A friend once said to me after a reading, “Your book was better than you presented it.” Ow!
But-he was right.
Most people would rather have root canal work done than have to speak in public. Most authors aren’t polished performers; that’s not why we write. Yet a reading is a performance for your book, and you are the voice for your book. How do you give a good performance?
You want to make everyone there, including the bookstore staff, fall in love with you. Your goal is to make everyone there want to take home that part of you which is your book. How?
Think like an actor.
Take the stage, rather than being pushed out onto it. There’s a world of difference. If you take command, it’s a lot less scary. And the best way to take command is to rehearse what you want to say and how you want to say it. Practice will give you control of the conversation.
But you’ve got to really practice: out loud, reading every word of your chosen segments, the full Monty. If you are half-hearted about it you will be self-conscious and thus half-hearted in the bookstore. Warm up your voice, hum to get it forward into the mask, do some mild stretches to stimulate the blood and brain. Warm up like an athlete or a singer would warm up. Don’t go on stage cold.
A good performance demands rehearsal time. It also takes a script. You don’t need to script the whole event, and probably can’t. Bookstores and other public venues offer distractions-external noises, wandering audience members, crying babies, who knows, I once had a reading disrupted by a rampaging elephant-so a written outline or list of topics to which you can refer can be a life-saver. This will a.) keep you on track, and b.) keep you from forgetting important stuff.
Write a list of acknowledgements to read out. Thank the bookstore staff, and anybody else who helped with the event or the book, especially if they are present. This is vital. It’s how you get asked back; it’s how you get people to want to do favors for you. And you will need them.
Chief among the announcements, say at least three times (beginning, middle and end), “I will be happy to autograph copies later, they are on over sale there”-and point-at the sales location. This warms the hearts of the staff and plants the idea in the minds of your listeners. Why three repetitions? Snarky old advertising proverb: What I tell you three times is true.
In your presentation, you can’t just drone out a reading and sign books. You need to connect with your audience on a personal level. So address these three questions: what made you write the book; why you were the person to write it; and will you tell personal stories about either the writing of the book or the incidents in it? Intersperse your short reading selections in with your response to these questions.
What will you read? Unless you have an audience that is comfortably seated, and there for the whole duration of your appearance, it is best to stay with short segments, 2-5 minutes or so in reading time. A bookstore audience may include people who stop for a moment to listen; if they can hear the entire Noodle Incident, or the story of Aunt Gladys’ toupee, they are more likely to stay for more, or to remember the book for later purchase. Chose pieces to read that exhibit the best qualities of your book-dialogue, relationships, action sequences, whatever. And always have a dead safe fall-back selection ready and practiced in case a group of eight-year-old girls appear in the first row.
When you rehearse, read through each of your selections three times aloud, while timing yourself. Average the times of the second and third repetitions to establish your performance time.
Always use the same text for rehearsal and for performance, so that the page is comforting and familiar to the eye. Some authors use pages, rather than a book. This allows them to print in larger type fonts for easier reading. When looking up to make eye contact with your audience, use your thumb on the text to keep your place, just like they taught you back in grade school.
Read it aloud a fourth time. With a pencil, mark the text where you want to take a breath, where you want to pause, or for any dramatic effects you wish to include, slowing or speeding up dialogue. When you wrote the book did a certain character have a high squeaky voice in your head? Will you read it that way?
Last of all, have a graceful way to close. You’ll take questions from the audience of course, but practice a short smooth exit from your presentation. If things start going sideways during your reading (you’re not feeling well, or your bookie has arrived) you can use it at anytime as a way to close. Some variation of the theme of your book, or why you had to write it, coupled with a thank you to the audience for being interested in the story is always good. As for those questions, always bring three pump-primers with you, in case nobody is willing to start out. If there are no questions after yours have run out, make your third and final shout-out to the bookstore sales people and announce you will now be signing.
All right, now you have a script. It’s rehearsal time.
You’re going to put on a show!
Peter Kahle is the co-author of Naked at the Podium: The writer’s guide to successful readings. He teaches seminars on writing and presentation skills. He is a past president of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and a member of Seattle Free Lances and Book Publishers Northwest. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His books can be found at www.74thstreet.com, the web site of 74th Street Productions.