How to Give a Great Poetry Reading
When it came to the launch of Restless Minds, I jumped at the chance to compere. I’d presented student radio for four years and loved being in front of a crowd. I was made for that role.
But then they asked me what I was going to read.
And I said nothing.
You see, there was a catch to my love of public speaking.
I loved reading everything except my own work.
The very thought of reading my own writing in front of a crowd terrified me.
But my teachers and classmates wore me down. I ended up reading my poem and an extract of my short story from Restless Minds.
And I loved it.
Over time, I grew in confidence. I started seeking out places to perform my poetry because I loved it so much.
And, while I haven’t performed in a while, once you have those skills, they’re with you for life.
Public speaking for poets
Poetry readings differ from other kinds of public speaking events for many reasons.
Firstly, they’re more of a musical performance than a fiction or nonfiction reading.
Secondly, you need to embody the character of your poem. In fiction, you can get away (a little) with reading in a fairly normal voice. But if you don’t put passion and pizazz into your poetry, you’ll lose your audience, and fast.
Many poems are written to be read aloud.
So, as a poet, you need to embrace this.
Even if you hate being on stage more than anything else, you can learn to love reading your poetry aloud.
And the more you read your work in front of people, the easier it gets.
Look good, feel good
Like it or not, your appearance is a reflection of how you feel about yourself.
If you don’t look after yourself physically, there’s a good chance that you don’t think very highly of yourself. That’s why many people with severe depression struggle with basic self-care tasks such as showering or brushing their teeth.
Looking after yourself physically also helps you to feel better mentally. When you look good, you really do feel good (or at least better than you did).
In order to look good, you should style yourself in a way that reflects your personality. Don’t wear something because someone else told you that it suits you if it doesn’t feel right.
You could also come up with a power outfit (more on that next week) to make you feel super awesome about yourself.
Do you. It’s what will help you to stand out.Do you. It’s what will help you to stand out. Click To Tweet
If you get stage freight, planning is crucial.
Know exactly what you want to say before and after each poem.
Don’t be afraid to have notes with you.
I usually type some notes onto my iPad and have that with me. To make things easier, I have everything that I want to read—even my poems—in the same document.
I don’t fully script anything because, when the adrenaline is going and you’re trying to entertain an audience, large paragraphs of text quickly turn into hieroglyphs.
Having notes rather than scripting everything in full helps to give your reading a more natural feel.
On the off-chance that I do script what I want to say, every sentence has its own paragraph.
It makes skimming so much easier, doesn’t it?
The bigger you make the text, the easier you’ll find it to read.
You can also add slashes in between sections to remind yourself to pause. These are easier to see than a comma when you’re skimming.
If your poem is short, don’t give it too much background. The more background information you give it, the more it will distract from the piece itself.
Poetry is meant to be open to interpretation. Let the audience read into it what they want.Poetry is meant to be open to interpretation. Let the audience read into it what they want. Click To Tweet
Practise is important.
There’s no avoiding it.
The more you practise, the better you’ll become at performing your work.
Before the launch of What Happens in New York, I practised so much that even now, I can still remember Fayth’s poem from What Happens in New York, despite not having had a need to perform it for well over eighteen months.
Know your audience before you commit to anything.
If you write political poetry, there’s not much point in you going to a primary school.
If you write children’s poetry, there isn’t much point in you going to a night dedicated to political poetry.
You should pick your events based on where your target audience will be. Don’t just read somewhere for the sake of it.
Also, be sure to tailor what you read to your audience so that they don’t zone out.
If there’s a Q&A session, prepare yourself.
Think about questions people have asked you online, or questions your friends and family have asked you. Get them to spring random questions on you, too. Being asked questions off the cuff is intimidating, but, much like everything else, you get used to it with practise.
The more you get asked the same question—and you will get asked the same questions if you go to enough events—the easier they become to answer.
Don’t picture them naked
I have no idea where this idea came from, but it’s a terrible one.
There are some people you really don’t need to picture naked.
Focus on the words in front of you, and not the people in front of you.
Convey the emotion in your words. Let them speak through you.
Make eye contact
This is hard, but it creates a connection with your audience. It’s also a sign of confidence.
Make eye contact with someone for a couple of seconds, then move your gaze to a spot on the back of the wall. As you get more used to reading your poetry, you’ll feel more comfortable meeting people’s eyes.
In the meantime, make that spot on the back of the wall your main focus. Doing so forces you to stand up straight, and it will still appear as though you’re looking at your audience.
Don’t keep your eyes solely on your poetry. While it’s important to know where you are, it’s also important to create a connection with your audience.
If you’ve practised enough you should have at least some parts memorised, if not all of it. (Even if you’re not confident enough to realise this.)
Do a power pose
Slumping in a chair, folding our arms, and touching our neck are all ways we make ourselves smaller. We do this when we feel uncomfortable, shy, or anxious. Adopting these poses reinforces these feelings and increases our cortisol levels.
The higher our cortisol leveles are, the poorer we perform on tasks and the less well-received we are by our audience.
But when we do a power pose, our cortisol levels decrease. We perform better overall. And we’re better received by our audience.
So, embrace your inner Wonder Woman.
Put your feet hip-width apart, your hands on your hips, and raise that head high.
Stand like that for two minutes.
And when you’re done, you might not be quite ready to take on the world, but you will be ready to take on that poetry reading.
And who knows? With time you might just be ready to take on the world.
Embrace the adrenaline
Unless you’re used to public speaking, you will feel a surge of adrenaline.
Even more so if you’re reading your own work.
It’s this surge of adrenaline that I loved when public speaking. When it came to reading my own work, though, there was a little too much adrenaline—I just felt anxious instead.
The only way round this was to face my fear. I’m proud that I did, and I know that in a couple of year’s time, when you’ve got some poetry readings under your belt, you’ll be proud of yourself, too.
Channel your nervous energy. Use it to give your reading more passion and enthusiasm. It’s contagious.
When your adrenaline surges and you’re utterly terrified, you just want to get it over with. You speak faster, you hunch over, and you mumble into the microphone.
If you’re really nervous, there’s every chance you won’t even remember what happened when you were onstage because you were so terrified. (I’ve had this happen a few times.)
Embracing the moment will help you to enjoy it so much more.
When you’re in front of an audience, the power is in your hands, not theirs.
You can use that power however you like—to entertain, to inform, to make people laugh, even to make them cry.When you're in front of an audience, the power is in your hands, not theirs. You can use that power however you like - to entertain, to inform, to make people laugh, even to make them cry. Click To Tweet
The more present you are in that moment, the more the audience will connect with the emotions and lessons you want to share with them.
If you’re distant and appear as though you’d rather be anywhere else, the audience will be able to tell. They’ll switch off. And who can blame them? If you don’t want to be there, why should they?
As I said before, let your poetry speak through you.
Focus on the words on the page.
And don’t be afraid to pause.
Yes, that’s right—PAUSE.
Pauses can have a seriously dramatic effect if used in the right way.
If you find yourself reading too quickly, take a moment to pause.
Slow down your breathing.
You’ve prepared for this moment.
You’ve got this!
Everything in life is a performance
From job interviews to meeting the in-laws, everything we do is a performance. We want to leave a good—and lasting—impression on the person(s) we’ve just met. Reading your poetry in front of an audience is no different.
The most important thing to remember is to let your poetry speak for you. Read it with conviction. Read it how you imagined it. Read it in a way that does the story justice.Read your #poetry with conviction. Read it how you imagined it. Read it in a way that does the story justice. Click To Tweet
Over to You
How do you feel about reading your work in front of an audience? What are your tips on delivering a great reading? Share your stories in the comments!