Nikesh Shukla, writer and regular on the live literature scene offers some great tips on how to read to an audience and walk away smiling.
There are many ways to promote your writing: blogs, Facebook notes with your friends tagged, Twitter, writing sites… but these always run the danger of attracting the same audiences. There are ways to reach new audiences, showcase your work, be at the same types of events as undercover agents (literary not spy). All you have to do is read… out loud… in front of people.
But, you whisper, I’m scared… I’ve never stood up in front of a crowd before. But, I say, confidently, I used to be the shyest boy in class, my heart palpitating if I had to speak in front of everyone (there are two separate incidents that made me that way- but that’s a different a story for a different time), and now I’ll read anywhere if you let me.
There are, of course tips and tricks for a successful reading. But the superlative tip number one for actually getting up there in the first place is this: you will start reading at the types of events where there is an unwritten contract between the audience and the speaker. The audience has bought into a night of new writers. The audience might comprise nervous first and second timers itself. The audience is thus on your side, 100% and they will support you if you stumble or get nervous. This isn’t a music venue; this is a literary or poetry night. We are a civil and supportive bunch.
So, tips for a successful reading:
It’s important to rehearse your story for a bunch of reasons, a few of which I’ll go into. But do spend the time at home reciting your story till you know it well enough to put in the inflections and emphases you need. Nothing from the prose will surprise you. You know the run-on sentences that transgress a page-turn and you know how to keep it fluid. Right, now you know all this: look up. Look at me when you read to me. Make me feel part of your experience. A little bit of eye-contact goes a long way. Even if you don’t want to eyeball anyone in the face, just look up and into the middle-distance. An audience member will feel included if you’re at least looking up at someone. A tip someone told me was to perform to the back row, especially when projecting your voice. That way you’re looking up and catching everyone in between you at the late-comers by the door.
This is your story
Rehearsal will teach you a few things about your story. The first is how it sounds. Reading it out aloud will help you edit it. Remember Han Solo saying to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: ‘George, you can write this shit but you sure as hell can’t say it.’ No? I remember, because I’m a nerd. But Han Solo had a point. Just because it swirls densely on the page, doesn’t mean it works when you say it. So practise and then edit and then practise. You need to be able to say your sentences. You need to be able to perform them. Why? Because this is your story and you’re standing up here to tell it. At this point, you’re the only one who can tell me your story. Use that emotion to guide how you tell it. Do the voices and the accents of your characters. Use the slang. If you’ve written a rhythm in there that’s so subtle only those who ‘get it’ really get it, signpost it. Let us know what you were thinking when you wrote the thing.
Live version versus written version
Audiences have short attention spans. You don’t have to read every single word you’ve written. Edit it. Cut out the extra bits. Keep to the heart of the prose. What works on page and on stage is different. You can take more chances with descriptions and length and texture on page. On stage, you need to capture peoples’ attention, quickly.
Stand, don’t sit
Sitting- not only does it look like you don’t care about your performance, not only does it look like you’re unbothered or too relaxed to rock a crowd, but it also restricts your diaphragm capacity and you’re gonna need all the air you can get. Whenever I’ve sat (never out of choice), my performance has come over half-arsed. Breathe. Breathe deeply. Take a deep breath. Read.
Introduce your piece
Tell me a little about you, about the piece. Don’t rely on a compere who does this week in/week out to the point of roboticism to say everything about you that you want say. Introduce yourself, the piece you’re reading, what it’s about and if it’s extracted from a larger piece of work, contextualise what you’re about to read. It humanises you more and strips away the potential for confusion.
Right, now go find those open mics.
Nikesh Shukla is a London-based author and poet. His first novel, Coconut Unlimited, will be published on Quartet Books in October 2010. He has been published in Litro, Bad Idea, Pen Pusher, Nutshell, Transmission, Tell Tales and the Book Club Boutique newspaper. He has performed at Royal Festival Hall, Soho Theatre, Glastonbury, Electric Picnic, The Big Chill and is a regular at Book Club Boutique amongst others.
Thank you for these tips about presenting your work live to the public.
As I want to avoid too much revision and paying for revision, even though I have written my first, very short chapter, my next move will be to try a public appearance to get the intended audiences’ opinion. You know how most books sell on their first chapter? I would just like that reassurance from them that my concept is interesting/commerical. And I wrote myself a script in “freestyle” language, in spoken word if you know what I mean…
Hopefully this market research will feed into the PRESENTATION of the story, because I am pretty sure about the heart of the story. I just won’t be uploading it until it is completely finished.
Good luck with trying your first chapter out on an audience – I think it’s a great idea to get some feedback on it, and the act of reading something out can make you think more carefully about the way that you get your story across. There’s a real need to be engaging and strong when you talk to an audience, which is exactly what a first chapter needs too!
Thank you, and Nikesh this a great, well pitched article! It’ll help to choose the title and cover image too, in a totally impartial way. x