10 Tips for Reading Your Work in Public Without Having a Total Meltdown

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“Nothing cements your story, and you, in someone’s mind quite so much as hearing it straight from your mouth, read with every ounce of the passion that drove you to write it in the first place,” says Dan Holloway, novelist and performance poet.

Right. But what about “performance anxiety?” You know, that terrible moment when you realize that you’ve signed up to go out there in front of a live audience and PERFORM? You have actually put yourself in a position of having to stand in front of a bunch of people you don’t know and deliver a wonderful, impassioned piece of oratorical perfection that will thrill them totally and make them your fans for life. (Or, at least you hope that they won’t start booing and throwing overripe vegetables).

According to WebMD, if you dread the thought of getting up in front of a group of people and performing, you are not alone. In fact, most people would rather get the flu than have to perform in public. Officially, stage fright is a type of phobia, specifically a “subset of glossophobia, or fear of public speaking.” It is one of the most common phobias out there, and everyone from school kids to professional performers have suffered its classic symptoms: racing pulse, dry mouth, tight throat, trembling hands, that uneasy feeling in your stomach (word has it that no less a consummate pro than Carol Burnett is said to have thrown up nightly before each show).

But you’ve been invited to “read from your work” at a library, bookstore, school, the Ladies Literary Society luncheon, or whatever, and you really, really want to share what you’ve written with other people, but you’re already breathing rapidly and your hands are getting cold. So what do you do?

OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

According to author Carol Merchasin (and several other authors that I researched), the following ten suggestions can help you make the most of your opportunity to present your work by reading it to potential readers.

  1. The most important thing according to all the authors I consulted is: be prepared. You remember the old musicians joke, right? When the music student got lost, he called his teacher and asked, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” And the teacher replied, “Practice, practice, practice.” Well, how do you pull off a successful reading? Rehearse. Select what you want to share with the audience, and use a big font for your text. Then practice reading it aloud. Read it to your dog. Or your hamster. (Cats are not recommended as they are too disdainful). Try recording yourself and listen. Practice until you feel confident enough to relax.
  2. Choose lively material that is appropriate for the audience, and consider the length of the passage you pick to read. Eight minutes is the absolute longest you can hope to have your audience’s attention. Five minutes is better. Or you might consider doing two five minute pieces with a break between.
  3. If you can, go to the venue in advance and know what to expect. Is there a microphone? Is there a podium? Will you stand or sit? Being familiar with the surroundings will make you feel more relaxed.
  4. Dress for success (it will boost your confidence) and take what you might need to the event. Things like a bottle of water. Business cards. A clip board to pass around so people in the audience can sign up for your mailing list. A clip light is also useful in case the room is too dark. Arrive on time so you don’t feel rushed. Present a brief bio to the person who will introduce you, unless you sent this in advance.
  5. Now you’re ready to read, so be sure to maintain an audible volume (don’t mumble or whisper).
  6. Maintain eye contact with your audience (you don’t have to stare at them, just glance up and look around now and then).
  7. Be aware of your body language. (Hint: if you’ve practiced in front of a mirror, you might catch little quirks like swaying back in forth or biting your bottom lip that will distract your audience).
  8. Don’t be afraid to express emotion. Is your scene angry? Painful? Tender? You don’t want to be a drama queen, but you do want to bring the material to life.
  9. Respect your allotted time. You don’t want people checking their watches. Leave the audience wanting more, not wanting out.
  10. Relax and enjoy yourself! If your nerves are frazzled, take a deep breath. Concentrate on your words, not on your anxiety. Remember, the people in the audience are there because they chose to be. They WANT to hear what you’ve written. What’s the worst that could happen? So you make a mistake. You lose your place. You mispronounce something. Laugh at yourself and the audience will sympathize.
Sal’s Place

WAG offers opportunities to put these tips to the test. In early December, for example, WAG members participated in a second afternoon of music and readings in a private room at Sal’s Place, a sports bar and restaurant off NW 39th avenue in Gainesville. Both Sunday afternoon sessions were well attended and featured a variety of readings by local authors. It’s a perfect venue with a receptive and congenial audience where you can hone your reading skills in a supportive atmosphere. And the food’s good too!

WAG plans to sponsor these readings every few months. So at the next reading, give it a try! For more information or to sign up to read, contact Wendy Thornton.


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Follow Mallory M. O’Connor:

Mallory McCane O’Connor, Professor Emerita of Art History, taught courses in art history at the University of Florida and at Santa Fe College. Mallory is the author of three books, Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast, Florida’s American Heritage River, both published by the University Press of Florida, and a novel, American River: Tributaries.

6 Responses

  1. Wendy Thornton
    | Reply

    Great blog! Thank you for the info. I must stop reading to my cats 🙂

  2. Bonnie T. Ogle
    | Reply

    This was great, Mallory, as is all of your writing! I love that you add a hint of humor. Thanks! This is something we all need. You are an encourager.

  3. Mary Bast
    | Reply

    Wow! Informative and beautifully written. You’ve captured the art and psychology of performance anxiety, with compassion and humor.

  4. mallory oconnor
    | Reply

    Thanks, Mary!

  5. Marie Q Rogers
    | Reply

    Good post. I think you covered everything. I’ve heard that people fear public speaking more than death.

  6. mallory oconnor
    | Reply

    I appreciate all your positive words! I struggled with public speaking issues early on and had to work through them. After that, I really enjoyed having “an audience!”

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