How to Give a Reading
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recall the filmstrips that we used to see in grade school, those still images complete with captions projected onto a screen. Someone had to read those captions, and in my school I was often that someone. I suppose my teacher chose me because I wasn’t afraid to speak up, I spoke clearly and slowly, and I changed the inflection of my voice to add a bit of oral interpretation to scintillating subjects such as the production of rubber, amazing feats of science, and the mysterious lost colony of Roanoke.
Of course, I didn’t know then that one day I’d be a writer and would give readings of my work to audiences. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about how to give a reading. I offer this advice primarily for those who are just starting out. Maybe you’re a student about to give your first reading, or maybe you’re a writers’ conference attendee about to do the same, or maybe you’ve published that first book, and lo and behold it’s a smash and you’re about to hit the book tour trail. Whatever your situation, here are what I hope will be some helpful thoughts about how to engage an audience.
1. Be gracious. Remember that a number of people have spent their time and energies to make your appearance possible. After you’re introduced, take a bit of time to thank them. And those people in the audience? They don’t have to be there (well, if you’re at a university sometimes students are required to attend a certain number of readings for extra credit). They’ve chose to come out to hear you. You’re their guest. Thank them, too. I’ve always found that a bit of levity before beginning the reading is a good way to connect with your audience. Nothing snarky, nothing vulgar. Just something lighthearted, perhaps even self-deprecating, to let your audience know you’re a real person. I once attended a reading where a very famous writer, after his host had introduced him, strode to the podium and without a word of thanks, or of anything else for that matter, launched into his reading. When he was finished, he quickly retired to the wings. The end. The distance between him and his audience was wide indeed.
2. Don’t be afraid of the microphone. It’s your friend. Cozy up to it, but don’t put it in your mouth. If possible, arrive early and give the mic a test to see how sensitive it is and how close you’ll need to stand in order for your voice to be comfortably heard in the back rows.
3. Be expressive, but not cartoonish. Remember, you’re not just reading; you’re interpreting. You’re recreating for the audience that experience of being read to when they were children. Don’t overdo it, but do think about the way you use inflection to emphasize certain things. Think about where your pace should slow or speed up. Think about the well-timed pauses that signify the shift to dialogue. Know your text so well that you can comfortably look up and make eye contact with your audience, drawing them even more fully into your material.
4. Be selective about what you read. Put yourself in your audience members’ places and think about what grabs your attention at a reading, and, likewise, what lets it go. When it comes to reading prose, I’ve always found scenes of action to work well, scenes in which something happens and that have a central narrative line for the listeners to follow. If you can choose something that also has a question to be answered—perhaps it’s a plot-based question, or one that’s based in the character relationship, or better yet both—you’ll stand a better chance of arousing and keeping your audience’s attention.
5. Less is more. Be mindful of your time. You don’t want your audience to start to push back against you because you’re going on too long. The venue often determines the time period. A bookstore reading, for instance, that’s meant to promote a new book, should be fairly short with plenty of time left for audience interaction. They not only want to hear you read from the book, they also want to hear you talk about it. If you’re sharing the podium with other writers, which is often the case at writers’ conferences and book festivals, never, never, never, go over your allotted time. Be a good literary citizen. Don’t foster the reputation of being so in love with your own voice that you can’t make room for those of your fellow-writers. If you’re doing a solo gig, and there’s to be a question and answer period after the reading, I find 30 minutes or so to be a good limit. If there’s no question and answer, I rarely go beyond 40 minutes. The longer you read, the more likely that your audience’s attention will begin to wander.
6. Be courteous and generous. This advise applies to your entire visit, but especially to the question and answer period following the reading. Don’t appear bored with the questions even if you’ve answered them time and time again. Don’t be snarky. Never belittle a questioner. Remember that a person asks a question because they have a sincere interest in the answer. They don’t know that countless other people at countless other readings have asked the same question. They’re asking it for the first time, and they genuinely want to know.
Giving a reading really comes down to being a good guest, someone who’s polite, gracious, energetic, attentive, and interesting—someone people would be eager to invite for another visit.
Great tips, Lee. I’ve always found you to be very welcoming as a reader. Let me just add for those who are prone to fainting: remember to make yourself breathe (easier said than done, I’ve actually caught myself miming a breath rather than actually taking one), dress lightly so you don’t overheat, and don’t be shy about requesting a stool. I’m getting twitchy just thinking about my past readings and it’s been years.
Great additional tips, Angie. Thanks very much!
Nicely done, Lee. I look forward to reading…more…and less!
Now, Naomi, you know how I love a good pun. Thanks!