Monday, 4 January 2016

The Art of the Read

You’ve been invited to do a reading!!

This is exciting news and a great opportunity to promote your work! The question is how to get the most mileage out of your reading. I’ve participated in a lot of readings, I’ve observed many readings, and through my work as a teacher-educator which involves sitting through student-teacher lessons, I’ve learned a great deal about what makes a presentation successful.
  • Mental preparation is your first and perhaps your greatest challenge. Most authors focus on themselves and whatever book it is they are promoting at the moment. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, this is not the way to go! You are not the important one here. The important people are the ones sitting out there in the audience. Your focus must be on them and appealing to them.
  • If possible, find out as much as you can ahead of time about who will be there: what is the demographic? Eg. A church group? A book club? A writers group? All women? Age range? Education range? 
  • Decide which of your writings (novels, short stories, poems etc.) is most likely to appeal to them and prepare that. If you are unable to get much information ahead of time, take time to study the audience once you are at the venue – bring several selections with you and make that decision when you see who has come. 
  • Remember – if you read something that does not appeal to the group, not only will they probably not buy your book, they are likely not to show much interest in anything else you’ve written. On the other hand, if you read something that they like (even if it is already five years old), they may be interested in not only that book or story, but other things you’ve done.
  • Keep your reading short and do it well! Three minutes is a good duration. Beyond that you risk your audience tuning out. Research into attention spans shows that beyond those first few minutes, audiences lose focus. In one of my earlier posts, “Hey, Shortie”, I cited research out of industry that suggests the average attention span of young people is eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish! Anything that puts an audience into passive mode for any length of time is toxic to your effectiveness.
  • For the same reason – if you are reading as one of a group, try to position yourself early on – first, if possible. The longer the audience has to sit and listen to people read, the less focused they are likely to become. On the other hand, if you are the first or among the first, chances are they will remember you. They will still be fresh and engaged when they hear you.
  • If you are the only one reading, go for the shortest period of time possible. Break up the reading as this can become monotonous. Can you intersperse some powerpoint slides or cartoons to refocus your audience, or perhaps ask a question or even run a short contest?
  • When setting up the reading with your hosts, negotiate the room arrangement if possible. What kind of a space will you be working in? How and where will your audience be seated? Will you require a microphone? Other forms of media – ie. a data projector? 
After teaching high school for many years, I have a voice that can be heard over anything, but this is not true of everyone. I always request a bottle or glass of water and a table on which to display books that will be sold. Make sure that the books are placed where they can be monitored. I have been at readings where books have been stolen. If you are part of a group, have chairs to sit on while the others are reading.
  • Make sure you know the length of time allocated and stay within it. Leave time for questions and discussion.
  • Ask that any promotion/publicity be shared with you. You can then post this to your own social media account.
  • Have a photo and short bio available for your hosts.
  • The best idea is to read a section from the beginning of your story. This will save you valuable time (and audience attention) providing back story and explanations. 

Melodie Campbell and Rosemary McCracken

Madame Rosemary McCracken (blog: of the Mesdames of Mayhem always reads from the opening pages of her Pat Tierney novels. The audience is introduced to the main character and conflict without Rosemary having to provide explanations and context.

Madame Melodie Campbell often reads her Lone Rearranger episode from The Goddaughter’s Revenge – it’s a self-contained story within a story – very funny, and again, Madame Mel does not need to use valuable time trying to explain what’s going on.

  • Rehearse your reading ahead of time – best if someone is there to give you feedback; or make an audio or videotape to critique. Is your pace right? Slow enough that the audience can follow but not so slow that you lose them? Is your intonation appropriate for the piece? Is your reading smooth or are you stumbling frequently?
  • Duncan Armstrong
  • Toronto poet Duncan Armstrong advises standing while reading. Indeed this will give your voice added range and projection. But watch your posture. Stand straight. Make eye contact frequently with your audience and smile where appropriate. It is important that your audience feel connected to you.
  • Armstrong also advises dressing appropriately in clothing that looks good, is clean, fits well, and is comfortable. Your clothing should enhance your appearance, not detract from it. Wear comfortable shoes and avoid clunky jewellery. 
The Mesdames of Mayhem always wear a combination of mauve/purple, black/grey as these are the signature colours of our anthologies. Audience members often comment on our coordinated appearance – this opens up an opportunity to show them the books.

So there is a lot to think about, but when done properly, readings can be a great way to build a following!!

Good luck with your next reading!!


  1. I've been oout most of the day and now that I'm back, I can't remember what I wanted to say.

    Best I can do is - love the purple theme.

  2. This is excellent information to know Joan. I'll share with Liz.

  3. A wonderful guide! I'll be pointing my Crafting a Novel college students to this post, Joan.