This week, our guest post comes from Robin Hill-Page Glanden, a talented wordsmith who uses open mic nights as a way to share her writing, attract new readers, and make great friends.
If you’re a writer, maybe you’ve thought about reading your work in public. Why do some writers stay silent — afraid to read their work, even if they long to share it? Who better than you to speak the words you’ve written? Open mics, poetry slams, and any other open readings are a great chance to showcase your work and meet other writers. Making these connections can lead to great new relationships. You don’t have to be a trained actor or experienced public speaker to read what you write in a clear and effective way. Even if you feel shy about reading in public, it’s a skill you can develop and improve with practice. If you care enough to write something down and then have the courage to stand up to share it, you are already a winner! So make sure you take advantage of the wonderful opportunities available to present your work at open mic sessions or any public readings. Here are a few tips to make your presentations more effective.
CHANGE YOUR MINDSET ON READING
On the list of Fears, it’s been said that some people list the Fear of Public Speaking as #1 and Death as #2.
Instead of thinking about how intimidating and scary it is to stand up and be the center of attention or how difficult it is to verbally speak your words to others, try looking at readings with a different mindset. Don’t make it all about you – think about the people who came to hear writers read their work. They are there because they want to be and they want to hear you and the other writers. What can you give them through your reading? What can you share? We all have something of value to give to others. Can your words inspire, entertain, make people laugh, make people think, inform others on a subject? Getting out of yourself and focusing on your audience may give you a mission for your reading. Having a mission can be very motivating.
EVERY VENUE IS DIFFERENT
You need to pay attention to your surroundings. In some rooms, for instance, the heating and cooling systems are very noisy when they come on. You need to be aware of this and adjust your volume accordingly. Speak clearly, speak up, and enunciate your words. The size and configuration of rooms will vary. If you’re reading in a larger room, look past the front rows to the back and include those people by projecting your voice. If there is a microphone, adjust it as you need to for your height.
TIMING: When I first started training in a professional theater program, I spoke very very fast – just my natural way of speaking. But the audience was missing some of my words, so sometimes my performances were not very effective. Every acting teacher advised me to slow down. It took time, but I finally learned to watch my speed and when I started to speed up, I was aware and slowed down right away. Eventually, I broke that habit.
Also important is the choice and order of your work. Once I wanted to read a short story at an open mic where I only had 3 minutes. I edited it carefully down to 3 minutes. The piece was fine with the edits – I kept the story intact, but I had to read it so fast that it didn’t work very well. It wasn’t the greatest choice given the time limitation.
If you have enough time to read 2 or more pieces, the order is important. I love doing funny and uplifting pieces. I love to make people laugh. But I do write serious poetry and stories. One time it was the birthday of a close friend who had passed away and I wrote a poem in his honor. There was an open mic on that day and I wanted to read the poem there. I also had a short humorous piece. I thought that I should read the poem about my friend and his death first and then read the humorous piece second to leave everyone with a laugh and end on an up note. That turned out to be a wrong choice. I’m really proud of my poem about my childhood friend called “The Visit” and it is very personal. I could see that the audience was feeling the piece with me and I should have left it at that. But I shifted gears really fast to do the humor piece and it just destroyed the mood of the poem about my friend. Lesson learned!
Whether you write poetry, prose, or plays, even if you’re not ready to do a public reading, it’s always a good idea to read your words out loud. It helps you with your choice of words and your rhythm. It helps a lot to read dialogue out loud to know if it rings true.
Before doing a public reading: Rehearse in front of a mirror. Record yourself. Have a friend videotape you. It’s good to know how you sound and what you look like. You may see and hear things you don’t like and you can make positive changes. But get over the issue of not liking your own voice or watching yourself on tape. Use recording as a tool for improvement. Also consider what you’re wearing. Is it appropriate for the piece you’re reading? Is it distracting? Something as seemingly minor, such as a pair of reading glasses, can make a difference in your reading. I wear contact lenses, but I must wear readers to see print. I have quite a collection of interesting reading glasses to match various color schemes. At one reading I did, I wore a new pair of readers and a friend recorded my presentation. The presentation was fine, but the glasses made my eyes look really strange – not very attractive when I was addressing an audience. So I put those glasses on the “Do not wear onstage” shelf!
It’s good to make a choice before your reading about what you want to convey to your audience through your work and then figure out the best way to do that with your reading.
