In my years of working conventions, I've seen a lot of readings. I've only seen some good ones. Readings are difficult, and not everyone had a long, embarrassing history in theater to give them a firm foundation in public readings. So I thought I'd put together some of my best tips here to help you with your next public reading.
- Prepare. Prep is the key to a good reading, especially for your first few. I know you wrote it, but you've never had to read it in public before. Read it now. And then read it again. And again. Read it out loud. See what you're doing with your hands. Your body, your shoulders. Hear your voice. Make sure none of these things distract you on the day of the reading. Your goal here is to almost memorize the piece. During a reading a lot of things will conspire to make you stumble over words. Your nose will run. You'll sneeze. Your eyes will water. You want to be able to keep reading even when you briefly lose track of the text on the page.
- Excercise. My audio guy also runs political campaigns. He makes his candidates read Fox in Sox every day. I think he has them read it multiple times. When I need to get my diction in shape for a reading, say for an audio book, I do it at least once every morning and once every evening. You can probably just do it a few times the day or two before the reading, unless for some reason they are recording you.
- Fill the Room. Besides vocal hesitation and diction problems, the biggest problem I hear from people is their volume. If projection doesn't come naturally to you, practice speaking from the diaphragm. This might be the hardest thing for new readers. You don't shout. You project. You bounce your voice off the back wall. Try sitting up straight. Speak from the belly button. When you get it right, your whole rib cage should resonate with your words. In a good room, you'll the words bounce back to you.
- Seek a Conversational Tone. The last big mistake I hear is a stilted and artificial tone. This might be the hardest to teach, and it's worse if what you're reading has an arch tone to begin with. I have it easy here because my book has such a conversational tone that they are vocal stumbles written into the text. After my reading Friday, I had a person come up and tell me they couldn't tell when I was improvising and when I was reading the text on the page. Unless you write like I do, you don't want to go that far, but you want this to be active storytelling, not near-passive reading. Tell the audience what you mean, don't just read what's on the page. Vary your sentences. Feel free to gesture. Lean forward in the exciting parts. Lean back when things get casual. Try to let your character inhabit you. Remember that your narrator is one of those characters. The hardest thing about a reading is this: you have to be intimately familiar with the text, and yet you need to sound like you're inventing it for the first time. This takes practice, and if you haven't done it before, you aren't going to get it your first try.
- Relax. I know that all this can be overwhelming, but remember, this is supposed to be fun. This is just a conversation between you and your readers. If you have a way to go before you get good at this, don't worry. You aren't going to get all of this the first time. That's okay. People don't expect great readings from you unless they already know you as a great speaker. Your job here is to surprise them and do better each time than the time before. Start by being familiar with your text and reading your Fox in Sox (I wasn't kidding about that one). Do the others, but concentrate on those two the first time. When you have that down, worry about your projection. Once that's second nature, worry about your performance.
Here's the dirty little secret. Unless you have an extremely unusual circumstance, no one cares about your first readings. They are almost always populated by the people who love you and the writers who have the room after you. Give yourself permission to be bad, and then work to be better each time you read. Know that you will always hate your own performance, even when everyone else loves it. Just have fun. When people start giving you compliments after a reading, accept them graciously and thank them for coming. Try to connect with your people before and after the reading, and remember: this is your moment.