Doubtless most of you are experienced readers, but it never hurts to brush up on your public speaking skills, and with that in mind here is a quick refresher course on:
There are few things that can destroy a good story faster than a bad reading. At the same time, a really good reading can make an audience excited and drive sales. Short of a background in theatre, how can authors improve their reading skills?
The biggest single way to make your performance the best it can be is to practise. That may sound blindingly obvious yet it is something readers often forget to do, and end up tripping over their own tongue when reading to an audience. Yes you wrote the words, but you can still get them wrong. If you want that audience to see you and your words in their best light, the better acquainted you are with your prose the less likely you are to stumble your way through them.
Exercise: Practise often and practice aloud! Don’t just read it through once to yourself. Read it to your family, to your best friend, to your dog, your budgie, your stuffed toys, to the brick wall next to your computer… it does not matter where or to whom (or what) so long as you have read it aloud, often, and with passion.
How do you get that passion into your reading? Well the three major pitfalls that most readers fall into are:
Many readers simply are not loud enough. You can’t rely on every venue having a microphone or good acoustics and the trap that people fall into is talking to the person in the front row because that is the face they see.
Exercise: Step outside with a friend and say, “Hello! How are you?”. Now ask them to walk to the opposite side of the yard or street and say, “Hello! How are you?” Your voice will automatically adjust to carry across the distance.
The same is true when reading. Speak to the back wall, not to the front row. If you are loud enough, you should hear a slight bounce as your voice hits the back wall and returns to you.
Is there a microphone available? Then use it. Readers often insist they don’t need one because ‘they will be heard’. All too often the acoustics in a room will defeat them and they will not be aware of the fact until it is too late.
Exercise: If there is a sound system – and if you have a chance – practise beforehand.
- Listen to how it sounds to you.
- Make sure you are close enough to the microphone for it to pick you up properly (this is often closer than you think – a hand’s width or so)
- You may need to speak across the microphone rather than directly into it to avoid popping. Listen to what’s coming out of the speakers and adjust the angle and distance of the microphone until it sounds right.
- Don’t turn your head away from the microphone, because the volume will fade.
A microphone is a tool that even the most expert readers will benefit from nine times in ten.
Many readers read far too quickly so that their words become jumbled.
You know what is coming next so you can afford to race through it to the best bits – but this is the first hearing for the listener, and they cannot ask you to stop and repeat the pieces you have skipped over. You need to speak slowly so that they can both keep up with you and – more importantly – understand the story you are telling.
Think of your reading as a jigsaw puzzle. You know what the picture is because you have seen the box, but every missed word in your story is an oddly shaped gap in the picture.
An ideal speed is about 150 words per minute.
Exercise: Take a section that is 150 words long and time yourself. Keep at it until you have the minute – but do remember that when you get into performance, you will speed up whether you want to or not – it is all down to adrenaline – so keep it slow and remember to breathe!
Exercise: Some of you may have seen the film The King’s Speech, where the King’s script was peppered with back slashes to represent pauses. This is a great tip for any form of public speaking. Read your piece aloud. Now go through your paper copy adding physical reminders of where to pause, and then read it aloud once more. You may be surprised at how much it can help.
Droning – or speaking in a monotone – sends a signal to the listener that this is a sound without information. Speak without inflection and the audience will, despite their best intentions, lose focus on what you are saying.
When you are reading a story aloud, you are a storyteller. The way you tell a story to friends about an incident in your daily life is very different from how you read for an audience… or is it? It shouldn’t be. Use the same animation and pace that you would use relating a story to a friend as when reading your written one aloud. The ‘back slashes in the script’ mentioned above can also help with this one!
Exercise: Read a sentence or two as if you are; paying at the supermarket checkout; talking to a work colleague; passing juicy gossip to a friend.
Now we move on to character
Not everyone can ‘do accents’ but the human voice is still very flexible and there are ways you can make different characters in your story come alive without being a gifted mimic.
Your basic tools are Pitch, Pace, Accent and Attitude.
Pitch is fairly self-explanatory, but whilst it can add colour a character, it isn’t a good idea to speak outside of your vocal range.
Exercise: To check your range, hum from your highest to your lowest note. You will mostly use the middle when speaking.
Pace — This covers everything from how quickly a character speaks to the types of rhythms they use. Is their voice quick? Or fluid? Or staccato? Are they slow and halting, or do they drawl? Reminder: Generally speaking, always go far slower than you think you should.
Exercise: Recite a limerick at varying speeds and see how the inflection changes.
Attitude — You can tell on the phone if someone is smiling. Technically, conveying attitude is a combination of all the things mentioned, but in reality this comes down to attitude. If you know your character well enough (which comes from practice), you will know how they speak.
Exercise: Read your dialogue with the right expression on your face. e.g. smile, frown, be puzzled etc. Now read it again with the wrong expression and see how different they sound. Take the phrase, “What did you say?” and say it as if you are angry. Now, curious. Disbelieving? Now as a parent to a child who has just talked back to you. That is attitude. Attitude is your friend.
Accent — Chances are, this won’t be something you need to deal with. If you do have a character who has an accent, make sure you can do it convincingly. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone butcher an accent, it will destroy the credibility of your story faster than you can say “Run fer the hills.” If you’re going to do it, do it right but if you really are not good at accents – then DON’T.
Narrating, contrary to what you may think, is one of the hardest parts. The narrator is a character in your story and is the one that needs to connect to the listener. Its voice needs to be distinctive enough that when you say a line of dialogue and then return to the narrator, the audience recognises that voice. Yet at the same time, it should not distract from the story by being so distinctive that it overshadows the words.
The initial instinct is to use your own voice, which is a good instinct, but think how your voice changes depending on who you are talking to.
Exercise: Read a paragraph on narrative as if talking to: your mother, your boss, your lover, or answering the phone.
Finally – the key thing to remember is that you are returning to a long tradition of oral storytelling. Don’t reduce your story to words on a page. Talk to your audience… and tell them your story!