21 November 2014

5 Tips for Surviving a Public Reading

After not having read my work in public for almost a year, I'm doing a reading tomorrow. Some friends and I organized this event when we learned that Tuna got bumped from his slot in the Rain or Shine reading series - which he'd been looking forward to for over a year - for an improv comedy troupe. Lame. "We don't need them," I said. "Let's put our own reading together." So we booked a room at TaborSpace, created a Facebook event, and invited just about everyone we know.

I have to admit, though, I wasn't super excited at first about reading again. For the last few months I've been having a crisis of confidence regarding my work, and I'd lost touch with my sense of playfulness. But the process of putting together my set list for this reading helped me reconnect with it, and I ended up writing a couple new silly pieces that I really like. They won't win any awards, but they'll be fun to share on Saturday. (It helps, too, that people have asked me to read certain pieces again. Nothing like taking requests to boost one's confidence.)

"Are you nervous?" people are asking now when I tell them about the reading. Not yet, but I know I will be when the time comes. Which is why I've put together this list of five strategies I've used to help me get through a public reading (when I'm doing the reading, not just attending one). It's always good to have a reminder.

5 Tips for Surviving a Public Reading

1. Introduction Notes
One of the things musicians and writers sometimes do is introduce some of their songs or pieces with a little story. (Sometimes a long story, but I lose patience if this happens too much.) I like it when they do this because it's something a little extra on top of the piece itself that makes it worth seeing the piece performed live, and it also feels like audience interaction.

The first step is to choose the few pieces I want to introduce. I don't introduce all of them. Takes too much time and becomes tedious for me as an audience member when authors do this. So which pieces do I have a story about or can I provide some context for? It can be as involved as a story about the moment that inspired a story or as simple as "This is a new piece I've been working on this week." As with any public speaking shindig, I find it helpful to jot down a few keywords at the top of the page or next to the piece's title to help me remember what I wanted to say in case I get struck with a sudden case of nerves.

2. Practice, Practice, Practice
The only thing that makes me feel more confident about reading my work aloud in front of people is to read my work aloud in front of people. Or on the phone. I usually practice reading my entire set list aloud at least once a day for several days prior to the reading, scheduling phone dates with friends who can't be there to be my guinea pigs. This does a few things:
  • Helps my mouth practice forming the words so that I'm less likely to trip up come showtime;
  • Helps me hear where there might be some last-minute edits to make;
  • Feedback from the guinea pig audience members can let me know where I need to speed up or slow down, enunciate more clearly, etc.

In addition, I usually get positive feedback from my guinea pig audience members in the form of grunts, laughs, commentary, etc., which ends up boosting my confidence about my writing and making me more excited to share it with others.

3. Time Yourself
I once read with about 10 other people. We were informed ahead of time that we'd each have just seven minutes to read so that there was time for everyone. But one person either hadn't timed herself while practicing or didn't care; she read for at least twice as long as the rest of us. It really burned my biscuits. When I practice reading aloud in the days leading up to the reading, I also practice my opening remarks, the introductions to the pieces and my thank-yous. Yes, it can feel super awkward to say "Thank you all so much for coming" over the phone to my mom or to tell her things about my work she already knows, but luckily my friends and family don't mind all that because they are saints. (They have to be to put up with me.)

4. Accept Your Feelings
Now it's the day of the reading, and the nerves really start to ramp up. But I know from experience that telling myself to calm down works not at all, so instead I practice accepting how I feel. I sit with it. "Yes, I feel super nervous. This is how it feels in my body. It's uncomfortable. It's okay to be nervous and it's okay to be uncomfortable." It may not make me less nervous, but it's far less uncomfortable than trying to battle shame and frustration on top of the nervous.

5. Be in the Moment
When the moment arrives to finally start reading, when I stand up in front of that roomful of people and stutter out my initial greeting and then turn my eyes to my papers, the best thing I can do for myself and my audience is to be in the moment with each piece, each line that I'm reading. I try to forget that other people are there and just connect with my writing. Connect with the emotions I felt when writing it and/or the fun of performing it. This helps me do justice to my work. And before I know it I've reached the end of my set list, a little sad that it's over.

Those are my tips & tricks for surviving a reading. What are yours?

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