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How to Perform (Not Just Read) Your Work in Front of Audiences

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

I have to confess I’ve never been a huge fan of public speaking. And yet, since Everyone Knows You Go Home [1] came out in March, I’ve been on a whirlwind of a book tour that’s consisted of day after day of public speaking.

And I’ve loved every minute of it.

Despite being an introvert and a person who grew up very shy and soft spoken, reading my work in front of audiences has been a transformative experience. Whereas for my first book, I would get nearly unbearably nervous before an event, for my second I’ve learned to embrace the nerves as productive energy. It reminds me a lot of my teens and early twenties, a time when I was a dancer and performed onstage regularly. Always, before curtain, I’d become overwhelmed by a rush of nerves that immediately went away when the music started. There was no going back at that point, so I’d have no choice but to surrender to the moment. Those three to five minutes of dancing were always pure bliss, liberating in ways that are hard to describe.

Reading my work has begun to feel like that as well, but only because I don’t think of it as reading or public speaking. I think of it as a performance. Framed in this way, it’s something I realize I’m lucky to be able to do. Here is an audience—real, live people!—wanting to experience my work.

As a show of gratitude, I try to make that experience as enjoyable as possible. Below are some ways performing affects how I prepare for an event—and how it might help you, too.

  1. Select the passage you’ll read like you’d select your music. When I was a dancer, I chose to perform different songs and choreographies based on the venue, audience, and occasion. I try to think of the same for a reading. Is the venue small and intimate or a large, multi-level theatre? Are those in attendance part of any specific community or organization? Is the event in celebration of a holiday or specific cause? All of these things present ways you can connect the passage you’re reading to this specific performance. For example, I was once invited to read from my work at a gathering in memory of a creative writing professor who’d recently passed away. I chose to read an excerpt from my book that was all about memory and the ways we never forget one another.
  2. Rehearse it. Time yourself. Embrace the musicality of your words. I particularly enjoy selecting passages that have a variety of characters, beats, rhythms and tones throughout, because I feel like that’s what I (as an audience member) connect to most when I’m listening to an author read their work. The passage that has the most beautiful language won’t always necessarily be the best one to read to a live audience. Think not of what you want to read to them, but of what they would most enjoy listening to.
  3. Act it out. Okay, this is where the hard part comes in. We’re writers, not actors, so while while it’s not necessary for you to go full-out thespian in your neighborhood indie book shop, a bit of liveliness and animation can go a long way in engaging your audience. They should feel like they’re being told a story, not like they’re being read to. Give them something they can’t replicate in the privacy of their own homes—the unique experience of hearing you bring the words to life. One trick I’ve learned is to listen to audiobooks. Many are narrated by classically trained actors, and hearing how they use inflections, pauses, and variations in their voices to capture the richness on the page is an inspiring lesson in performance. Use your whole body, not just your voice. Gestures, movement, and eye contact go a long way in connecting to those in front of you.
  4. Keep it short. I rarely read more than five minutes of my work at once. Depending on the length of the event, I’ll share one passage and simply talk about my work for a short, 20-minute reading, or I’ll read two short passages at the beginning and the end of my talk. The point is, it’s better leave people wanting to more—and thus, inspire them to buy a book—instead of making them wonder when you’re going to wrap things up. Most of us come to a reading to learn the things about the book that we wouldn’t get from the page anyways. Tell the story behind your story, and think beyond what inspired it and what your process is like. What are some of the things that writing this story taught you about yourself? Why did you make the specific choices you made? Your performance, just like the story itself, should have a structure: a beginning, middle, and end.

Do you enjoy reading your work in public? Share your best performance tips in the comments.

About Natalia Sylvester [2]

Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester [3] came to the U.S. at age four. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. She is the author of Chasing the Sun, named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad and chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.