April 25, 2014
One of the comforts of being a writer is getting to write. But as soon as you publish those carefully chosen words, you’re suddenly expected to become a speaker.
Lawyers have the advantage in this regard of having developed their presentation skills, but courtroom drama and negotiating-table dramatics are slightly different arts than performance of one’s own writing.
In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to read my work to various groups. The point of such presentations is to motivate potential readers to buy the book, but their effectiveness depends on the reader’s ability to entertain.
I know something about persuasion from a legal point of view, but on the entertainment side, I seek advice from my sister, Donna Steele, a Northwestern University drama graduate, vocal coach and founder and artistic director of Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles.
The first challenge for me is that I can’t easily read from my actual book at a podium: I use reading glasses, and my memory is so lousy that even though I wrote the thing (a few years ago now), I don’t know it by heart. I need my text.
My sister/vocal coach also says I need to make eye contact with the audience — isn’t that one of the first rules of good presenting? — and because of the small type in most books, it’s way too easy for me to get tied to the page for fear of losing my place.
So I make myself a large-type, double-spaced reading copy (24-point, bold font) and put it in a light binder with a blow-up of my cover. Yes, I turn pages frequently, but I can make eye contact while I’m doing so.
Donna also advises me to take the time prior to my reading to do a sound check with the microphone if the circumstances permit. This will help me to know how close or far I have to be from the microphone for it to easily pick up my voice and still allow me the flexibility to talk to both sides of a room.
She also advises me to warm up my voice (privately!) if I can, doing silly mouth, tongue and lip exercises to make sure I’ll be able to easily enunciate my words. Relaxed lips will help avoid the “popping p-sound” which drives the professionals in your audience nuts. (That’s the kind of thing one wants to practice and work on prior to the actual performance: Once I’ve started, I have to forget all the technique and just give myself to the performance.)
Performance is important to convey the emotion of your work and to help an audience understand why they might want to spend the time reading your book, but the truth is, most folks come to readings because they want to size up the author.
Some say a reading from your text should not exceed 10 or 15 minutes, that most of your time should be spent letting the audience get to know you — why you wrote the book, what inspired it, what you hope people take away from it.
You need to make the audience want to spend time with your book, and if they’ve never heard of you, this is a combination of their liking you as well as the words you’ve put on paper. So, typically, you will introduce yourself, then read and then take questions.
If the audience is small — and often at a bookstore, 10 to 20 is a good turnout — you might even have a chance to find out who the audience is before you read to them. You might learn something about them that will help you select passages from deeper in the book, ones that might have specific appeal.
At a recent reading in Batavia for Waterline Writers (a great group if you live out that way; they’re online at waterlinewriters.org), I knew the audience would be fellow writers, and I selected not just the first pages which we all sweat about so much, but also one character’s inner monologue on the challenges posed by the various artistic disciplines, e.g., the permanence of sculpture versus the ineffability of theatrical performance.
So that I can be responsive like this to my audience, my reading copy contains eight different excerpts, each practiced and timed so that I don’t overstay my welcome at the microphone.
There is a style of reading adopted by many poets and some prose readers which is essentially monotone. At “high” literary events, you will often hear readings which totally avoid vocal variety, but if you go to poetry slams, the Green Mill cocktail lounge or other performance venues, you will hear a wild variety of vocal tones and rhythms — and, I venture to say, you are more likely to be moved by the words you hear.
Reading to an audience something which they could just as easily and far more quickly read for themselves requires that you give a bit of a dramatic performance. You’re not exactly acting, but you’re not talking to the judge, either.
As in any profession, there are tricks of the trade, and an hour with a vocal coach and a bit of practice and experience can go a long way toward making you comfortable with your author readings — and, thus, increasing your sales.