Preparing a Public Reading
21 March 2018
Preparation is all important. You cannot prepare enough.
First question: how long do you have? Your reading must be tailored to your time frame. Our local open mic sessions are composed of 3 minute slots. I choose poems or prose passages that can be read in 2 minutes to 2 and a half minutes. Time passes very quickly at the podium. Well-prepared, you will not over-run your time. Read your piece out loud and time it. If you can record it, do so. Listen to it as you read it. Do you feel comfortable with it? If so, go ahead with the reading. If you feel uncomfortable, or awkward, if you feel that the piece isn’t right, then choose another piece. Comfort is everything. Familiarity with reading the piece and with listening to your own voice will be of great comfort to you. You will step up there knowing you can do it, not wondering if you can do it.
Second question: are you familiar with the room and the mechanics of the room? If so, no problem. If not, take the time to visit the space in which you will read. Attend an earlier session. Visit one afternoon when nobody is there. It is easier to read in a familiar place than an unfamiliar one. Check out the room in advance. The mechanics are also important. How many will be in the audience? Will you need a microphone? Will you be expected to project your own natural speaking voice? Is there a podium? A reading table? Will you be sitting or standing? Knowing this in advance reduces nerves and gives you practical answers and takes away both nerves and the fear of the unknown. Mechanics are important. Familiarize yourself with the mic. Is there an assistant to help? Think height and adjustment and remember, if you start your reading with necessary adjustments, this will take time out of your reading. Always leave that little extra space.
Third question: Is someone introducing you or are you expected to introduce yourself? If the former, your reading time will start when you start to speak. If the latter, your reading time will start when you start to speak. If you are doing your own introduction, then write it out in advance and read it out in advance. Treat it like a part of reading and include it in your reading time. Whatever you don’t, don’t start by explaining what you are going to read: this wastes time. Your work should speak for itself. If you are very confident, you can ad lib, but this takes precious time away from your reading space. If you are not confident, then stick to your text, and plan and time your text in advance.
Fourth question: how will you choose your text? My suggestion is that you apply to your choice of text exactly the techniques that you use when writing and revising your text. (a) which chapter pleases you most? (b) you must feel joy: which sections give you the most joy? (c) which words, which sequences spark joy? I would also ask whether you want to read a single long text or a sequence of smaller texts. That is your choice. Again, comfort is the key word. If you are not comfortable reading out the F word in public, do not choose a passage that is filled with F words: your discomfort will transfer to the audience. Select a couple of passages, read them out loud, time them … then concentrate on one passage (longer) or a contrasting or complementary set of passages (shorter).
Example: Last Sunday, I was gifted a twenty minute reading slot. I chose six short pieces of prose that formed two distinct but complementary sequences. The total reading time was 17 mins and 30 secs. I was introduced, then read. I did some ad libs (I always do, sorry). I shuffled feet and pages. Total time of the videoed sequence 23 minutes, of which the intro, my slow arrival, and my initial sorting took about 3 mins. And yes, I was nervous. You could see my hands shaking and the pages waving up and down! I knew the audience, and I knew there was a possibility that young children might be present. They weren’t. So I read my F-word story … and yes, it’s full of F-words. I had another story, much gentler, in reserve. Just in case. If you are an experienced reader, you can respond to the audience and change at the last second. If you are not, stick to the plan.