When you’re honest enough to admit to being nervous before a reading, you’re often told by well-meaning people to “Just picture the audience naked.”
OK, so has this really worked for anyone? I mean, come on. The last thing I need standing on stage in front of a bunch of strangers is to start imagining their, well… shortcomings. Maybe this method works for politicians – they set out to screw us all anyway, and the naked part works with that, right? But writers have imaginations that swirl and flit all over the place, and we hardly need to be told to imagine things, especially not when we’re trying to appear focused and sane.
So, here’s my advice to those of you out there who fear public speaking or don’t think you’re any good at it (and that’s almost everyone, right?). I still get nervous, even doing all these things, but at least I don’t vomit anymore when I have to get up in front of a crowd and read or speak.
1) Practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more. Out loud, in front of people, over and over again, until you could just about recite the piece from memory.
2) Before you start your reading, look up at the audience and smile. You have no idea how many people don’t do this, and then wonder why they couldn’t connect with the audience.
3) Breathe, slowly and deeply, for just a pause before you start. I have a tendency to take short quick breaths when I’m nervous – I think most people do – and if I don’t slow it down I’m in danger of hyperventilating.
4) Say something, anything, to break the ice. To humanize yourself. But don’t admit to being nervous. If you do, the audience will sympathize, yes, but they’ll also then be aware of your fear the whole reading, and you don’t really want sympathy, do you? You want an audience who gets lost in your work.
5) Slow down. No matter how slowly you think you’re reading, you’re probably going too fast. And try to look up occasionally during the reading instead of keeping your head down and eyes glued to the paper. This will help you connect with the audience and will also help to slow you down.
6) Do not, I repeat, do not, go on too long. KISS – keep it short, stupid. Personally I think anything longer than 10 – 15 minutes is too long, but that might just be because that’s the maximum amount of time I can sit still. At any rate, always leave them wanting more.
7) If there’s a funny part in your book or story, read that. People love humor. But make sure it really is funny. Nothing’s more painful than a joke that goes flat.
8) And don’t read anything that takes a whole lot of set-up. Just find some place in your work that stands alone. I don’t want a synopsis of your novel; I just want to be enchanted by a (short) reading.
9) If all else fails, use medication. Half an hour to 45 minutes before you’re scheduled to go on. Nothing too strong: xanax works best, leaves you less spacey than clonapin or valium (not that I would know).
The more you do it, the easier it gets, I swear. Oh yeah, and one more thing: if you do insist on picturing the audience naked during your reading, at least try not to giggle. Unexplained giggling during a reading is just weird.