Giving a Reading? How Not to Panic.

microphoneIn my previous post, I discussed the crying shame that is the Public Reading. You commented, shared, and agreed. You asked how to feel more confident, use a microphone, give more creative readings, etc. I’ll tackle all of these over coming weeks – starting, today, with confidence.

HAVE SOME COMPASSION.

Let’s bust the myth right now that says you should be able to just jump in front of a crowd and feel amazing. That’s true for almost no one.

Sharing any creative work requires vulnerability and risk. If you add to that an unfamiliar environment (a stage with an audience) and unfamiliar tools (a microphone)… No wonder you feel nervous! So: be kind to yourself, and know you can cultivate ease.

GET YOUR CONFIDENCE ON.

Say you’re about to walk on stage. Your stomach’s churning, your mouth is dry, you’re sweaty, and your legs are shaking. You’re imagining every possible catastrophe. What’s a writer to do?

The best time to increase stage confidence is before this oh-my-god moment. So if you’ve made a date with a microphone:

MAKE A PLAN.

Public speaking is difficult enough without the fear of the Unknown. Planning what you’ll read, say, and do will help eliminate the What if I freak OUT?! storyline playing in your head.

But I’m an artist, you say. I must be free to move as the spirit leads!

Okay, but the spirit’s leading a lot of you to be super-awkward.
Should you leave some room for improv? Be flexible to changes of plan? Sure. But neither of these is a reason to bail on any and all planning.

Remember: the Ahead-of-Time You is no less an artist than the On-Stage You. In fact, the Ahead-of-Time You can be downright brilliant. So:

  1. Visit or ask about the venue. Will you need to hold the mic, or will there be a stand/podium? Will you have a place to put your books/papers? Is there a private space to be alone beforehand, or will you need to be “on” even before your reading starts? Knowing ahead of time helps you prepare, which means more confidence.
  2. Make a “setlist.” Determine beforehand what poems, passages, or chapters you’ll read. NOTE: You can bail on your list later! But having a plan gives you insurance: if you totally choke behind the mic, you’ll at least have a practiced path down which to hurl yourself. (See #3.)
  3. Practice!
    Being good at reading your work aloud can only come from reading your work aloud. So practice alone or with friends. Use your commute to try verbalizing an anecdote. You’ll get used to your performing voice, which leads to increased confidence.
    Will it feel weird? Yes. Will you be thankful later, when you aren’t flailing before an audience? Yes.
  4. Make notes on your texts. As you practice, mark moments when you want to gesture, look around, get louder, quieter, etc. Mark any words you tend to stumble over when reading aloud. Otherwise, you’re relying on your Stage Self to be attentive and expressive in the moment, and that Self is, you may have noticed, notoriously unreliable.
  5. Think outside your written work. Your performance includes everything you do on stage: reading your work, introducing yourself, and telling stories. The best performers plan these things – that’s how they avoid tense silences, fumbling transitions, awkward robotic movements.
    So consider: What personal stories or anecdotes fit with your texts, that you could share as intros or follow-ups? Is there a common thread between your works that you can highlight? Or perhaps you can connect with your listeners by sharing your writing process, family life, an embarrassing moment, etc. You don’t need a script; just jot down a list, or again—make notes within your texts.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. 

I’m not being your mother; these things just work:

  1. Before your event, try to get quality rest. You’ll be more energized,  attentive, and engaging.
  2. Avoid too much caffeine and sugar; the excess energy will make your voice wobble and muscles quake. It can also make you irritable and/or over-talkative: not ideal side effects for performance!
  3. Consider arriving early. Very early. The stress of running late will only make you (more) harried and flustered.

LEARN TO RELAX.

The freak-out mode you experience before an event (adrenaline, jitters, sweatiness, dry mouth, etc) is your body’s response to stress and concern. (You’ve heard of “fight or flight.”) But you don’t need to just accept the Freak-Out; you can rein it in! If you’re feeling jittery, panicked, stiff, short of breath, or otherwise maniacal, try one or more of these:

  1. Use up excess energy: Walk or pace briskly; jump up & down; do several push-ups; march in place. Yes, in your “nice clothes!”
  2. Consciously relax your jaw and brow. Then relax your face muscles further by making crazy faces (open mouth wide; move cheeks, lips, eyes, eyebrows). Do some shoulder and neck rolls.
  3. Smile – engaging both your mouth and eye muscles. Doing so has been proven to lower your heart rate and reduce stress!
  4. If you’re short of breath or feeling crazed, find a quiet place to be alone (bathroom stall?). For at least 60 seconds, see if you can hear and feel yourself breathing. The idea is to focus on your breath instead of your fears. Notice the air moving in & out of your nostrils, or the rise and fall of the belly.
  5. A great do-anywhere technique: With each inhale, identify a tense muscle. With each exhale, relax it.

