Recently I attended Voiced at the Exchange in Leicester and the launch for “Lost and Found: Stories from Home” at the same venue.
“Voiced” was an evening of poetry, spoken word and music as part of several events for Refugee Week in Leicester. I was among the contributors reading poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems of those seeking refuge”.
The latter was for a launch of anthology published by Dahlia Publishing where some of the contributors, including me, read from their short stories.
The tips below are not directed at any of the performers at either of the above events.
Tips for Reading to an Audience
Know how much time you have to read (ask the organisers if they don’t tell you), select the material you are going to read and time your reading, including any introductions.
Once you know how you are going to fill your allocated time slot, practise reading. You don’t have to learn your material by heart, but get a feel for the pace of your reading and where you can breathe without interrupting the flow.
You may not know how the stage will be set up until you are at the venue. The stage may simply be a space at the front of the room rather than a raised platform. Think about how the audience will see you: you’ll probably find yourself standing. There may be a microphone. There may be a table or lectern, if so, ensure these do not become barriers between you and the audience. Put the table to one side (do not sit on a chair behind it. Make sure the highest point of the lectern is lower than your chin. Some of your audience may need to lipread. If the lectern is too high, the words will bounce off the lectern back at you instead of out to your audience.
If there is a microphone, use it. You might think you have a loud voice, but the person at the back may still struggle to hear you over traffic, fidgeting or noise from nearby rooms. This might mean the inconvenience of adjusting the mic stand height but it’s worth doing. Do ask the organiser if you’re unsure of how to adjust the mic – it’s not in their interests to have performers who can’t be heard or embarrassed by a stand that won’t adjust.
Whether you read from paper, a book or a mobile device such as a table or phone will be down to personal preference. Make sure there is a good contrast between text colour and background – what looked OK in broad daylight might be difficult in a dimly-lit venue – and check the font is large enough. Ensure that you can scroll or turn pages easily.
When reading, avoid covering your mouth. It may be tempting to hold your book or device in front of you and hide behind it, but your audience came to hear you read.
Even if you don’t feel it, try to stand confidently. If you hunch over or lean on the lectern, you might find it difficult to breathe or project your voice. If you look tense and nervous, your audience will feel tense and nervous. If you appear relaxed and in control, your audience will mirror you.
As a general rule, the briefer the better. It may be that you need to explain your story or poem is set in a historical period or in the future or you might need to mention your narrator is nothing like you or that your story or poem is set in a particular location. It’s not worth explaining your poem is a sonnet or a concrete poem in the shape of a butterfly: your audience can’t see it.
Do mention the title of your piece. “This story is about x,” or “This poem is set in the 18th century,” isn’t going to help your audience find it afterwards.
Do try and look up occasionally at your audience. It lets them know you’ve not forgotten them.
If you are reading several poems do say “This is my last one” or “I’m going to finish with…” or some variant because it signals to the organisers or audience that you are about to finish.
Do thank your audience – a simple “Thank you” is good. This is often taken as a signal for applause.
Don’t hurry off the stage area but don’t outstay your welcome either. If the event is running on time or is ahead of time, then a measured stroll is fine. If the event is running late, don’t make it later by hanging around.
Don’t leave the venue immediately. Unless there is a compelling reason, e.g. public transport timetables, stay until the end of the event, especially if you are one of several people reading. If you do need to leave sooner, make sure the organiser knows.
If you don’t stay and listen to other readers, they won’t be inclined to stay and listen to you if you find yourself reading a similar, subsequent event.
If you show your audience and other performers respect and courtesy, you will earn respect and courtesy from them.