Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience

The first reading I ever went to was by a well known writer of whose work I was a huge fan. There were three readers (I think it was in a bookstore). I found the first reader un-compelling–he read in a subdued, almost monotone voice, and I couldn’t focus on the words–let alone the story. The next participant was not much more inspiring, but I was there for reader no. 3, so I waited patiently. And then it was the third reader’s turn. And she read in the same dry, subdued way–as if she didn’t enjoy the words she’d written. It was just a little heartbreaking.

As I got more experience at these things I came to realize that this is a style. The lack of engagement and performance is deliberate. Later in the evening I heard one of the authors chatting about a reading he had been to, complaining that the writer he’d seen was “acting” the reading. I wanted to tell this guy that his reading could have benefitted from a little acting too, but tact won out.

Too much performance at a reading can be clownish, or make the audience feel talked down to–you don’t want to come off like a deranged reader at the Thursday afternoon Story Time for Tots at the local library. But too little… gives your listeners nothing to hang on to. As with all things, there’s a sweet spot in the middle.

You’re telling a story. When you’re among friends telling the anecdote about that time in Marrakesh with the nun, the waffles, and the chicken, do you tell it in a monotone? Not so much. Reading in a monotone does not give your material dignity–it flattens it. So read as if you’re talking to your friends. On the other hand, unless you’re a really gifted actor, you don’t have to act it out. No, really.

And dialogue? Speak it as you hear it in your head, as if your characters were saying it. Use the emphases you hear them using. Pause when they do. (Maybe I’m overselling this, but when I write I hear the dialogue, so that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.)

There are many ways of “doing voices.”  I tend to go for different tones for different speakers, just so it signals a new speaker. Sometimes a character needs a higher voice or a different tone. If you’re able to find voices for your characters that work for you–and that you can replicate as needed–do it. But two cautions: 1) don’t overdo it (that’s the sweet spot principle again), and 2) don’t do so many voices that you get confused, mid-reading, as to which one you’re using.*

Regarding accents, if you use them (I often do, as I’m often writing in historical settings where accent signals a host of things, from regional origin to class), my feeling is that unless you’re really, really good at them, it’s easier and better to hint at them. You don’t need to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle in order to suggest that the chap whose dialogue you’re reading comes from the lower reaches of British society, or like Pepe le Pew to suggest a person of French extraction.

When it comes right down to it, the way you read your material offers your listeners a way into it. You want that way in to be enticing and welcoming.

Oh, and if you’re reading something funny? Try your best not to laugh at it–that’s the listeners’ job.


*when my kids were young I generally used voices when I read to them–but I confess that somewhere in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth I started getting confused as to which voice was for the Humbug, which was for King Azaz, and which was for The Mathemagician, and by the time we reached the Senses-Taker I was hopelessly lost.



Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience — 7 Comments

  1. The worst is the “poet’s voice.” That earnest, slightly breathless lilt that emphasises every second word or so, each line ending with a uptick in pitch and trailing off with a questioning sigh. So, so—momentous, imploring. And stultifying.

    Not sure if the beat poets started that style or not, but it seems to be standard fare these days.

    • I’ve read with a couple of poets who completely belie that description. They are animated and you understand every word. So it isn’t everybody.

      Both of them have some performing background, though. One is a storyteller; the other was a modern dancer before she became a poet. They are both used to engaging an audience.

  2. I once organized a large group reading at a con. (Too large, but that’s another story.) Our draw was someone who had just won a big award, so we let them go first and didn’t put a limit on their time. They read in a monotone, never looking up at the audience. It was excruciating and it went on forever. That was when I realized that writing well and reading well did not always go together.

    • Yup. I remember squeezing into a packed room to hear the opening of a forthcoming book, back in the days of no Internet and teasers, only to discover the author mumbling in a monotone the entire time. All I made out was the name of the protagonist. It was like having a delicious meal wafted under my nose and then snatched away.

  3. It is said that JRR Tolkien was a dreadful reader, mumbling, hunched.over his papers. His friend CS Lewis had a loud carrying tone but he was always in a hurry, and began as he was coming to the podium. We imagine Abraham Lincoln using a deep james Earl Jones voice but contemporary reporters say he was rather high in pitch.
    This is where selecting your reading material helps you. No long genealogies, Arathorn son of Arahel etc. Snappy stuff is better, but confusing combats that take a long time, no.

  4. I’m reading a short section of Point of Honour at a coffee shop tonight. The section was chosen because it takes place in a coffeehouse (thematic agreement FTW), but I was relieved to see that it has some humor to it. By its nature humor helps the listener listen.