7 tips for giving a powerful public reading

By the time I walk to the microphone this Wednesday at Literary Arts to read from my memoir for seven minutes, I will have prepared more than two hours. What?! Two hours preparation for seven minutes of reading? Yes, in my experience, that's what it takes to prepare for a public reading if you include curating your material, choosing your outfit and rehearsing. 

I'll be one of 10 writers and I'm eighth in the line-up. So, by the time the audience has heard seven other writers, I better show up in the strongest way I know. I want as little distraction between my words and the audience. 

If you’re a writer preparing to give a reading or wanting to learn to read with more power, here’s a glimpse at seven steps I take before, during and after a reading. 

  1. Choose an excerpt that stands on its own. Make sure it has a strong opening and ends like a gymnast. (You know how they end with that firm plant and two arms in the air?)
  2. Time the excerpt and make it a little shorter than requested. You’re likely to lose your normal sense of time when you perform. And you want to leave the audience begging for more, not wishing you’d ended sooner.
  3. Don’t prepare people for what they are about to hear. Most introductions detract from the power of the reading. Just start with your words.
  4. When you get to the podium, take a moment to arrive. Place your water, put on your glasses and so on. Right before you start, look at the audience with a small Buddha smile as if you’re sitting across from your favorite person and you’re about to tell her the most wonderful secret. Take a breath and begin. You own the room now. 
  5. If someone leaves during your reading, stay with your audience. Don’t mentally follow that person out to find out why they don’t think you’re a good writer. Stay with your people.
  6. If there’s a mishap during the reading like you spill your water or the PA system suddenly comes on or somebody arrives late carrying a noisy, plastic bag so that everyone turns, don’t ignore it. You can say “Whoops” at the spill, “So glad the PA system is working” and “Come on in” to the noisy latecomer.
  7. After you read your last sentence, pause. Keep your eyes on the audience. Then, if you’d like to say “thank you,” that’s fine but don’t end your piece and rush to the “thank you.” It takes the power away from your last sentence. Let your words ring through the room. 

If you’d like to join me and nine other writers who comprise this month's Unchaste Readers, curated by Jenny Forrester, please find details here.

Photo by Larry Stillman.