Just Do It: The Art of Reading for an Audience

This weekend past I was a reader at SF in SF, the San Francisco SF reading series. I like reading to an audience–I’m a lapsed Theatre major, and while I’m not a great actor, the opportunity to ham it up still appeals. But mostly it’s fun because I get the opportunity to give expression to the voices I heard when I was writing my dialogue.

Okay, so I like being in front of an audience. Not everyone does. And not everyone who likes it is–no, let’s reframe that: everyone, even those who like being in front of an audience, can improve. So for my next couple of posts I’m going to talk about reading to a crowd, and give my undoubtedly one-sided and entirely idiosyncratic advice on the matter. Please feel free to ignore or follow, as you list.

If you’re a first time reader–or just don’t like speaking publicly–you may be dreading giving a reading. The question arises: then why do it? “Because my publicist told me to!” “Because I was invited to it, and no one has ever invited me to do anything.” “Because it’s important to promoting my work!” “Because it’s the writerly thing to do, and all the cool kids…” None of these are necessarily reasons you MUST do something. But if you decide you want to do it, just… do it.

By which I mean… wait, I feel an anecdote coming on. When I was 12, my father gave a lecture at my school, and I was instructed to introduce him. I could probably have pitched an unholy fit and got out of it, but I wasn’t the pitch-an-unholy-fit type. But I was terrified. Being in front of people had never worked out very well for me. And this was the whole upper school, many of whom had known me since I was four. I had nightmares for a week–except for the nights when I couldn’t sleep at all. It isn’t that I had to make a speech: I had to say something like “My father has a traveling road show about visual perception, and he brought it here, and this is him.” Ten seconds, that’s it. But it made me miserable for a week.

The day came. And as I stood in the wings in the auditorium I had one of those world-changing realizations. All I had to do was do it. If I went out on stage and just stood there, that would be a disaster. If I just went out, said what I had to say, and got off the stage, no one would remember anything about it by the time the assembly was over.

So if you commit to doing a reading, do it. The audience is on your side. They have come to hear your story: tell them a story. And the next time it won’t be quite as scary–and if it is that scary, don’t commit to another one. There are lots of other ways to promote your work.

Next time: what do I read?


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Just Do It: The Art of Reading for an Audience — 5 Comments

  1. And a reading (or an SF convention) is just about the most friendly place to begin public speaking you can imagine. Unless you are visibly incapacitated by liquor or actively hostile, they will greet you with joy and failure is not a possibility.

  2. My experience is, generally, that people who come to hear a reading are receptive. They want the story. If you tell them the story they will be happy. The nice thing about a reading is that you’ve already written the story out, so there are no “humms” or “ers” while you pause to figure out what comes next. You’ve already done that part!

  3. I enjoy both reading and public speaking. I’m not an actor, but I love to share my stories and ideas. And it makes me feel really good when others seem receptive to what I’ve said or read.

    I took speech and did debate and extemporaneous speaking in high school, so I got past stage fright early. Later on I took a class or two in public speaking. Now I’m only nervous when I’m not sure what I want to say.

    There are some useful skills you can pick up in classes that make the process less stressful, such as an appropriate reading speed and careful enunciation of words that might be misunderstood if run together. And, of course, practice is good.

  4. This is an especially good illustration that Mad has chosen. The man at that podium is Charles Dickens, by all reports one of the greatest readers of all time. He had originally wanted to be an actor, and still dabbled often in amateur thespian efforts. He would have special reading copies of his texts made up, judiciously cut for the reading. He would get ready for the reading with a couple good slugs of brandy, and then pour his heart and soul into the performance. People would weep or faint, at his dramatization (that is what it really was) of the death of Nancy from OLIVER TWIST. He never failed to sell out huge halls, which were always packed to the gills, and the readings were so lucrative that he kept them up to nearly the end of his life, by which time all his friends were saying that he was killing himself doing them.

  5. Start of easy – read to KIDS! Kids are the #1 easiest audience – and if you feel the need to embellish, or do voices, and it’s a bust, THEY DON’T CARE! They think everything you do is funny! So, start with your kids, volunteer at the library, just go for it! If you REALLY want to hone your skills, join Toastmasters – they’ll learn ya to talk in front of people! 🙂