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Good Oral Technique
You’ve written the first draft of your story and it’s goddamned amazing. Of course it is, they always are. But then the doubts creep in. It’s dreadful. Holy moly, this is the biggest stinking pile of horse excrement on the planet. What on earth was I thinking? And that’s fine. We’ve all been there and we all know that edits upon edits will be required and the polishing will happen over the coming weeks. You might put the story aside for a period of time to come back to it with fresh eyes and then edit it. It gets sent out to an editor and a whole host of other folks to really hone it and get it perfect (which it is). And now we’re back to that feeling of elation because you’ve written your book and it’s a damned fine book. High fives all round. And now the book is out and you’re selling it to folks and some well-meaning individual has arranged for you to go and do a reading at a convention, or a launch for your book or to a writer’s group or in fact anywhere you have to stand up in front of people and read your work aloud! The well-intentioned, helpful, promotional bastards! This isn’t what you signed up for. You wanted to write books in the comfort of your own home away from other bipeds. Now you’ve got to add another string to that bow we call talent and wow people with just how well you can read out loud. And you get to see the reaction on their faces as you do so and they’ll be judging you all the time. But they might buy a book too. And they might tell their friends to buy your book as well. So here’s some thoughts from me about how to approach this.
Firstly, let’s go back to that whole editing process. This is where you first practice reading your story. At some point in the varying rounds of edits make sure you read your work out loud. It will feel weird. Unnatural. Peculiar. But it will make your work so much better. On a basic level you will pick up all the typos which might have slipped through the net. On a different level you will get a much stronger feel for the beat of your story, the rhythm of the words, the ebbs and flows in the emotional journey of the piece. Phrases which read fine on the page sound different when read out loud. Try it with your latest work in progress. Go and pick up a random section and read it somewhere no one else can hear you. I’ll wait.
Excellent. I’m hoping that proved useful. Now for the next bit you’ll have to go and borrow a child. Preferably find one of your own otherwise nieces, nephews, a child of a friend (always ask the parent’s permission and return the child unharmed afterwards). Read them a story. Not your own. Find a story they like having read to them. Sit down and read to them. This is the safest zone in the world for reading to other people. Kids have this look of wonder and joy whenever anyone reads to them. Try it. I’ll wait again.
How was that? I know you varied your tone when reading but I bet you did voices too. Kids love it when you do voices. And it’s fun to read to kids which means it’s fun to read out loud which means you’re pretty much set for going and doing that reading you’ve got booked of your own work in front of those potential readers. Cool.
So this is a bit nervier than the rest of things. And that’s understandable, most people feel nervous reading or speaking in public, especially when you’re putting the words you’ve slaved over for months in your own private domain on display. Now, if you’re at a convention the likelihood is there will be alcohol there. Some folks like a drink for moral fortitude and comfort. If that’s your thing then do not have more than one or two drinks for two reasons. One is your bladder. You do not want to be doing the wet pants dance mid-reading. You want to be calm and relaxed. Two is you do not want to be that writer who slurs their way through a reading.
Now earlier I said folks were going to judge you. They’re not. I lied. Flip the picture and put yourself in the audience for another writer reading their work. You want to listen and support that person and maybe buy a book off the back of it. And that’s what 99% of everyone else is there to do for your reading. Pretty much everyone there has got your back. So that’s good. That’s empowering. And that gives you confidence. And the other thing which gives you confidence is the prep.
Choose the section you want to read and practice at home or wherever you feel comfortable. Find out from the organiser how long you have for the reading slot. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Longer? Time yourself so you know how long it takes to read a page, two pages, three, etc. Get your pacing right. Not too quick, not too slow. Just a comfortable pace. You’ll read quicker in front of an audience which is just nerves. Learn to pause at appropriate points. And when choosing a section to read choose one which really showcases your writing and has some action, or drama, or emotion or comedy in it. Something to make the audience go ‘I want to hear more from this story, let me go buy the book’. You’ll also need to rehearse an intro. ‘Hi, my name’s Phil Sloman, this is my story Becoming David about a serial killer whose victim comes back to haunt him. In this scene David has…’
So over to you. You’re at the reading. Take two or three deep breaths to calm the nerves (it really does help to relax you: http://time.com/4718723/deep-breathing-meditation-calm-anxiety/). Sit or stand. Up to you. Do whatever you feel comfortable with as long as people can see and hear you. When reading vary your tone just like you did when reading with those kids. Variation in tone helps to engage the listener. Only do voices if you’re comfortable this time! Speak clearly and speak out to the audience not to your feet (practice this when rehearsing at home). Use a microphone if there is one (and make sure someone checked the mic is working beforehand!). Look up from your book at times and scan the audience. A passing glance to different parts – no need for eye contact and not long enough to lose your place. Just to show you know they’re there. Use those pauses you practiced to do this. Engage the audience. If you stumble over a word or two don’t panic. Pause and pick it up again from the same point. Don’t worry about time – you’ve rehearsed timings so know you’re fine. Get to the end and then thank the audience for listening and prepare for potential questions as they give you a well-deserved round of applause. You’ve got this and I can’t wait to hear you read.
Phil Sloman Bio