The Practice of Creativity

Tips for Writing at Mid-Year–Hone Your Performance Skills

Posted on: July 28, 2014

Tip 5:  Hone Your Performance Skills

A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to practice being a ‘public writer’, especially getting comfortable reading one’s work. I got comments both on the blog and by email about how challenging it is for some of us to read our work and claim our writing identities. I wanted to return to this subject and I first went to my bookshelf to see what insights other writers have shared. I have many many writing books and to my surprise most of them are completely silent on how to cultivate our performance skills as a writer. This is so striking given that writers labor to bring our work before an audience. Dare I say, many of us dream of that time when we will stand in front of an audience reading from our published work. How interesting then it is that we have gaps in preparing for that dreamed of day. Most writing guides will say ‘practice’, but often leaves out the ‘how’.

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So here are some things that may be useful in honing one’s skills for readings, specifically at open mics:

1) Practice what you will read. OK, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Practice for the rhythm of the words. Feel free to eliminate some words, if that makes for a smoother reading. Practice at least ten times. And, usually when people are nervous, they read faster. Try to get a sense of what reading faster will look like for your piece.

2) When you get up to the mike, pause and smile. It relaxes you and the audience. Remember, they are on your side. Don’t get freaked out if you have to adjust the mike, take a moment to get it right.

3) Don’t use up your time by going into a long detailed account of yourself and your work. I’ve seen many writers use a third of their time going into a lengthy biography. We can’t possibly grasp the complexity of you or your work in 5-8 minutes. Think seduction and foreplay. Less is more. Make them want more. Keep it short and they will. They will come up later and ask you plenty of questions.

When I read, I’ll usually say something like: “I’m Michele Tracy Berger [say your name even if the announcer has said it. People are often talking or drinking in between one writer leaving the stage and another coming to it ], I’m a fiction writer and I’m working on a collection of speculative fiction short stories. I’m reading from an excerpt from the story….” Let people know if you are reading from the beginning, middle or end.

4) Dress nicely—whatever that means to you. Remember, you are cultivating yourself as someone who wants to paid for their writing. A professional. You never know when a potential editor, agent or buyer is in the audience.

5) Nerves are fine, but if you are super anxious, think about drinking some calming tea beforehand or investigating some homeopathic remedies that deal with anxiety (e.g. Bach Flower Rescue Remedy).

6) Choose a piece that you can be a clear channel for when you read it to the audience. You need some emotional distance from a piece in order to convey the power of it. Ironic, I know.

7) Print out your piece in a large font, so it is easy to read. Decide whether you want to staple it or slide the pages across the podium (if there is one). Practice your technique. I’ve seen people who get their pages out of order, fumble and/or drop their papers.

8) Bring some cough drops (e.g. Fisherman’s Friend or Hall’s or Ricola). [this tip I learned from Marjorie Hudson]

9) Have a bottle of water with you. Nervousness closes up the throat.

10) Know the piece well enough so that you can look up and engage the audience periodically. You may want to have 1-2 lines memorized.

11) Be aware of your posture. Stand up straight.

12) Time your piece and find the most appropriate place to end. Try not to get caught by the buzzer, bell or emcee. End at a juicy and interesting place. I actually like to go 30 seconds under time.

13) Smile when you finish and remember to say ‘Thank you’. Someone just witnessed your work and tried to be present for it. Also, thank the organizers of the event (or, you can also do this when you introduce yourself). Hold the space as people are applauding (even if the applause is just polite).

14) Don’t hustle out of there after you read—that’s bad open mic etiquette. Stick around and be that supportive presence for other writers.

Got tips on this topic? Please share.

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3 Responses to "Tips for Writing at Mid-Year–Hone Your Performance Skills"

Great tips — I’ll have to try the Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, not just for readings but any sort of public speaking. Thanks!

Hi Camille,
Thanks for stopping by. I swear by the Bach Flower Rescue Remedy. I use it for flying and public speaking.

These tips are wonderful! I am going to save them for future use. I would definitely have to invest in Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, because I would be a bundle of nerves. And I love the tip about the cough drops. Thanks for sharing, Michele!

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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