For reading out loud

Thursday, May 23, 2019
Besides being a teacher, I have worked in public relations for several years, promoting other peoples' products, services, and ideas. So, it just makes sense that I can promote my own work just as effectively, right? Well, that's where you would be wrong.

I am not comfortable tooting my own horn, and would rather clean the bathroom than get up and talk about myself. This also goes for reading my work, which sometimes turns me into a trembling mess, not unlike the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz as he walks down the long hall to ask the Mighty Oz for "Courage." Jumping out a window seemed like a perfectly normal response to me.

As a speech teacher, I am comfortable talking about ideas other than my own, or at least presenting my own ideas as a way to help other people, which is what I try to do to take the focus off me. There are still times when I feel a sudden self-awareness when everyone is looking at me, and I have no idea what to say next.

During moments when I can't gather my thoughts, I may take off my glasses and rub my eye like there is something in it, or cough and take a drink of the tea I always carry with me, or ask if there are any questions. By the time I get back to the topic, I can usually remember what I was going to say, or just ask "What I was talking about?" and at least one person remembers. And if not, I just go to my next topic.

David Sedaris, the humorist and author of many funny books including "Me Talk Pretty One Day," once said he has the easiest job in the world because all he has to do is stand up and read. Reading out loud does sound easy because I've been doing it since I was in the first grade.

However, a couple of months ago I forced myself to read one of my short stories at an open mic night. I had practiced, and wasn't terrified before I began, although the nerves did announce their presence as soon as I stated the title. As I began to read, I felt like I couldn't catch my breath by the end of every sentence. In addition, my mouth turned into the Mojave Desert, complete with sand and cacti. I believe I saw a vulture or two circle overhead, and my tongue shriveled like a snakeskin that had been shed a few days earlier. I was so uncomfortable that I never looked at the audience. Although I was not happy with my performance, I got through it.

So, what did I do? Just the opposite of what you might think. I took the next opportunity that came along to read again. Was I nervous? Yes. But this time, I planned ahead. I brought some water to the podium, and took a drink right before I began. I also talked to some of my friends and family beforehand, which helped me relax. Some performers practice breathing or vocal exercises, but I just breathed deeply for a few minutes. I also started by reading a couple of very short poems, then moved on to something a little longer. I knew once I got through the short ones, the longer one would be easier.

I also made a point to look at the audience and smile before I began, and between each poem or short story. As scary as that may sound, it actually helps. Remember, they want you to succeed just as much as you do. And some of them may smile, and some may nod their heads, and some may do nothing at all. But taking a moment to acknowledge them with a smile can turn that scary unknown audience into a friendly group of supporters.

So, the next time you need to promote your work through a public reading, practice, breathe deeply, and take a moment to acknowledge your audience with a smile. Who knows, they may end up being your biggest fans!

Mary Horner teaches public speaking, but still gets nervous reading her own work in front of an audience.


Joanne said...

Mary, these tips are so helpful. Thank you. I've had the "felt like I couldn't catch my breath by the end of every sentence" experience. I'll use these tips the next time I read.

Margo Dill said...

I agree with Joanne. This is a great post, and I love the paragraph where you used all the desert metaphors. This is a great post. :)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--Maybe you could begin your public speaking bits by reading aloud that desert part... and then making a joke like, "This is how I feel when I have to do public speaking. Hopefully no vultures will be getting the chance to pick at my bones today." Then you can read your poem/short story/excerpt of your novel.

I think the thing that people need to remember is even though they are nervous, they rarely appear nervous to the audience... and since public speaking is one of the top 3 fears (is it #1?), most people can empathize...

Mary Horner said...

Thanks for your comment Joanne, and good luck with your next reading. There are several TED talks about nerves and public speaking, and I show my students most of them (and I need them too)! Margo these were the easiest metaphors I've ever used because they are so true! And Sioux you are so right, and I teach all this stuff but when it comes to my writing I just get nervous. But I do like a joke or humor at the beginning because it does seem to release a lot of tension in the room. You're a teacher, does reading your own stuff or talking about yourself make you nervous?

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