Today’s last tip:
THE AUDIENCE WANTS TO LOVE YOU.

audience cheering.jpg

Your nerves will tell you that your audience is merely a blob of flesh ready to judge and reject you. The truth is, it’s a group of people, ready to go where you take them. They’ve gotten together precisely to have this experience with you.

Think of performances you’ve attended: did you walk in hoping they’d be terrible? More likely, consciously or not, you hoped something great would happen: that you’d be moved, charmed, provoked, persuaded; that you’d laugh, cry, get goose bumps. When a performer walks on stage, you want them to take you somewhere, and you’re ready to go. That’s why you’ve come.

So remember: 97% of an audience wants to love you. The other 3% won’t like you no matter what. It has nothing to do with you. So forget the 3%—they can’t be pleased—and focus on the 97%. They’re ready to take your lead.

“OKAY, BUT WHERE AM I LEADING THEM?”

Ideally? A creative experience of your written work.
But what if you’re still feeling out of place on a stage?
Or what if your readings suffer not from lack of confidence, but lack of artistry, vision, competence?
We’ll get to all this soon! Next time, we’ll talk microphones and “stage craft”… (I’ve seen enough balking at mics—“Do I really need this thing?”—to know you need some tips on making them work for you!)
Bonus: WTH is “feedback”? We’ll get to that, too.

MEANWHILE, share your Comment Love!

  • What have YOU done to help settle your nerves? Any relaxation tips you can share?
  • What do you want your reading events to be, to do? What do you wish the experience entailed, engendered?
  • What questions do you have about being on stage, or connecting with an audience?
  • Any specific microphone or sound system questions?
Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Tasha Golden

Tasha Golden is the singer and songwriter for the critically-acclaimed band Ellery. Her songs have been heard in major motion pictures, TV dramas, radio in the US & the UK, and Starbucks stores throughout the country, and her albums have been featured in national publications such as Paste Magazine and M Music. Her poetry and prose have been seen or are forthcoming in The Humanist, Gambling the Aisle, Luvah Journal, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and Patrol Magazine. She tweets @goldenthis
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8 Responses to Giving a Reading? How Not to Panic.

  1. Julie Greene says:

    I never felt nervous reading in front of an audience because I had had experience performing music years previously, however, one thing I had not anticipated was the difficulty I would have trying to speak continuously. Normally in conversation, I pause and wait and listen, but up in front of an audience I can’t be silent too long. So I found my throat closing off, or at least it felt that way. I compared notes with other writers, and they, too, said they encountered the same “closed-off throat” feeling while giving readings. Finally, it came time for my biggest, most important reading. My throat closed off so badly I just about walked away from it all and said, “Sorry, folks, can’t do this one.” But maybe I would turn it into emotion, like a lump in the throat, so I did, and I poured everything I had into that next page, and the next and the next. That was my graduation reading. I graduated, and rarely had that problem again.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Julie, such a great story — What do you think got you past the feeling that final time, and beyond?

      I *have* found that, although singers are coached to “warm up our voices” before performances, the same advice doesn’t come as often or naturally to speakers, readers, and other presenters. But when, as you mentioned, a reader is in a situation in which her voice is used unceasingly for long periods of time, fatigue will certainly result! At this point, the throat begins to feel itchy, dry, and/or closed-off. Often, the speaker will awake the next morning with a slight sore throat. There’s no instant tip for this kind of feeling/experience, but it can definitely be ameliorated by warming up the voice beforehand, and by using the voice more frequently in between readings/performances (such as by practicing, lecturing, singing, doing daily vocal exercises, holding forth among friends…). :)

      (I also heartily recommend Throat Coat tea (or similar), as well as slippery elm lozenges!)

      Thanks Julie!

  2. John says:

    Hi,

    I must respectfully disagree with much of this advice. I read as part of a cycle of readers at my church, before 110 on average.

