How to do a Public Reading Without Looking Like a Jerk

By Nate Hendley

Nate PWAC seminar 2014 - 3

There are two words which can turn otherwise normal, adult writers into blubbering fools.

The two words are “public reading”.

Now, in theory, a public reading sounds like a breeze. An author reads out loud from one of their written works. No sweat, right?

Well, the grim truth is, public reading is an acquired skill that many of us authors sadly lack.

I have witnessed too many readings featuring obviously ill-at-ease authors mumbling incoherently while staring down at their book or their feet the entire time they are in the spotlight. The audience feels cheated, the author feels like an idiot, and the person who booked the author decides to never hold another reading.

This unease is probably a reflection of the fact that most writers are introverts.

Now, I am not suggesting we need to turn into gregarious extroverts to succeed at public reading. I do, however, have some straight-forward, easy-to-implement tips that any author can embrace to enhance their public reading experience.

The most obvious tip is, know what the hell you’re planning to read before you start reading out loud. There are few things worse than an author who slouches to the podium then spends several moments deep in thought as they flip through their book, searching for an appropriate passage to share with the audience. Not being prepared is like wearing a great big sign reading “Unprofessional”.

Before you start reading, make sure you set the scene with your audience. They have no idea who your characters are or why your hero speaks in a thick Scottish brogue on one page only to start speaking in French on the next page. Spend a couple moments explaining the plot or main characters of your story. Don’t offer too many details, mind you. Just enough to let the audience understand what the heck you’re talking about.

Now, for some technical advice: if the place you’re reading at is kind enough to provide a microphone and a speaker, don’t spend valuable minutes fiddling with your equipment. If you have a good, loud voice you probably don’t need a mic. It’s very irritating to watch an author waste time grappling with a mic and stand, trying to achieve the perfect angle. Remember, you’re a reader not a roadie.

Something else: make sure you bring a bottle of water with you. It’s amazing how fast your throat can go dry when you’re reading out loud. A couple sips of H20 will help keep your voice clear and even.

Keep your reading short, sharp, shocked. Don’t read aloud for longer than 10 – 15 minutes at a stretch (unless the audience badly wants you to). Don’t stare at your shoes or your book the whole time you read. Maintaining occasional eye contact with your audience will keep them engaged in your presentation.

Avoid blabber mouth syndrome. This is where an author reads in a single, sustained burst without taking any pauses. I find that taking a deliberate pause after each paragraph is a good way to let your words sink in.

Two more pieces of wisdom: always take time for some audience questions or comments when you finish reading. If you’ve captured the audience’s attention, they will probably have some questions for you. Which leads to my second tip. Let your audience know where they can purchase your tome. If you’re reading in a bookstore, make sure the store has copies of your work on hand. If you’re reading in a place that doesn’t stock your books, ask permission to bring your own copies along to sign and sell to eager audience members.

But most of all, remember the purpose of the reading. The audience is there to be entertained and/or enlightened. Treat your reading like a serious performance, be professional and give the audience their money’s worth, so to speak.

Nate Hendley has written a series of books, primarily in the true-crime genre. Steven Truscott: Decades of Injustice, is his most recent Canadian release. Nate can be reached at nhendley@sympatico.ca

(originally published in the April/2014 edition of Crime Time, an e-newsletter from the Crime Writers of Canada)

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