There’s been a lot of talk on Facebook and blogs recently about readings and personal appearances. I’ve been told I have a (small) reputation for doing well at such events, so, willing to interject an opinion at the drop of a hat, I thought I’d weigh in. (Editor’s Note: “Small” is not meant in the Donald Trump sense of “small hands.” This is “small” as in, “He doesn’t have enough of a footprint in the industry to have a large reputation for anything.”)
I’m here to give tips so I don’t want to make too much of the hardest thing to teach: I’m one of those rare birds who likes to speak in front of other people. I can’t account for it. My musical career—such as it was—suffered mightily from bouts with performance anxiety but speaking in front of as many as several hundred people fazes me not at all. If you are one of those who fear public speaking more than death—and repeated surveys have shown more people do fear speaking more than death—I hope these tips give you some things to focus on to make the event fun for you because if it’s not fun, why do it?
That said, here are my
Top Ten Tips for a Successful Reading
- You Don’t Have to Read.
I mean, if you billed the event as a reading, then, yeah. No one likes a bait and switch. Work this out in the planning stages. If you don’t feel comfortable reading, don’t. It’s your gig.
- If You Do Read, Rehearse
A reading is a performance. Treat it accordingly. I read to The Beloved Spouse a lot, both my stuff and passages from other people’s work. I still go over the chosen selection at least once a day for several days before the gig. Experiment to see what works best. Record yourself and listen to the playback if you can bear it. (Bonus Coverage: When participating in a group reading where time limits have been set, rehearse with a stop watch. It’s okay if you run short, but you don’t want to have to hurry to the end—that detracts from your work—and you don’t want to be unintentionally discourteous to your fellow readers.)
- Don’t Read From the Book
Read a passage from the book, by all means. Just don’t read it from the physical book. Print it up double-spaced in a large font. (I like 14 point Arial myself.) Mark it up with a brightly colored pen during rehearsals. Note where to pause, where to breathe, which words or phrases should have rising or falling inflections. You’ll forget under pressure, so lay everything out in front of you.
- Listen to Other Good Readers
Live or via audiobooks. Gifted readers can bring a book to life in ways the author might not have thought of. This is not to say you should act out the parts or use different voices. It’s not a play; it’s a reading. You’ll still pick up many valuable tips even a relative amateur such as yourself can use. Example: good readers leave a small pause between dialog and any speech attribution or beat. Mark your printed copy (remember Step 3?) so you’ll remember them.
- Talk About the Book’s Origins.
People love that. Trust me. Not just “Where did you get the idea?”—they love that, too—but find something to connect them to the book. I stumbled onto this during the launch for Grind Joint. The bookstore was a few miles from the towns Penns River is based on. Everyone there knew the area. I told a few stories about my connection: “I was born in Citizen’s General Hospital in New Kensington. It’s not there anymore. My parents took me home to an apartment at 1396 Fourth Avenue in Arnold. It has since burned down. Many of my friends’ parents and my relatives worked for Alcoa or Jones and Laughlin Steel. Those mills are gone now. This book is about what’s left.” I could tell by their body language I had them.
- Answer All Questions Honestly
Don’t try to be someone or something you aren’t, and don’t try to make the book into something it isn’t. Readers come to readings—duh—and readers spot bullshit the way sharks smell blood. They’ll catch on and once you’ve lost them, they’re gone. Besides…
- They Came to See You
They left the comfort of their homes, carved time from their busy schedules, and, hopefully, will give you some of their money and even more of their time for your book. They are pre-disposed to like you, even those who don’t know you personally. No one is going to take advantage of the Q & A session to ask about your extramarital affairs or the time you shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. (Unless you put that into the book, which is your own fault.) If there is something inherently controversial in the book, own up to it. Welcome those questions and give forthright answers. Not everyone likes your reply? Fine. A little controversy never hurts book sales. The key is for them to like you, and people like those who are honest with them.
- Funny is Good
Don’t try to be funnier than you are, but even if you have to prepare something, or have a plant in the audience ask you a set-up question, go for it. Just be sure it’s funny. If you’re not sure how funny it is, test drive it on someone before you go. While it’s nicer to be funny, it’s death for people to decide you’re not as funny as you think you are. It’s also a good idea not to be inappropriately funny. The audience may view it as a form of disrespect. On the other hand, if something unexpectedly goofy occurs, be a good sport. Run with it if you can.
- Give the Same Effort Whether the Audience is Two or Two Hundred
I used to be a musician and it bummed me out when the ensemble outnumbered the audience until something occurred to me: Fuck the people who aren’t here. Only three people showed up? Fine. Those three really wanted to see you. Speak to them as individuals and make them glad they came. (Hint: speaking to people as individuals also works well in large crowds as a way to get around the tendency to talk at people and lessen your nervousness. Pick a person and speak to him or her for a few seconds, then pick someone else. Pick attractive people, if available. You should get to have some fun, too.)
Which brings us to Item Number 10, the one all the others were leading up to:
- Have Fun
Personal appearances are a privilege most people never get because no one gives a shit about what they have to say. Your audience cares about you, which is supremely flattering. They want you to succeed, if only because they won’t have a good time if you crash and burn. Take their interest and consideration and make something of it. Just be sure to show their investments of time, effort, and money the respect they deserve.