How to Give the Best Public Reading of Your Life

Back in graduate school, I loved going to the student readings. They were held monthly during the school year in the loft of a dive-y bar in Washington, D.C., where the acoustics were terrible, the lighting worse, and once there was allegedly a rat in the audience. Always a good time. But then in my final year, my husband and I decided to start a family. I would still attend the readings, but being pregnant meant that I enjoyed them with a club soda in hand rather than a few good beers. And to be honest, some of the readings were suddenly unbelievably boring. Without the buzz of alcohol helping me have a great time, I had to actually listen carefully to my friends read what should have been their best work in their best stage presence, but very often was mumbled, barely audible, boring scenes. Don’t get me wrong, some of the work stood out as captivating, but if you’re going to get up and read in front of an audience, it’s just plain good manners to show them a good time.

Here are five tips on how to give the best public reading of your life:

1. Practice Reading It Aloud

This should go without saying, but you can tell right away when people haven’t done this. They stumble over line breaks or difficult to pronounce words. They’re not familiar with the dialogue, or if they are, they use the same voice and pitch for all the characters. It’s a buzzkill. But when you see someone give a reading who’s rehearsed the work, especially when they’ve rehearsed it many, many times, you can tell you’re watching a performance. You can’t read your work multiple times in the same voice without realizing how flat it sounds, so when you practice, you instinctively will seek to liven the tone, and this alone will up your game.

2. Pick Something Funny or Intense

Ideally, if you are reading prose, you will pick either the funniest or most riveting scenes to read in the piece. Cut everything else out. This isn’t like library story time. There are no pictures, so people’s minds are bound to wander if the subject matter isn’t vibrant. It should not just be vibrant — it should be incredibly vibrant. It should be powerful. It should make people laugh out loud or audibly gasp. If you don’t have any writing that does either of those things, maybe keep working at it until you do. Additionally, people often read the beginning or the middle of a short story, but those can be the dullest bits! You can always summarize the story up front then start just before the climax and go all the way to the end. Everybody loves a good ending.

3. Florid Prose Does Not Make for Good Readings

If you write lyrical poetry and read it emotively — great, that will generally come across well. But with lyrical prose, what works or is even impressive on the page often doesn’t translate at all well when read aloud. It just keeps going and going and everyone is wondering, When is it going to get interesting? Audience members’ eyes glaze over, and they head to the bar for another drink. Seek out prose that’s quick and unexpected for a live reading.

4. Print It Out (But Secure Your Pages)

Don’t be the person who reads it on their phone. Too many things can go wrong, and it’s distracting to watch someone repeatedly unlock the screen when it goes dark or constantly zoom in when they can’t see the tiny print. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of readers scramble and stumble through mismatched pages or even lost pages, and that’s a drag too. Worse is when the reader is so nervous that the pages shake continuously throughout if there’s no podium to hide behind. The best option for me has always been to print out the pages in a large sans serif font and glue the cropped pages into a physical notebook or journal. This way, there’s no shakiness because it’s a book, and the stiffness of the glued pages lends itself to turning them easily. The large (even bold) font is great for poor lighting, and it just looks polished — like you cared enough to make it smooth for your audience. Sure, it requires a little effort and prep work, but you should at least put as much thought into how you present your work as you put into your outfit.

5. No, Really — Practice

I know you were probably rolling your eyes back at number one the way you used to tune out your parents when they told you to practice piano, so I’m stressing this again. Recently, I attended a reading with a long list of readers, and one of them had made the mistake of not securing her pages and the end was missing. But, she had obviously rehearsed her piece over and over again because, after a brief flustered panic, she finished the reading from memory and earned herself a standing ovation. Imagine how embarrassing it would have been to have had to just stop in the middle and sit down. People are going to remember that young woman’s reading and that should be your goal every time you get up on stage. Make it your best, make them laugh, and just be stunning.