Not long ago I read one of my short stories aloud at a writers' conference. It was hardly the first time I'd presented my work publicly before an audience (comprised primarily of strangers) seated and listening to my words, but nonetheless I experienced some twinges of anxiety.
The truth is, I almost always do.
At the same time, I'm also always reassured by the awareness that my fifteen minutes of fame (and more often than not my reading usually does run just about that long) forms part of my job as a writer-and by the fact that I've prepared fairly thoroughly for the occasion. I'm not just talking about all the time and effort that I've put into crafting the work to be read. I'm also calmed by the knowledge that I've learned and can follow some "rules for readings" that have worked in the past, for me and for others.
Whatever your genre you, too, can prepare for public readings, and you can follow some guidelines that will demonstrate your professionalism whether the moment marks your first reading or your fortieth.
1. Practice the reading ahead of time. Read in front of your mirror, your cat, or your coffee table (or, if you trust them-your family!). When you practice this way you will benefit in multiple respects. You will be able to time your reading. You will smooth out any words or phrases that flowed oh-so-gracefully from your fingertips onto the screen but may need some rehearsing to emerge equally well from your throat into the air. You will gain confidence. You will become comfortable enough with your reading so that you'll be able to glance up easily and make eye contact with your listeners.
2. As nervous as you may be, stay hydrated-and fed-the day of the reading. I prefer to have a bottle of water nearby during the reading, too. Usually I bring my own, just in case one hasn't been provided (but typically, kindly coordinators make sure that it is!).
3. Arrive with time to spare. Nothing looks less professional than a reader arriving late to her own reading. (When possible, I like to scope out the location ahead of time, in part to ensure that I can find it and in part to know how long I'll need to get there. If you had my sense of direction you'd understand.)
4. If you require any special equipment for your performance be sure to let the event coordinator know well ahead of time.
5. This one is really simple: speak slowly. And clearly. And loudly. I don't mean that you should shout. But if the audience can't hear you, they'll be frustrated. And so will you. It may help to remind yourself that you want to be heard at the back of the room; you may just naturally raise your voice enough to do that.
6. Stay within your allotted time. A minute (or two) in excess is forgivable. But reading on and on (especially when others are waiting their turn) is simply bad manners. Plus, you don't want to risk being unnerved by a fidgety audience.
7. Keep your bio up to date, and bring a copy with you to the event. It's helpful to have a short (1-2 paragraph) write-up that includes your major publications and awards to hand over to a moderator or emcee on the spot. Sometimes coordinators have many bios to track, and yours may-lo and behold-get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes a coordinator chooses to have each reader introduce the next; this can mean a total stranger introduces you, so having a bio ready to hand over to that person can be helpful. Be prepared.
8. If you're reading as one of several panel participants, especially if all the panelists don't know each other, try to meet beforehand to say hello, address questions, and discuss any issues you'd perhaps rather not have to work out in front of a live audience, such as who will read first (or last).
9. Wear comfortable clothing-but look professional. "Comfortable" need not mean sweats or jeans.
10. And if you're looking for still more suggestions, spend some time reading the Kennesaw State University Showcase Guidelines Although these tips are tailored for those completing Kennesaw's MAPW program, anyone seeking additional advice on how to present his or her work in public as professionally as possible can benefit from them.
Not too bad, is it? After all, reading in public should be a pleasant, even inspiring occasion for all involved. By following some common-sense guidelines you can keep the audience happy-and polish your presentation at the same time.
© Copyright Erika Dreifus
Erika Dreifus is a Massachusetts-based writer. Her fiction, essays, and
reviews have appeared in _JBooks.com: The Online Jewish Book
Community_, _Lilith_, _MississippiReview.com_, _Queen's Quarterly: A
Canadian Review_, _Vermont Literary Review_, and many other
publications. In 2003 her short story, "Homecomings," won the David
Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest. Erika also publishes a
free monthly newsletter, "The Practicing Writer," to support
fictionists, poets, and nonfiction writers