Has your mind ever wandered while listening to a public reading?
As a kinesthetic and visual learner, I sympathize with how difficult it can be for some people to stay with a text being read out loud by another person, even if it is a story and not a lecture. Understanding this makes me prepare extra carefully for public readings.
Here is the checklist I use:
1) Before opening your mouth: Open your book or look at your text, and simply take a breath, even two. Feel that breath move your ribs. This not only lets you settle down and grounds you and your voice, it lets the reader settle too. It creates a fresh new ‘space’ in the room. If you are nervous (who isn’t before a reading?) this needs a LOT of practice before the event.
2) Where will you breathe as you read your text? Is any sentence too long to get out in one breath? If so, where can you take a breath without messing up the meaning or atmosphere or lyricism? Or would it be better to shorten the sentence? Do you have a series of very short sentences? Where is the best place to breathe so they still flow as a series?
3) Make sure you know how to pronounce all the words you are using. This seems obvious, but if you are a writer who enjoys vocabulary that is not often used in everyday conversations, unusual or elevated language can easily trip up the tongue. If the word sounds too odd or pretentious when said out loud (even if it looks oh so pretty on the page), or throws the reader’s understanding for a curve, replace it.
4) Where would a pause be effective? Pauses can add liveliness to the rhythm of the reading, and create little spaces for listeners to take in what’s been said (not too often and not too long though!).
5) Where does the emphasis need to go within a word, within a clause, within a sentence? Does the rhythm of the word pattern interfere with the emphasis? In that case, something has to be cut or reworked until emphasis and flow work smoothly together.
6) Check for variations in sentence structures. Sometimes one wants the same structure, perhaps, for example, for building tension. But other times a repeated sentence structure (e.g., subject-verb-object…) can send a listener to sleep.
7) Vary sentence endings. It is so easy to slip into the same reading rhythms, each sentence always ending on a downbeat or always on an uptick. I check that I’m not getting sucked into one particular rhythm. Careful with those endings that have to be low and quiet – will everyone hear?
8) Variations with phrasing: where should you push the flow, where slow it down, where break it?
9) Slow down (I know, we all know this one!). Remember, the audience does not have the text in front of them to read along. Listening to a story requires us to follow the reader’s rhythm so, even if we would like to, we can’t slow down to process information, descriptions, the language, or to allow the writing to resonate, and we can’t speed up and skim if the story seems to be moving too slowly. The reader has to anticipate a listener’s possible needs (while remaining true to the rhythm and demands of the story).
10) Experiment with ways of using your voice to create the story world and the atmosphere, to bring out the tension, humor, lyricism, surprise. A dancer can go through the motions of a choreography and it will mean nothing. Only when they invest the movements with particular energies (an arm floating down suggests something very different from an arm slashing down) does the dance come fully alive. Try reading your story in a flat voice, then in an expressive voice, and you’ll see the difference – reading expressively will help you get right into your story and bring it alive for others to enjoy.
11) To dramatize or not dramatize? Ah, there’s a question. If you are reading expressively, there is always some dramatization but just how dramatic do you want to be? This is a personal decision. What is important is to be yourself… or maybe a little more yourself!
Reading aloud – not just saying the words, but saying them meaningfully – is a wonderful way to edit and tighten up a piece. The parts that drag become obvious, as do imbalances in description and action, and the places that need clarification. I often find better ways to organize sections after reading out loud.
Some people record their voices when preparing. I don’t do that but I do listen to my voice very carefully as I read, and I mark up my page with all sorts of ticks, dashes, underlinings, and squiggles to remind me to speed up, slow down, emphasize a word or a syllable, raise or lower my voice.
The first time I read one of my own stories my face glowed red as the hot plate on my cooker, my voice trembled and my heart rate reached record speeds – and this was to a supportive and sympathetic group of only three! Preparing my text by reading it aloud time and time again, has not only improved my stories but has helped me forget about my own nervousness, and focus on getting right into my story to bring it alive for others as best I can.
How do you prepare for readings? Any helpful strategies to share?
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This is good. If people read badly it distracts me so much that their content is often lost on me. I guess it’s partly about making the job of the listener easier.
You’re absolutely right about the need to make listening easier for our audience. The great thing is that concentrating on making the reading an enjoyable experience for our listeners, helps us forget about our own nerves!