Public speaking makes me nervous. Over the years, I’ve learned to cope by cracking jokes and making fun of myself. It seems to work, or at least, my methods illicit (awkward?) laughter from those opting (forced?) to listen to me. However, when I realized I would we making appearances where I would be reading my work, my stomach cramped up. I had read at various workshops, or in front of my fellow MFA students at Spalding. I can say with absolute honesty that I sucked. After my first reading in 2008, a professor came up to me and told me that she thought she liked my story, except I read it at warp speed. Ouch. After that, I tried to read slower, make eye contact with the audience, and practice in advance. Sadly, none of these tips worked because the second I got to the podium, my knees would quake, my stomach would know, I’d breathe too fast, and my words would come tumbling out in a forgettable blur.
This made me unhappy, to say the least. So I asked around, and several writers in my program offered up their tips for readings. This summer, I had to do a 20-minute reading at my graduation. I combined all of these tips, and something changed. An entire room of people sat in dead silence while I read. I made eye contact and saw people leaning forward, intent on my story. People approached me after the reading to say how much they enjoyed it. Even better than that instant feedback, I actually enjoyed reading.
Since that day, I’ve done a lot of author appearances. I’ve been surprised at how much easier it’s gotten. I still get nervous, but these methods help me to overcome that. Plus, I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say that they decided to buy my book after they heard me read from it. Music to an author’s ears!
I thought I would share the tips I’ve borrowed (stolen) from lots of authors, so that maybe you will get something out of my theft.
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Reading Tips for Authors:
- Problem: When you stand in front of a room, your nerves may cause you to rush or stumble as you read or speak.
- Tip: My friend Erin suggested I take a moment to inhale deeply and feel my feet on the ground. I actually practice this tip over and over during an appearance.
- Reward: Every time I do this, I’m snapped out of my head and back into the moment. I feel calmer and more in control.
Write “slow down” in the margins.
- Problem: However fast you think you’re reading, you’re most likely reading twice as fast.
- Tip: My school suggests writing “slow down” in the margins of your reading material in multiple places.
- Reward: The visual reminder reinforces the behavior. After a while, you won’t need the reminder anymore.
Pencil in a double slash (//) where it makes sense to take a longer pause.
- Problem: How many times have you listened to an author read without seeming to take a breath? Every sentence is given the same weight and importance unless you take a breath to tell the audience, Listen to this. This sentence, this phrase is important.
- Tip: A new friend, Gayle, made this suggestion the day before my graduation, and it has been the most powerful tip anyone has given me. Read through your piece and pencil in a double slash (//) anywhere you want to pause or take a breath.
- Reward: I did this, and my reading ability did a 180. That visual cue reminds me to breath and take my time, while reminding me to respect my words. I’ve also found that it helps with my inflection. I no longer drone on in the same tone, but read with more emotion. You’ll be shocked at how people listen more closely when you put space in between your words.
Practice the tongue twisters.
- Problem: There are sentences that will trip you up if you don’t practice them. I have military language that makes me stumble when I don’t read it in advance to get the rhythm down.
- Tip: I learned this one the hard way by stuttering my way through difficult sentences. There’s no magic tip here. This one is all about identifying those difficult sentences and practicing them.
- Reward: A smoother reading that sounds more authoritative.
Treat your work with respect.
- Problem: Sometimes, our nerves get the better of us. Our goal at a reading consists of “just get through it.” And so we plough through the words like we’re reading the back of a cereal box. Except that we sound more entertaining when we read the box.
- Tip: Novelist and poet Molly Peacock reads her work like she is presenting you with a precious gift. This woman could read a recipe, and I would sit up and take notice. I believe that she respects her writing and craft. It seeps out of her pores. Your writing is not something to “get through.” Before you read, decide to love your work and then decide how you want to share it with the world.
- Reward: When you show respect for your words, others will be inclined to do the same.
Go forth and speak!