    Nerves mean you care. When you get nervous, be happy. You care.

    97% of the audience is totally indifferent. They become interested if you read well; otherwise, just another boring reading to them. They have expectations and if you fulfill them, that is either good or bad. But 97% is definitely not rooting for you. Your piece wins them over, or at least gets their respect.

    Do not mark up your text – you will pause to read it and lose your place, and get flustered.

    Read slowly. But not so slowly.

    Read that section/piece so odd that no one could possibly like it. Likely, they will. If not, who cares.

    Don’t make any kind of political comment.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi John, thanks for your note!
      I love that you said that nerves mean you care… Actually, in an initial draft of this blog post was the sentence, “If you’re nervous, it means that you care enough to do well.” I don’t at all believe that nerves must be eliminated, but there are measures we can take to keep them from controlling us.
      At the same time, I’d hesitate to say that a lack of nerves implies lack of concern; if we were to go that far, we’d have to answer to some brilliant, care-full yet composed performers. :)

      I do disagree that 97% of an audience is indifferent; if this were truly the case, they would have stayed home. People attend events because they’re hoping something happens. (Although admittedly, if you read my previous post, you saw my note that when it comes to most readings, attendance has more to do with compulsion than enthusiasm. However, compulsory events aside, audiences are looking for something, and they’re hoping you have it.)

      However, I agree that 97% “is not rooting for you.” There is a subtle but terribly significant difference between ‘wanting to love you’ (as I mentioned) and ‘rooting for you’ (as you did). The audience wants you to be great; that’s why they’ve come. That doesn’t mean they’ll give you a break if you reek of mediocrity; in fact, it more likely means they won’t. #justspeakingtruth,kids
      BUT, my point is that they haven’t shown up in order to judge you. They’re not looking AT you – the performer – as the potential butt of a joke; they’re looking TO you for an experience.
      So my advice to readers is: DON’T set out to merely “keep from making a fool of yourself,” and certainly – don’t try to please the inevitable (3%) naysayers. Instead, set out to provide an experience of your written work. The audience wants a leader; you can be one!

      Point taken re: marking up texts… This is the first time someone’s mentioned this, but I’m sure it could cause a flub for a reader out there!
      So writers: Practice WITH your marked-up texts (don’t draw all over your poems right before you walk on stage). Use simple markings/symbols that are clear & easy to see.

      Yes to reading slowly! Love it.
      Let your words seep in. Leave pauses. These pauses will feel to you like they’re a thousand years long. This means they’re just right. If you’re uncertain, record yourself & listen back. But don’t read too slowly. Amens to that too.

      And finally, John, your advice re: oddity is spectacular! Often, it’s when we’re playing things safe that we become boring and/or inconsequential.
      When we as performers are doing/saying/being something we perceive as crazy/wild/bizarre, it’s often just big/interesting enough to be engaging from the stage. It took YEARS to learn this as a musician.
      So lovelies, please take the advice I wish someone had lent me 10 years ago:
      Safety isn’t safe; it’s the surest path to inconsequence. Go to the edges of what you do; that’s where you’re most brilliant.

      Thanks again John!

  3. A Free Verse says:

    I stay calm having one or more really close friends or family members onsite. They can throw me approving or reassuring looks from the audience, like silent cheerleaders :)

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  5. sarah says:

    i like the 97% example. i have had times when the 3% made me feel nervous. though i am not a performer, i think my nature is to entertain people and make them laugh. i should however think that i would be happy if 3% is listening to me after all you can’t make friends with everyone :) thx for the your inspiring article.

  6. Bob says:

    I came to this post late — like, over a year late! Some great advice here but I just wanted to add one thing. If you’re feeling nervous and uncertain at the start of a reading, a good trick is to PRETEND you’re confident, to act AS IF you’re confident. In other words, imagine you’re an actor playing the part of a confident speaker: stand up straight, look your audience in the eye(s), project your voice etc. If you can manage this for just a few seconds, I can almost guarantee that you’ll immediately start to FEEL more confident, it’ll no longer be an act. One other thing, pretty obvious but I don’t think it was mentioned: look up from the page as often as you can, even if just for a micro-second each time — it’s a skill like any other, so you may need to practise it at home first. No one wants to be read to by someone who’s too timid to even look at them!

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