Giving a Reading? How Not to Panic.
In 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:
- 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.
- 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.)
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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Before your event, try to get quality rest. You’ll be more energized, attentive, and engaging.
- 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!
- 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:
- Use up excess energy: Walk or pace briskly; jump up & down; do several push-ups; march in place. Yes, in your “nice clothes!”
- 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.
- Smile – engaging both your mouth and eye muscles. Doing so has been proven to lower your heart rate and reduce stress!
- 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.
- 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.
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?