Olá, Fellow Orators!
Although most of my previous jobs have been pretty craptacular, I'm thankful that at least one of them forced me to get over my paralyzing phobia of public speaking.
It was during my University tenure when I first discovered my crippling fear of group presentations, as detailed here and here. Although I managed to avoid the cold, communal eyes of my fellow classmates for most of my education, I couldn't avoid it in the workplace. When I became a manager at Sears I was forced to do training for the staff. Eventually I got over the thought of being silently appraised by my peers and, in turn, I soon discovered the power and reward inherent in becoming an effective orator.
So, when I began my monthly readings as part of the Left Bank Poetry / Open Heart Forgery group I already had somewhat of a leg up. Having conquered my reptile-brained fear of public speaking I could now read in front of a group of strangers with relative ease. Although it's a daunting prospect for most people, the rewards are considerable. Honestly, there's nothing sweeter then applause, even if it comes from a charitable crowd who are already somewhat predisposed to what you're doing.
Ever since I was told that people have to hear about your book seven times before they consider buying it, public readings are indispensable to me. Personally I try to do at least one a month but in all honesty, I'm such a ham that I'd probably do one every day if I could.
Although I personally don't do a lot of prep work before a reading, I certainly don't expect you to follow that particular lead. In fact, if you want a few pointers from someone who's actually done this a coupla times, you're more then welcome to these tidbits:
- What strikes fear into the heart of Fear? Two words: preparation and knowledge. Quite often the training material that I was given at Sears was so poorly written and organized that it would have been a slow motion train wreck if I'd been stupid enough to present it as is. Without altering any of the actual content, I always tore it apart and re-arranged it so that it was easier to present, conducive to memorization and didn't bore the bejesus out of my audience.
- Talking to yourself isn't as nutty as it sounds. Do some out-loud practice reads before the big show. This'll help you uncover any potential verbal snares and it may even inspire you to do another round of editing. And trust me, for most of us, that's not such a bad thing.
- Spalding Gray you ain't. Time yourself while doing your practice runs. DO NOT, for the love of everything holy, read the lion's share of your latest unpublished novella out loud. DO NOT overstay your welcome. Try and limit your time to around five minutes or so. Remember what the frozen head of Walt Disney says: "Always leave 'em wanting more". That or, "Can a brotha get some robotic legs all up in this bee-yotch?"
- Don't go to a coffee kegger before your reading. Even if you're tired and logy, try to avoid the temptation to guzzle a gallon of liquid motivation. Trust me: once you get up there sheer adrenaline's gonna kick in and carry you through. You're gonna be nervous enough without the completely useless ability to vibrate your physical body into another plane of existence.
- Make 'em laugh! Humor is an indispensible tool for snagging the audience's attention and holding onto it for dear life. Having said that, make sure that what you intend to read is actually funny. P.S. your best judge of this is probably not your mom.
- Be Great-(ful). When you get up there, thank your host for the opportunity to speak and then thank the gathered for agreeing to listen to your lame ass blather on and on about some pointless crap. Also remember: confidence.
- PROJECT, DAMN YOU, PROJECT!!! Unless you're working with a sound system that would make Iron Maiden proud, you're gonna hafta do it the old fashioned way. See that sad, squinty, spectator in the back of the room with their hand cupped to their ear and the look of frustration etched onto their face? If you can get that person to hear you then everyone else should be gravy. As a corollary try not to yell so loud that the audience pees a little.
- E-NUN-CI-ATE!!! E-NUN-CI-ATE!!! Lack of volume is bad but mumbling is even worse 'cuz then even the poor shlubs sitting next to you can't hear anything! Although it's wise to make each word sound distinct, try not to over-emphasize every single syllable. You want to sound clear and concise, not like your at the reading only because the facility you're staying at let you out on furlough.
- Take a seat or just retreat. If you find yourself on the verge of fainting then sit down or drape yourself over the parapet-like defensive wall of a podium. Although shaking like a cat dipped in icewater will probably engender considerable sympathy from the audience it also inspires feelings of pity and pity is the last thing your want. Typically, people have a really hard time multitasking pity with anything else. This includes listening to someone who's speech is clearly equivalent to the act of public self-flagellation.
- Don't be a READ-BOT 2000. Go out of your way to vary your pitch, tone and volume. When you do dialogue, try to speak like your characters would speak. Speed up the pace during action scenes and slow down for quiet moments. Blurt out a sound effect. Use your voice to establish a mood. If you sound bored by what you're reading, then what are your listeners to think?
- Where's the fire, sonny? You win at public speaking by successfully conveying your message while entertaining the audience, not by blasting your presentation out like a radio ad, stumbling back to your seat and then passing out from asphyxiation.
- Find your oasis of tranquility. Periodic eye contact with a friendly face in the crowd make it feel as if you're talking to a single person. This can really put you at ease. I'd also recommend that hoary old chestnut of picturing everyone in the audience nekkid but you're probably doing that already, ya pervs.
- Be an extrovert, even if only for a few glorious moments. Assuming that you're not tethered to a mike or frozen in place like a rabbit in the middle of the TCH, you really should consider moving around a little bit. Break away from your podium-perch and wade out amongst the people like a literary Ellen Degeneres. Use gestures to illustrate the actions that you're reading about. If you're feeling particularly frisky, why not lick one of the audience members at random? Y'know, just to make sure they're paying attention
- Remember: pain is temporary Although it may seem like you're up there forever, I promise you it will end. And when it does you'll fee invincible. So why not have some fun while you're up there?
One of the greatest things about going to these readings is watching people improve as public speakers. It's great to see folks who were once barely audible or shook like they were afflicted by some terrible, anxiety-fueled palsy, blossom into confident, relaxed and highly-effective speakers. It's all very empowering.
Honestly, if you consider yourself to be a writer or have ambitions about being one, you really need to learn how to do this. It isn't just a handy skill, it's downright mandatory.
So, my last piece of advice: just go ahead and push yourself out of that open airplane door and start getting better at it tout suite.
EPIC SPEECH For actors, the power of public address is indispensable. Here's an oldie but a goodie: Charlie Chaplin's closing monologue from The Great Dictator.
IRRATIONAL FAILURE There's probably some deep psychological underpinnigs as to why I was completely terrified of group presentations as a kid I also loved my pet tarantula. Here's a list of the Top Ten Common Phobias.