Reading Your Work So It Shines

If you received an invitation tomorrow to read your work in public, what would your first reaction be?  Pumped?  Terrified?  If you chose the latter, you aren’t alone.  “Surveys about our fears commonly show fear of public speaking at the top of the list,” said Glenn Croston, Ph.d. in a November 2012 article in Psychology Today.*


You probably already have a sense of what not to do. You may have attended author readings that weren’t effective.  Maybe the reader wasn’t prepared and fumbled with their notes for what felt like five minutes before starting, or never once looked up at the audience.  Possibly they mumbled or read their work so fast your brain had difficulty keeping up with the storyline.  Or they read in a voice as flat as a glass of day old pop, without a hint of inflection or emotion?

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Reading well in public is a skill that can be mastered.  You’ve put a great deal of effort into your writing.  You’ve polished your work until it glows.  Once you begin to publicize your reading event, you’ll attract people who already know your work and want to hear it read in your voice.  You’ll also be reaching out to people who don’t know your work.  Give them all the best performance possible.  With a bit of planning and practice you can deliver a reading of your work that shines. Here are some suggestions to guide you along the way.


Attend open mic events for writers in your area.  At the end of the evening, make notes about the great things you observed the readers doing, and those things that weren’t effective.  Sign up to read at future open mic events.  You will learn by doing.

To improve your confidence and skill in speaking in front of a group you may wish to join a public speaking club such as Toastmasters International.  This worldwide organization helps individuals learn the skills of public speaking in a congenial and supportive atmosphere.  Click here to find a club in your community.  Local school boards and colleges also offer public speaking courses through their continuing education divisions.

Gather a group of your writing friends and practice reading your work to one another.  Agree as a group to provide clear, specific, constructive feedback.


It’s quite natural to feel nervous before speaking in front of a groupin fact your nerves can give you added energy.  You just need to calm your butterflies.

Breathing – by calming and controlling your breath, you can calm your nerves.  You can use this technique whenever you feel anxious just thinking about being in front of a group, or before you go up to read your work.

  •  sit up straight in a firm chair
  • take in a slow breath to a mental count of 1 – 2 – 3
  • hold the breath for a count of 1 – 2 – 3
  • slowly breathe out to a count of 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6

Physical presence.  Inhabit your body. Be present.  Practice standing with your shoulders back and down (not up around your ears). Plant your feet firmly and imagine that you are connected with the earth.


Clearly mark up your text highlighting the passages or poems you plan to read.  Also add symbols to remind yourself of the places where you need to pause and breathe.

Consider borrowing some books on public speaking from your local library if you’d like some elaboration on the techniques listed below.

Projection – chances are you’ll be speaking with the aid of a microphone.  But if the equipment fails, or you don’t have a mic, you will need to project your voice.  Make eye contact with the person farthest away from the stage, and speak so that your voice reaches them (without screaming).  If you want to learn to do this safely, singing exercises can help.  Based in Toronto, Elaine Overholt is one of North America’s most respected vocal coaches.  Her Big Voice CDs provide lessons to help you build vocal strength, in the privacy and comfort of your own living room. Click here to be taken to Elaine’s website.

Articulation – pronounce your words clearly.  Overdoing this will make you sound mechanical, so just speak clearly and naturally.

Intonation – this refers to the variation of tone you use when you speak. It is particularly useful for conveying emotion. Your speaking voice naturally rises and falls, so remember to do this when you are reading.

Word Stress – put added emphasis on key words.

Pacevary the pace of your reading.  Some sentences (or stanzas) lend themselves to being read slowly for emphasis, while others need to be read quickly.

Practice, Practice, Practice if you practice regularly before your event, you’ll feel more confident and your reading will look effortless.  You may wish to create audio recordings of yourself reading your work.  There are many free audio recording apps available for your phone or tablet.


Get to the venue early, before the audience members arrive.  Introduce yourself to the organizers and determine if there have been any changes to the schedule.  It’s good to know what to expect.

Ask to test the microphone during the sound check.  You’ll be able to see where the audience will be sitting and this will give you a “feel” for the room.

Choose a place to sit near the stage so that when your name is called, you won’t have to squeeze past rows of chairs. Make sure you bring a bottle of water so that you’re well-hydrated.  If you drop your notes or spill your water, calmly remedy the situation and carry on.

Do slow breathing exercises before you read.  You can do this while you are seated.  Walk to the stage the way a confident person would walk (even if you don’t feel confident inside).  Remember, audience members won’t realize that you’re nervous.

Smile at the audience.  If you plan to talk about your work, now’s the time to do it.  If you are just going to read, relax your shoulders and start.

After you have finished, wait until the applause has died down, thank the audience, then slowly walk away from the stage.

You did your homework, planned your reading, practiced a lot, and remembered to breathe, pause and smile.  The audience loved you and your work!  You both shone. And you can’t wait to get invited to your next reading.

Until next time,

Janis McCallen


*Glenn Croston’s article is entitled “The Thing We Fear More Than Death”.

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