Whether it’s in an auditorium in front of hundreds of people or in your living room with a couple of close friends, reading your work in public can be nerve-wracking. In fact, even writers who have been speaking in public for years still get nervous when they have to read their own work aloud. I myself have long battled with stage fright and have had to work hard to get myself to a point where I’m OK with reading and speaking in public. (Forget being “comfortable” in front of an audience, my only goal is to survive.)
What I’ve observed both in myself and watching other writers read their work is that it all comes down to mastery. If you go into a performance or reading without much preparation, your reflexes and instincts will take over. But if you’ve mastered the piece you’re performing–if you know exactly what you need to do and how you’re going to do it–you can keep those reflexes in check. You can even start having a little fun.
For example suppose you’re someone who naturally speaks quickly, if you don’t practice mastery before a performance you’ll end up reading too fast because that’s what your body naturally wants to do. And if your reflexes take control, then you can’t have fun because you’ll sprinting just to keep up.
Mastery doesn’t mean being obsessively in control of every last detail in a performance, after all a little spontaneity can be a good thing. Instead, mastery is about taking control over those reflexive habits that your body leans on when you’re anxious. Here are 3 steps to gaining mastery for speaking or reading in public.
Step 1: Practice Vocal Technique
There are 4 different aspects of voice that you need to be aware of. These are: Rhythm, Pitch, Volume and Timbre.
• Rhythm is all about how you vary the pace of your speech.
• Pitch has to do with how high or low your voice goes.
• Volume means loud vs. soft.
• Timbre is hard to define, but the best way I can explain it is that it’s the texture of your voice.
When you read in public, you want to have command of these different variables and be able to alter them to suit your purposes (as opposed to letting them dominate you.) How do you gain this mastery? Practice.
Exercise: Take one sentence of medium length from the piece you plan to read in public and practice varying the Rhythm. Now, read the sentence through as fast as you can say the words. Practice that a few times, until you feel comfortable. Next, read the sentence as slowly as possible. Practice that version as well.
Now, you need to practice varying between fast and slow. See the diagram below for a visual of the different ways you can do this. Start the sentence reading slooooowly and end reading as fast as you can (Blue line in the diagram). You can also start fast and end slow (Turquoise line). Once you’ve mastered those two variations, try starting fast, getting slow, then speeding up again (Orange line), or going slow-fast-slow (Burgundy line).
Once you feel comfortable varying the rhythm of your reading, try the same exercise with Pitch and Volume. Don’t worry about practicing Timbre; once you’ve practiced the other three it will come naturally.
Step 2: Consider Voice
You can use a conversational or informal voice or you can choose a formal, presentational voice. Or you can do something in between. Think about where you want to be on that spectrum. Are you going for chatty and relaxed or something more formal and authoritative? There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but make sure that whichever way you choose to go, you do it intentionally and not by accident or reflex.
Remember also that there’s more than one voice you need to think about: the voice of your narrator and the voice of the characters speaking in the passage that you read. Unless you choose a piece that is all narration, you’ll need to consider how much “acting” you want to do in terms of making the character voices come to life.
Think also about Cadence when you read. Cadence is where the voice drops or stops (like at the end of a sentence). The trouble with cadence is that most people usually let their voices drop more often than is necessary. For instance, you don’t always need to stop at the end of every sentence. Sometimes it makes sense to keep your voice buoyant through an entire thought, even if it spans several sentences.
Step 3: Focus on Presence
Be present. Be in the moment. That is what “presence” is about.
Presence is not about looking flashy or having some magical ability to capture an audience. People who have “Presence” are right there, in the moment and the audience is right there with them. When you’re present, you pull the audience in because you help them be present as well. This makes the reading experience more intimate because the audience feels closer to you. When you are present, you aren’t just telling the story… you are in it. And you draw the audience into the story with you.
And remember, you’ll want to practice reading in front of an audience, even if it’s just your friends or family in small groups to start.