Giving a Public Reading: Tips from an Introvert

A public reading is high on the list of things I’d rather not do.

My throat gets tight and my hands get clammy and I talk too fast and I forget to take a breath until I’m running out of air mid-sentence and have to – GASP – to get any air back into my lungs so I can continue barreling along …

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone! 

So what do you do if you’re an introverted writer and you need to give a public reading? I recently had the opportunity to give a public reading as one of the final assignments for creative writing school. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this was far outside my comfort zone. I ended up hosting the reading through The Motley Writer’s Guild so not only did I have to read my work, I had to lead the meeting. Turns out, this ended up being a great experience and we hope to host another reading soon.

Here’s my top 6 tips for how to survive and give a powerful public reading of your work while you’re at it.

1. Practice Reading Your Work Out Loud

It doesn’t matter if you read out loud to a mirror or your dog or your fish (or in my case, your chickens). Just reading your work out loud will give you a sense of what is working and what isn’t. Do some of your sentences have words you consistently trip up on? (Of course, I chose to read a piece with the words Agricarus bisporus in it – which for some reason my brain wants me to read as “Agricarus biphosphorus”). Or does the dialogue sound clunky? Are there sections where you wouldn’t be able to tell which character is speaking without seeing it on the page? 

Use those moments that trip you up to make your piece stronger. Can you make your prose tighter and edit out the clunky bits? Do you have to say Agricarus bisporus? If there are hard-to-pronounce words or tongue-twister sections, practice saying those until it feels comfortable! If your character dialogue is blending together, can you use different voices for your characters or throw in a simple “she said” while you’re reading? 

Practicing reading your work out loud will also give you a leg up on that feeling of vulnerability that comes from sharing your work. Writing is personal! In many ways, writing can be a reflection of your soul. So practice feeling vulnerable reading your work before you need to do that in front of a crowd. 

practice public reading

2. Slow Down

When you read out loud, time yourself and see how long five minutes of reading is (or whatever the required time for the reading). I found that five minutes felt like forever, but didn’t amount to very many words.

If you’re like me and you talk quickly when you’re nervous, talk slower than you think you need to. At best, you’ll be talking at a normal speed. At worst, you’ll sound pensive. Either way, better than talking too fast!

time warp while public reading
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

3. Give Yourself Cues

This tip comes from my mentor, Eileen Cook.

Print out your work. You can make the font size bigger if it’s easier to read. Then, when you practice reading it out loud, write notes on the parts where you want to breathe or pause. Having the reminder “breathe!” will prevent you from gasping or running out of air mid-sentence.

Also, if you’ve printed out your pages, use your thumb to mark your line as you read. Moving your thumb along the page will help you to not lose your place. I chose to read my piece off my computer screen because it seemed like that would make it look more like I was looking at my camera and not just my desk. In that case, I moved my cursor along as I read so that I tracked where I was on the screen.

public reading and marking your place

4. Pay Attention to the Words

During the reading, pay attention to the meaning of the words you’re reading. This helps to make the reading more engaging. Try to inhabit your character, how would they tell the story? For example, is your character a little snarky? Add some attitude in your tone.

I was surprised that our guest speaker at The Writer’s Studio, Kevin Spenst, who spoke about giving a public reading, compared it to drama and performing. However, the more I thought about that, the more sense it made. Giving a reading isn’t just about reading your work out loud, it’s about entertaining the audience.

So avoid auto-pilot. Think about what you’re reading and how you say it.

5. Make Yourself Comfortable

Caveat: Don’t get too comfortable. I was told that I lean heavily to the left when I let myself get too comfortable while I’m reading my work — I look like I’m sliding sideways off a lounge chair at the beach. So, I placed a book upright beside me so that it would jab me if I leaned too far over.

Regardless, it’s good to be a little comfortable if you can! Dress in clothes that make you feel confident. Don’t eat a big meal right before you start. If it’s a virtual event, adjust the screen to what is most helpful for you. For example, minimize the audience so you can’t see them while you’re reading. Make sure to practice virtually too and be aware of what your background looks like — people like to snoop at what’s behind you!

6. What if Things Don’t Go As Planned?

Cant stop shaking? Voice all tight? Have a tech issue? Own it and move on.

In a recent blog post at The Motley Writers Guild site, fellow writer M.C. Beckett spoke about acknowledging your successes to help combat your inner critic. Even if you have tech issues or lose your place, putting yourself out there to read your work is worth celebrating. Count it as a success for showing up. Consider it a learning experience, and congratulate yourself on another step in your writerly journey.

public reading going down in flames

Thanks for reading this post! I hope you find it helpful. If you’d like notice of new blog posts or book news, please subscribe to my mailing list.

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