By Ashley Lister
I talk a lot about how to write in this column, but I seldom mention the equally important task of reading.
Here, I’m not going to advise anyone on how to simply read. That’s easy enough. You just point your eyes at the words in a book and follow them consecutively, making meaning from each one and combining them all into a cohesive whole.
What I want to write about today are the techniques for reading aloud. To an audience.
I advocate reading work aloud during the drafting process. It’s a wonderful tool for spotting what works and what doesn’t in a nearly-finished manuscript. Those typos and duplications that the eye skips over when we’re silently reading, grate on the ear like a flat note in an acapella solo.
But there are reasons for reading aloud, other than hearing our own mistakes. Reading work to an audience, either at a book launch, a signing or an evening of public story-sharing, can be a satisfying way of experiencing the work of others and sharing your own work in a format that is livelier than dull black words on a still white page.
Prepare. Print off a large-print copy of the text you’re going to read. The font in a novel is great for quietly reading at home. But, when you’re standing before an audience, and apprehension is fraying your nerves, the font in a book can shrink. More importantly, when you’re reading your work to an audience, the audience want to see your face, not your head hidden behind an open book. Printed text in a large font will mean you can keep the paper at a reasonable distance, allowing your audience to see you and allowing you to see the print.
Practice: Read the piece through, aloud, several times. Make sure you’re comfortable and confident with the pronunciation. Make sure you can enunciate any tongue-twisters that appear in the piece you’re going to read. I am aware that most of us will notice if we’ve written a line that says, “Her job? Why she sells seashells on the seashore.” However, there are some phrases such as ‘unique New York’ or ‘the sixth sick Sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick’ which can trip up an unsuspecting tongue.
Practice. Time yourself. Annotate the pages you’re going to read so you know when to breathe, when to pause and when to adopt a different voice (if you’re going to use different voices for your narration).
Relax: If you’re standing in front of an audience, it’s natural to be nervous. However, it’s easy to forget that the audience are wanting you to be successful and they’re willing you to be good. No one wants to sit through a boring reading so they’ll be hoping your story is exciting and well-delivered. You know this yourself from the times you’ve sat in an audience.
The key to relaxation is simple. Breathe. Smile. And be confident.
Breathing should be easy but sometimes, in the focus of the moment, we forget. I once knew a poet whose trousers fell down when he began reading a poem on stage and he didn’t realise until he got to the end and his trousers were around his ankles. This wasn’t done for effect or to be funny – it simply occurred because he was too nervous to notice what was happening around him.
Focusing on your breathing allows you to stop being oblivious to your circumstances.
Smiling is important because it allows your audience to see that you’re a likeable person. We respond to smiles on a human level, empathising with a person who smiles and feeling better disposed to them. And, if we’re reading our work to an audience, surely we want those listeners to feel well disposed towards us?
There are other tips for reading to an audience and, if you’ve got your own personal ones, I’d be interested to see them in the comments box below.