Twelve Tips for Spoken Word Performers

(Another post that was originally posted on the Literature Network site, this one from July 2010.) 

One of the most exciting developments in creative writing is the growth in prose spoken word nights. There are events across the country, such as Short Fuse in Leicester and Brighton and nights organised by groups like Hello Hubmarine. My personal interest in spoken word was sparked by Jay Clifton and Sam Collins’ night Tight Lip, which inspired a boom in prose nights in Brighton. I’ve since read at a number of events. The first few times were terrifying, but I’ve come to enjoy reading in public.

Some writers don’t want to read aloud and I think they’re missing a great opportunity. Giving readings can build your confidence while honing and proving the work in question. I still get nervous whenever I read, but I now know I can overcome those nerves and give a good performance.

Here are some tips, both from my own experience and collected from other performers:

  1. The audience are on your side. They’ve given up time to watch and they want to enjoy themselves – you only need to help them do this.
  2. It’s easier to read funny pieces than serious ones. You can tell when people are enjoying a funny story because they laugh; an audience spellbound by a serious story is very quiet, which can be unsettling.
  3. Practise! You should read the piece again and again, until you feel bored with it. Make sure you can read it without stumbling and remove anything that sounds clumsy or is difficult to say – if the piece is easy to read aloud, it will also work well in print. If possible, read the story to a friend and get their feedback.
  4. Many nights ask for a bio to use for introductions. I could do an entire post on writing biographies. Keep it short – nobody needs a long list of plaudits and prizes, since they’re about to listen to you anyway. Make sure to mention any books or other appearances you are promoting. Most of the time, if I’m not promoting anything, I’ll try and work a story into the space available for the biography.
  5. Arrive early at the venue and ask to do a sound-check. It’s useful to stand on the stage and get comfortable with the environment where you’ll be performing. Check that you can be heard clearly and make sure you know how to adjust the microphone if you might need to.
  6. Nervousness is good – it’s a normal part of preparing to perform. The only time I’ve not been nervous my reading was less focussed. Welcome your nerves as your body gearing up to do a good job.
  7. Keep any introduction brief – trust the audience to work out what your piece is about. If there’s any risk of being misunderstood then revisit the writing and improve it. It’s not a bad idea to ask if people can hear when you start – it avoids people asking you to speak up during the reading.
  8. When performing, read the piece as slowly as you can bear (within reason!). Remember that the audience haven’t heard your story before and need a little time to digest each bit.
  9. Make frequent eye-contact with your audience – don’t spend the reading looking down at your text. This makes you seem more confident and engaging, as well as being easier to hear. Looking up is much easier if you know the piece well – see above.
  10. Some people find their hands shaking the first time they read. The best way to stop this is to read from something heavy. A thick folder will weigh your hands down, whereas a couple of sheets of A4 makes any movement obvious. You’ll still be nervous, of course, but only you will know.
  11. Don’t worry too much about audience reaction – responses can differ to the same piece. One story I’ve read a lot, A Bad Place to Stick Your Hand, has had reactions varying from faint amusement through to loud laughter.
  12. Make sure to thank the people who have organised the night. Running an event is very hard work and often unappreciated.

These tips are almost certainly not complete. There are some good guides to spoken word performance on the web, such as Tim Clare’s guide to performance poetry. Do you have any hints of your own? And, if you don’t want to read aloud, what is stopping you?

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