I’m not a big fan of reading from phone and laptop screens but some folks are comfortable with that. If you do, be sure you have your piece ready and that your device is adequately charged or plugged into an outlet. Have your chosen pieces ready to go, no matter what form your materials are in. Have your pieces in order and in an easy to read format. Use larger fonts to make your reading easier and allow you to glance at your words. Look up from time to time at your audience and connect with them. Don’t have loose, disorganized papers. Have everything set up in a notebook, a folder, on a clipboard, etc.
Be creative! Have fun! Costumes and props may not be for everyone, but another thing to consider is dressing to compliment your piece. Something as simple as a hat, a shawl, a piece of art, etc. can embellish a reading. When I perform Politics as Circus, my husband and I wear bright, circus-style outfits. We wear cat ears for our tune “We Love Our Cats” and I wear flowing robes with love beads for haiku and Kenny wears a black beret and shades while he plays bongos.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
What time do the doors open for an open mic? Do you sign up? How much time do you get to read? What type of reading is it? Get as much information as you can on the venue, the audience, and the type of material they do. Or better yet, go to one just as an audience member to observe before you sign up to participate.
SELECT YOUR WORK, READ IT THROUGH AND TIME IT
You do not have to fill up your whole available amount of time, but do not go over the time limit. If you have 3 minutes, don’t come with a 4-minute reading and try to wrangle extra time. If it’s too long – edit or choose a different selection. Rehearse and time it until you are within the allotted time frame. Do not spend half of your time explaining your piece – that will usually count as part of your allotted time. If some explanation is truly necessary for the audience to fully appreciate your piece, rehearse that introduction. It is part of your presentation. Make it short, succinct, and to the point, then get on with your reading. The only possible exception: It has been a contested issue whether two people presenting together should get two time slots to make one longer reading? If it’s 3 minutes each, should my reading accompanied by my husband’s percussion get a total of 6 minutes since we are not performing separately at 3 minutes each? It’s good to ask about that if you have a partner you perform with – some may want to hold you to 3 minutes total if there are a lot of readers. Whatever the host says, don’t argue. It’s bad manners to get into a dispute with the emcee or to go too long if there is a time limit. A lot of open mics ring bells to tell a reader to stop when time is up. You don’t want to be stopped before you finish your piece. And if you do get the bell, finish your sentence and exit the stage gracefully.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
…as much as you can. Research a little and find out something about who comes to the venue you want to read in. Look on websites and social media pages. Will there be children or teenagers there? What type of things are usually presented at the venue? You might want to attend as an audience member or contact the person in charge of the open mic for guidelines if you have questions.
It’s sometimes hard to judge whether something a little edgy will be a good fit for a particular venue. No one wants to suppress a performer’s creativity, but offending an audience is generally not a good experience for the audience or the reader. Some organizations have boards or sponsors that support open mics and readings. If audience members file complaints, someone may have to take some heat for offensive readings. If a bar, a club, a restaurant, or a store hosts your readings event and your material or presentation drives patrons from their establishment, you can imagine that this is not going to go over well. You may be banned from a venue if it is decided that your presentations do not fit well. Watch language and controversial content. If you don’t know whether or not a piece is too out there, err on the safe side and go with something a little tamer. A friend of mine reads at an Erotic Open Mic event where things are apparently pretty open and anything goes. Find out the guidelines ahead of time. Bottom line – use good judgment.
If you see that a lot of people have signed up, consider only doing one of your pieces if you brought two or more to read. If you’re playing an original song and you’ve written 15 verses and a rousing chorus that is repeated over and over, consider doing half of your verses and fewer rounds of the chorus. By the same token, it’s always a good idea to have extra material to read just in case you are requested to do an encore or the turnout is light and each reader can take more time if they choose. Be an attentive and supportive listener. Silence your cell phone or leave it in the car.
Reading events are great ways to network and connect with others in your writing community. Find a new friend, a critique group, a social group, or maybe a partnership with a like-minded writer. So write your stories, find your voice, and speak your words your way. Share your thoughts, your feelings, and yourself with others.
For twenty years, Robin Hill-Page Gladen worked as a professional actor, musician, and writer/editor. Her short stories have been published in several Rehoboth Beach Reads anthologies, and she has won awards for her fiction. Her poem, “Change Your Feng Shui, Change Your Life,” was published this year in the Dreamstreets literary magazine. Another poem, “Worry and Wisdom,” was published recently in the anthology, Delaware Bards Poetry Review. Robin is a regular contributor to two of the Guideposts magazines, Mysterious Ways and Angels on Earth, where she writes true accounts of curious “coincidences” that have occurred in her life. Robin conducts workshops for writers and performs her poetry and original music with her husband, Kenny. Robin also produces cabaret shows and performs in various local venues.