Thursday, April 23, 2009

Performing a Poem - Or How To Be a Better Public Speaker

I've been promising to share this info I learned on how to give a better reading, and today I found my blue notebook and here are my notes.

On Saturday at the Field's End Writers Conference, I took a class with Elizabeth Austen on public speaking and how to give a better reading and learned a few things I thought would be helpful to any of you when you give a reading.

I'm not normally nervous when I give a poetry reading, however, I almost passed out Friday night having to read the children's book CHESTER to kids and their parents at the bookfair at my daughter's school. I was completely self-conscious and children are such wild cards, who knew if one would yell out "vagina!" or "you have strange ears" during my reading. The thought of what I looked like and what I sounded like in front of teachers, children, and adults made me ridiculously nervous, more than any poetry reading I'd ever given.

So what was the best advice Elizabeth gave to us in her class--

To always remember this--
The performance requires me, but is not about me.

This is the best advice about any public speaking gig I've heard. Had I considered this little fact before reading Chester, there wouldn't have been as much fear because the part of the reading, "will I embarrass myself" wouldn't have been there as the focus would be on the book, the story, the words...not me personally.

Other good tips from Elizabeth--

Start with poems that are accessible and maybe with a little humor and move to poems that are more complex and denser.

Feel free to alter what you read based on the audience. If they seem ready and anxious to laugh, read another humorous poem.

Meet the generosity of the audience with generosity-- meaning, if they are being a great audience, take a risk for them.

Rehearse, but when it's time to read, show up and be with the audience, be present.

Remember, the audience came hoping to be taken somewhere with you, think about what you want them to take away from your reading. Remember, that they will also leave with the last poem you read, so consider what that poem will be.

If you are reading a denser poem, consider what the audience might need to help them through that poem and offer a brief intro (but don't explain the whole poem). As Elizabeth said, you can say, "There are three French cities in this poem you might notice, instead of saying 'The middle section is italicized because that's the voice of God.'"

Before the reading--
whisper the poem to yourself.
beat out the rhythm of the poem
go through the poem to see what's being compared to what and make sure to enunciate that.
Make notes on your poem to remind you what to do - pause here. Soft chest. - or underline words you want to stress.

And again if the nerves come, remember you are the vehicle for your poem, it's not about you, but the words, the poem itself. So we can move our own egos to the side and let the poem shine through us.

The performance requires us, but isn't about us.

Hope that helps for your next reading!


  1. Thanks, Kelli...I am a beginner reader and this advice got me excited about the reading as opposed to all-nerved-up...long may that last! : )

  2. Liz,

    I'm glad I was able to help. Elizabeth just offered some great advice.



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