!
Jackie Shannon-Hollis’ work has appeared in journals including The Sun, High Desert Journal, Inkwell and Slice Magazine. She is a native Oregonian, born and raised surrounded by wheat on the dry, east side of the state – now thriving in the cedars and wet on the west side. Her essay in the VoiceCatcher Winter 2015 issue is part of a memoir in progress.