One thing that producing Essay Fiesta has taught me is that, when it comes to public readings, the manner in which you read is just as important as your words. Or, as the old adage goes, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”
A passionate speaker can make even the most ordinary of prose come alive. Conversely, a speaker with the enthusiasm of a wet cat has the power to render the most electrifying writing lifeless. Anyone who has been to a number of readings has seen these phenomena play out. A rather simple story written in pedestrian language leaves the audience rolling in the aisles thanks to a vibrant delivery. Another reader spouts off passages that would make Shakespeare envious but goes unnoticed due to the dead-on-arrival delivery.
So what makes a good reading? As usual, there’s no silver-bullet answer to this question, no one-size-fits-all solution that will magically turn your words into spindles of gold. But, after meditating on this for a while now, I think I have devised some solid guidelines.
1. Use your “voice” – I’m not talking about projecting your vocals (see below for that one). I’m talking about the tone in which you read your story. The tone should be a natural fit for you. Although there’s an element of acting in this spoken-word art, you really should be attempting to represent a genuine facet of your personality. Perhaps you’re embellishing a certain element of who you are. But it’s still an element of who you are. By not being true to yourself, your reading will ring false to the audience, even if it’s not on a conscious level.
2. Breath – One of the biggest mistakes an amateur reader commits (and occasionally the not-so amateur) is not slowing down and breathing. Anxiety takes hold of the speaker, and the essay transforms from a piece of art to a race. The faster the reader can get to the end, the sooner he or she can sit down. To overcome this problem, practice your piece extensively before the performance. Mark places that would be good breathing spots and add notation to remind yourself to slow down, especially for passages that demand a slower pacing. What sounds like a five-minute pause in your head is like a second to the audience.
3. Be in the moment – This is where an acting background (or being a drama queen) really comes in handy. Personal essays really come alive when the reader can place himself or herself mentally in the essay. By this, I mean it’s helpful to relive the essay in front of your audience. This can be incredibly difficult, especially for pieces that reveal a vulnerable truth. But it really helps topple that “fourth wall” that separates reader from audience, creating a more genuine experience for you and your listeners.
4. Speak up – Lord knows I’m not a soft speaker. In fact, I usually have the opposite problem. I got lungs of thunder! But a lot of people don’t have my pipes. When an audience has to strain to hear your words, they waste energy usually reserved for listening to your words. Many don’t have the patience or endurance for this and will tune you out, hoping that the next reader can project beyond the first row. If you are at a reading that uses a microphone, speak clearly and directly into the mic. If you want, say a little something before you launch into your reading so you can get a sense of how you sound on the speaker system. For readings that don’t use a mic, make sure you support your voice by breathing regularly and deeply. Pretend that you are reading to the farthest guy in the room. That will help ensure that everyone can hear you.
5. DO NOT – a) Recite an overly long intro for your piece. It will steal the thunder of your reading. b) Neglect to make eye contact with the audience. They want to occasionally see your pretty peepers. c) Panic. Audience’s can smell fear. d) Say anything negative about other readers, the hosts, the venue, the audience, etc. That’s a surefire way to poop on a party. e) Mug, chew on the scenery, overact. Showboating translates as false, and we essayists are seekers of truth. f) Get drunk. A drink or two before you go up is fine. But getting sloshed is just rude. Just ask yourself, what would Bukowski not do?
I’m sure there are many nuggets of wisdom resting in the crevices of my brain that I have overlooked. As they jostle free, I’ll share them. Until then, please send us your own reading tips. Or dispute mine! After all, this whole shebang is an art, not a science. But if it were a science, it’d be called essayology.