When I first moved to Cloverdale, I had the good fortune to almost immediately hook up with a local writing group that was just starting – The Night Writers. We met monthly to share our work and offer peer critique for nearly five years. After about a year, we decided we should take the leap and hold a public reading. Some in the group had never read before a live audience. Although I had done quite a bit of public speaking, I had only read my creative work a few times. It made a huge difference, presenting this personal side of myself, and I found that on that first evening, my voice quavered like a violin in tremolo, and my hands shook so badly I had to put them in my pockets.
With practice, I gained confidence, as we all did. I learned that I absolutely loved reading to an audience; I got a major rush out of it that made me want to keep writing, produce more work. I became voracious for opportunities to read. Still, though, I had some lingering nerve problems, especially if my time at the mic was short – a trembling voice, and those damn spastic hands.
So in August 2012 when I heard that writer and accomplished performer Amanda McTigue was offering a workshop on public reading, “You, Live & In Person,” I immediately signed up. And, wow! That was nearly two years ago, and I’m still using what I learned. It was a grab you/ get you/ make a difference workshop. Here’s what I gleaned from it that really made a difference for my public appearances.
Amanda helped me to reframe the whole concept of nerves. She says to think of it simply as adrenaline pumping through your body. It’s like you’re an athlete, just before a race. This is a good thing, a positive, not a negative. What you need to do is bleed a bit of it off. She suggests taking a walk or stretching, doing something physical. And for your voice, same thing. Your voice is a physical instrument. Get it ready. Sing in the shower, talk to yourself. I immediately thought, “Chanting!” I’m a Zen practitioner, and part of my practice is chanting. The chants are deep, coming from the stomach, up into the chest and through the throat. They are calming and centering. A great way for me to both loosen my vocal chords, and quiet my tension.
Take a full breath. Oh, this is important! It’s so easy to forget to breathe! Right before I get up to read now, I put my hand on my chest, and take a deep breath, so I actually feel the air come in. It’s amazing what a difference it makes in bringing me into my body.
Always do a mic test. It gives you that extra minute to gather up your composure, and it helps ensure that the audience can hear you. Plus, speaking off-the-cuff for that instant, conversationally, is relaxing. It makes it easier to then launch into the real reading.
Look at the audience, and give them your full attention. Speak slower than you think you should, and enunciate. If you feel hyperactivity in your body, Amanda suggests trying to move that energy into your voice.
This next part is critical. Amanda says to focus on the people in front of you, not yourself. What do you want them to feel? What do you want to communicate to them? This reading isn’t about you; it’s about them. It’s not a performance – it’s a gift. This flips everything on its head.
There was much more in the workshop, but these were the key parts that really transformed my public reading appearances. Embrace the adrenaline as a friend; breathe; take your time at the mic; consider the delivery as a gift, instead of a performance.