As an author, there will come a time when you will be asked to perform a live book reading before an audience. It doesn’t matter whether your work is a novel, a collection of poems, or an anthology of short stories or essays. Your fans want to hear your words almost as much as they want to read them. Here are some tips to give them what they want and leave them wanting more.
First, let’s get clear on what the goals are for your live book reading. According to Dan Holloway, a novelist, performance poet, and spoken word artist, there are three:
- To hold the audience’s attention from start to finish
- To make the audience hungry for more
- To showcase your talent
How do you accomplish these three goals? Here’s my advice, organized by goal.
Keep Your Audience’s Attention From the Beginning of Your Live Book Reading Until the End
Learn How to Read in Front of an Audience the Right Way
Maintain eye contact as much as possible with your audience. There is an art to doing a live reading. If you watch readings on PBS, where a play is read instead of performed, you’ll see what I mean. Learn how to read from your book, look up at your audience while continuing to speak, then look down to read some more, without losing your place. Here are a couple of tips that might help:
- Don’t read from the book. Instead, print out what you’re going to read in large type so that it is easier to see. And break it up into shorter pieces so that you can more easily find your spot.
- If you can’t do that, highlight every other line to make it easier to spot your place.
Read excerpts or selections that are emotionally engaging and provide stand alone value
You want what you read to be emotionally engaging that your audience is wrapped up in your words. And what you read needs to provide stand-alone value so that you don’t need to waste time boring them with pre-able, set-up, or take down thereafter. If you must provide any set-up at all, it should be no more than a sentence.
At the End of Your Live Book Reading, Leave Them Hungry for More
Be Short and Sweet
A live book reading is not the time to share a long passage of your work. You want to give the audience a taste. Think of it this way: When you go to an ice cream parlor and you look at all the flavors, how do you decide which one to buy? You get a small wooden spoonful to taste first. This reading is that wooden spoonful.
In general, keep your reading to about three to five minutes, and never go longer than eight minutes. Remember, you want them to wish you spoke longer … not that you would please hurry up and finish!
End with with Questions Unanswered
The selection you read should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. However, you don’t need to have all the questions that are raised within the selection answered within the five minutes you spend reading. Leave your audience hanging with unanswered questions.
Show the Audience Why They Should Fall in Love with You and Your Work at your Live Book Reading
Be OK with Being Nervous
Authenticity is one of the top three public speaking superpowers. If you are a little nervous, that’s OK. That is part of who you are at this moment. Own it. Chanel it. It is part of what makes you loveable.
Don’t just read your work — perform it!
Any member of the audience could stand up and read your work. But only you can read it with the passion that went into the writing of it. “Nothing cements your story, and you, in someone’s mind quite so much as hearing it straight from your mouth,” says Holloway, “read with every ounce of the passion that drove you to write it in the first place.”
Bonus Tips for a Better Performance
These tips support the three goals, but not directly.
- Rehearse on steroids: Put on the clothes you plan to wear at your live book reading and rehearse. Rehearse at home in your living room. Rehearse in front of a mirror. Record your rehearsal on video and watch it for things you can improve on. Rehearse at least 10 times.
- Do a Recon: If you can, practice in the venue in advance.
- Figure out what to do with your hands in advance: You may be holding your book in one hand but what do you do with the other? Figure that out before you are in front of the audience!
- Breath from the diaphragm: This will not only help with projection but also reduce stress.
- Invest in acting and improv lessons: Both acting and improv lessons will make you a better speaker and will help you bring out the emotional quality of your work.
- Stay hydrated: Make sure you have water nearby. If you’re nervous, your mouth will get dry. If you are taking questions, your mouth will get dry. If you want to speak well, you need to stay well hydrated. Bonus tip — stay away from alcohol as it will dehydrate you!
A live book reading is part speech, part performance, and part job interview. Use these tips to give your audience what they seek, transform them into fans and sell some more books, as well.