I’ve given workshops on presentation skills to writers before, but last week I was asked if I’d do one for an environmental group – scientists, eco-activists etc. I’m a member of the group myself, so I’ve agreed, but it means I’ll have to look at my material again to make sure it will work with a different audience. In the meantime, I thought I’d post my coaching hand-out here – see if you agree with me, see if it helps etc. I benefited from Sally Evans’ advice when I compiled the original notes – my thanks to her.
Hold your pages up, at chest level, so that your head is raised. You’ll find that’ll help, not just in projecting your voice, but in establishing eye-contact.
As often as you’re comfortable with it, raise your eyes from the page and look round your audience. Make sure that during the course of a set, you’ve clocked all parts of the room. Everyone present will believe you’ve addressed some part of the reading to them individually.
Having said that, don’t get fixated on individuals in an audience – the fanciable, the fidgeter, the one whose flies are undone, the scratcher, the sleeper or the cougher. Give them all equal attention (well, maybe not the sleeper).
Rehearse your reading beforehand. The more familiar you are with your writing, the more confident you’ll be when you read it.
Use hand gestures occasionally (George, don’t do that) but only when you need to, for emphasis. Never point at the audience – this is threatening.
If you’re using a mike on a stand, keep your feet nailed to the floor, and your mouth a fixed distance from the mike. Everything else can move. If you’re wearing a lapel mike, don’t rustle papers in front of it.
Don’t cough, belch or sniffle into a mike – if you feel one of these three coming on, turn your head aside.
Gentleman Writers should trim their beards & ‘taches before a reading – it’s amazing how much sound (and meaning) can be absorbed in yr facial hair.
If you’re reading in the open air, read with a wall behind you if possible. This reflects the sound waves back to the audience.
Don’t rush your words – the audience won’t get the meaning if it’s all jumbled together.
Watch your timing. If you have a fixed time spot, over-running is unfair to those who read after you, and your MC will cease to love you.
Don’t get drunk before you read. You may think that it improves your performance, but in this respect, as in others, you are wrong.
Know in advance what you’re going to read, what order you’re going to read in, and where in your texts the poems are. Fumbling about in a flurry of Post-It™ notes is off-putting.
Make sure you know where your reading glasses are, and don’t feel obliged to make unfunny remarks about your eyesight problems. The audience doesn’t give a toss about your eye problems, and why should they?
Try to vary the pitch, volume and intensity of your voice as you read, but don’t go overboard. The important thing is to give every word its own measure, its own proper emphasis. Make every word count.
I don’t know where a recent fashion for rocking the upper body forward and back while reading comes from, but it’s naff, distracting and unnecessary.
You don’t have to have a themed reading, but pay attention to the overall rhythm and structure of your spot. Don’t put all your best poems together – space them out – and try to finish on a high note. A humorous final poem is often a good way to make an audience smile.
Drink only plain, still water. Never drink ice-cold liquids – this can anaesthetise vocal chords, so you’ve got no control over pitch or intonation. Don’t drink gassy liquids – you’ll belch.
Don’t read too many poems, four read with plenty of time is better than six read hurriedly. Leave the audience wanting more, not less.
If your poems have been published, it’s a good idea to read them out of the publications. This is good for both publisher and author. But whatever you do, don’t whinge about misprints – they are rarely that serious and are often the author’s fault if the truth be known.
If you have things to say about your poems, prepare that part of the reading carefully (and briefly) unless you are very experienced. It’s lack of planning that usually causes rambling (boring) intros.