Please welcome Paula Messina back to the blog today with her second guest
post about public speaking. You can read the first one here.
Practice Makes Perfect
by Paula Messina
After the publication of his novel, a writer I know told me he was petrified of reading in public. His admission was hardly surprising. Speaking before an audience is said to be our number one fear.
I’d like to share with you the advice I gave my friend, who not only excelled at his readings. He learned to enjoy them.
First, let’s get the nitty gritty stuff out of the way. Before you decide what section of your opus to read, you need to nail down a few details. The time and place of the event. Duh. The audience. Is it the local Little League team or the Society for Classics Studies? Are you the only writer or will you be sharing the stage? Will there be a question and answer period? Will you be paid? May you sell your books? Will there be a signing after the reading? You can probably think of more questions.
How much time will you have? This is one of the most important questions to ask. You don’t want to show up with ten minutes’ worth of material when you’re expected to speak for an hour. Nor do you want to show up hoping to cram an hour’s worth of material into twenty minutes. It’s wise to have more material than you need in case something happens. Maybe the other scheduled speaker has laryngitis or his plane is still hovering over Logan Airport.
If possible, go to the venue beforehand to get a lay of the land. If that’s not possible, arrive early so you can get a feel for the room and request any adjustments you deem necessary. Make sure you’ll have water. If you’ll be using a microphone or any other equipment, test it. Perhaps you don’t want to speak from behind a gigantic rubber plant or you don’t want to share the stage with a life-sized poster of Bozo the Clown. Ask for them to be removed.
If it’s a Zoom session, make sure you are framed nicely on the screen and that your background is pleasing to the eye. Instruct the host to mute the audience while you speak. Above all, make sure the equipment is working beforehand.
Agatha-Award-winning author Sarah Smith (https://www.sarahsmith.com) says, “If you're reading on Zoom, consider using a teleprompter.” She recommends Teleprompter Pro (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/teleprompter-pro/9wzdncrfjss3#activetab=pivot:overviewtab).
Provide an introduction that is short and sweet. I recently attended a poetry reading where the introduction went on for five minutes. Boring. Unnecessary. Just the highlights, please. Tell the person introducing you to read the introduction exactly as written.
This is rather obvious. Decide which passage(s) you’ll read.
Joan Leotta, a story performer, spoken word artist, poet, and author (https://www.facebook.com/joanleotta), says, “Select material you like a lot. Balance the emotional arc of what you are presenting...serious, humorous, poignant....don’t make it all of one kind.”
“Shorten your text. Text that reads well on paper doesn't always work aloud,” Sarah Smith says. “You don't have to read one long text. Read a little, talk a little, read some more.”
Whenever I read in public, I take advice I stumbled upon in a book by Dorothy Sarnoff, who worked with Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Danielle Steel. Read your selection out loud a minimum of three times. This isn’t the same as memorizing the piece. It’s becoming familiar and comfortable with it. This allows you to glance down at the page, know what comes next, look up at the audience, and say it. This takes practice, but it’s easy to master.
This works even if you only as a few moments to prepare. When I’m asked to read at the last minute, I find a quiet corner where I can read the passage out loud at least the requisite three times. This has never failed me. I am able to read with confidence.
Time yourself. You don’t want to read a passage that takes 15 minutes to read when you only have ten minutes. This is comparable to a word count. You don’t want to give your editor ten thousand words than she asked for three thousand, nor do you want to submit five hundred words when he requested five thousand.
It’s helpful to record yourself. You’ll know if you are hitting the allotted time, and it will help you with your interpretation and delivery. Audacity is open-source software (https://www.audacityteam.org/) that is easy to use. It’s also useful to practice in front of a spouse or friend, but only if that person will be honest and constructive.
When you practice reading aloud, identify the pauses. You might find it helpful to mark them. If you’re reading dialogue, consider highlighting each character’s lines in a different color. You spent a lot of time making each character’s dialogue distinct. You want to bring those distinctions alive in your reading.
Pauses are part of your interpretation. They also help the listener. At that poetry reading mentioned above, the poet read as if he were attempting to break a world record for the fastest poetry reading. His poems went by in a blur.
Your audience needs time to process your words. Now I’m not suggesting you join the Slow Talkers of America (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysHUfjSMGWQ), but this isn’t a time for speed reading.
Robert Frost was a master of the pause. Listen to him read “The Road Not Taken” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrBHd41YqTc). Frost takes his time. He milks the pauses. He demands that you listen to him, that you hang on his every word.
Ten out of ten doctors recommend their patients develop this habit. It’s advice worth taking. After all, breathing has numerous benefits.
You’ll survive the reading.
Breathing steadies your nerves.
Breathing helps project your voice. If you are soft spoken, as I am, it’s helpful to imagine that you’re speaking to someone at the back of the room or even across the street. You could also ask someone to sit at the back of the room during the event to signal if you are not loud enough.
Breathing helps with your inflection and interpretation. Think about it. You used punctuation, sentence and paragraph length to create pacing and tension. Those are the places where you breathe. Those are your pauses.
Breathing helps your audience absorb what you’re saying. I once watched a demonstration of a pat down. The instructor said, “Slow down. If you go too fast, you’ll miss something because your brain won’t be able to keep up.”
Stephen D. Rogers (https://stephendrogers.com), author of Shot to Death and more than eight hundred shorter works, explains it this way, “Breathing creates a space where the last thought can echo and grow.”
How you breathe is also important. We’re told to use diaphragmatic breathing, expand our belly, but what is diaphragmatic breathing? It’s rarely properly explained and often improperly explained.
Place your hand below your belly button. That’s where you want to start breathing. Now, place your hands on your sides. If you breathe properly, you’ll feel your rib cage expand three hundred and sixty degrees. Here’s a useful video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sgb2cUqFiY
Listening to great orators and actors is an excellent way to improve your own speaking skills. Listen to Multi-award-winning writer David Dean read his short story, “The Duelist” (https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2020-07-02T06_44_37-07_00).
If anyone had a reason to gallop through a speech, it was Winston Churchill during World War II. At any second, a bomb could have crashed through the roof of Parliament, but Churchill, one of the greatest twentieth century orators, took his time delivering his famous “We Shall Never Surrender” speech. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_LncVnecLA).
To spare the audience from staring at your bald spot, make eye contact. If you read your piece aloud at least three times, you’ll be able to make eye contact with you audience.
Sarah Smith says, “Your audience wants to like you. They want to have fun and be amazed. Remember that and have fun too.”
One way to make your audience like you is eye contact, something else we’re told to do but that is rarely explained. Eye contact is simple. Select a member of the audience and look directly into his eyes for a sentence or two or until you need to glance down at the page. When you look up again, select another audience member and look into her eyes. Repeat, working the room. If this seems too scary, look at a person’s forehead. Eye contact also takes practice. Eventually it becomes second nature.
Appearing before an audience can seem overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be. Practice these simple steps and you’ll be fantastic. Practice reading out loud a minimum of three times. Pause. Breathe. Slow down. Make eye contact.
Finally, you worked hard. Enjoy yourself.
Paula Messina © 2022
When Paula Messina isn't walking along the United States' first public beach, she's working on a novel set in Boston during the 1940s.
To be honest, breathing is overrated. Sometimes I'll go a whole week without breathing. My lungs thank me later.
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