Imagine you’ve been invited to read your writing out loud for an audience. Maybe it’s for an open mic night at a local café or indie bookstore. Or, maybe it’s an awards banquet or literary conference event where the recognized writers can bring flash fiction, poetry, or an essay. Regardless, you think, “Sure, why not?” and add your name to the list of performers.
Then it hits you: I’ll be reading my work. Out loud. On a stage, in front of other people. What in the world was I thinking??
Yes, it’s daunting to sign up for your first live reading. But there are steps you can take before and during the event that can boost your confidence, calm your nerves, and—believe it or not—help you enjoy your performance. The list below is non-exhaustive, but these five tips are the ones that have proven most invaluable in my experience as an open mic poet.
1) Decide what to read, and practice it a few times
As the date for the reading comes closer, it’s a good idea to choose the piece(s) you’ll perform and become comfortable with reading them. You don’t need to memorize every word. Instead, print out a typed copy of each piece (or save a file containing all of the pieces on your smartphone) and rehearse it out loud once a day for two or three days prior to the event. As you read, pay attention to the overall tone of the piece so you can convey its emotions, and to points that require a pause or change in pitch. If it helps, underline words or mark up the piece so you can remember these inflections, and use a timer to check whether the reading fits the allocated time slot.
Also, make sure you know the maximum length of time your reading should be and if there are any restrictions (e.g., pre-established themes, no foul language or mature content if the event is kid-friendly). The event organizer will have these details, so don’t hesitate to reach out to them with questions.
2) Dress for success
What you wear for a reading might not seem like a big deal at first. But it can make a huge difference in your confidence onstage—and, of course, with the first impression you give the audience. The key here is to dress in a way that fits the ambiance and shows that you take yourself seriously as a writer and performer. If the venue is informal (most open mic nights and bookstore/café readings are), feel free to wear a good pair of jeans, a “business casual” top, and seasonal yet comfortable shoes. For a more formal setting, you might opt for your best shirt and slacks or a dress.
That being said, your outfit should also reflect your personality. Some poets, especially poetry slammers, view their clothing as part of their act. So if you want to wear bold colors and patterns, attire that’s representative of your culture, or your favorite hat, then go for it! And by feeling at home in your chosen threads, you’ll also feel less intimidated about your reading.
3) Maintain a slow, steady pace
It’s understandable if you’re so nervous about your reading that you want to rush through it. But the faster you read, the more likely your audience will have difficulty following what you say. So once you’re onstage, make every effort to pace yourself. Focus on one sentence or line at a time, and read each one slowly, carefully, and with just enough projection so you can hear each word through the speaker system. This will ensure your voice is loud and clear enough for your audience to understand you and to enjoy not just your performance, but also the quality of your writing.
4) Don’t judge yourself and your performance too harshly
Here’s a secret I’ve learned about open mic nights and public readings: Nobody will think poorly of you if your performance isn’t perfect. It’s human to feel embarrassed if you stutter, mispronounce a word, or briefly lose your place. But it’s also human to make mistakes, period. Ask a group of writers if they’ve flubbed up during a reading, and all of them will likely say “yes” (I know I have!). So if you stumble during yours, don’t dwell on it. Just smile, have a good chuckle, and keep reading. The audience will always clap for you at the end, and maybe even compliment you on your work later on.
5) Commend yourself for your courage
One of the most frequent comments I’ve received about my open mic performances is, “You’re so brave!” And it’s true—it takes a LOT of guts to go onstage and read your writing. But as I said in Tip #4, no one in the audience will criticize you for going up there. Chances are they’re there to enjoy the evening, support other performers, or maybe even read their own work. So, turn your focus to your growth as a writer. Think of this event as an opportunity to try something new (and a teeny bit scary) and connect with other creative people. Once your reading is over, congratulate yourself on a job well done—because, hey, you deserve it!
Have you ever read your work out loud to an audience? How was the experience? Would you do it again? What other suggestions would you add?
Sara Letourneau is a speculative fiction writer and poet in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks copious amounts of tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is currently brainstorming / world-building two very different story stories. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry is forthcoming in Canary; and has previously appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.