Home : Reading Aloud: Author Open Mic Night Doesn’t Have to Suck

reading aloud yawining monkeyThe host announces the next author. She walks to the lectern, offers a synopsis, and begins reading aloud. It’s not bad prose—and I can’t say that for every writer here—but after three pages of preface and another six of chapter one, I fantasize about ringing a gong and approaching the stage with a shepherd’s crook. I pretend to look interested and engaged, but that train jumped the track ten minutes ago. How can this well crafted writing become such an anesthetic when read aloud? This article offers tips for reading aloud that will help you keep listeners’ attention.

Why Reading Aloud Fails

According to ReadingSoft, the average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. The best readers consume over 1000. In its guide to Reading Aloud, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America suggests that 150 words per minute is a suitable pace for reading aloud. In other words, the best and most efficient way to transfer ideas from author to reader is by distributing printed words on paper. If you want to share text exactly as you wrote it, hand out printed copies. Why read aloud if audience members can consume your work faster and focus on it more deeply on paper?

Reading Aloud: Present What’s Worth Presenting

Though writers don’t usually display their text on a screen, professional presenters have lessons to share. The single worst mistake a presenter can make is to read text verbatim from a PowerPoint slide. The audience will silently read the text at a much faster pace than the presenter reading aloud. The presenter becomes an interrupter—a complete backfire.

The relationship between a presenter and the material being presented suggests opportunities to increase audience engagement when reading aloud. Instead of presenting the first 15 pages of your book, consider reading a handful of your favorite passages. Just as the slides in a business presentation progressively reveal bullet points as the presenter elaborates on details, the most inspired elements of your story—excerpts that can stand alone without character introductions and knowledge of the plot—can offer powerful windows into larger topics, settings, situations, and themes. Give your listeners dots to connect and they’ll give you their attention.

Reading Aloud: Prune the Loose Branches

Books contain backstory, sub-plots, character introductions, and connecting material required to keep the story moving. Instead of trying to build a foundation for a story in front of an audience, take your favorite bits and cut out the “functional” material that ties these passages to the larger book. Eliminate any unnecessary dialogue or description. Abridge your writing to build a bridge to your audience; they’ll buy the long version if you can get them interested enough. Present a character. Share a snippet of dialogue. Describe a scene. Share an experience. Instead of telling the whole story, inspire listeners to want to read more. After 3-5 minutes, your audience’s focus will begin to wander. If you have 15 minutes to present, share four 3-4 minute vignettes with pauses between them.

Reading Aloud is Performance

Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons? “Wa-wah-wa-wa-wah-wah-wah.” Droning speech is boring, uninspiring, and irritating—even if your book is not. Reading aloud doesn’t have to be torturous or dull. Pace yourself. Build intensity. Let powerful passages ring. Isolate potent phrases between little walls of silence. Create contrast with loud and soft passages. Even when reading from a paper, look directly at your audience whenever you get a chance to pause. Eye contact lets listeners know you are actively engaging them. Build a relationship with your audience.

Reading Aloud: Add Media

Live presentation offers an opportunity to share aspects of a book that don’t make it into the print edition. Consider displaying a series of images that complement your reading. Maps reveal insights into settings. Are your characters real-life people? Show photographs of them. If your book is non-fiction, offer quotes, statistics, charts, and other info-graphics that enhance the impact of your presentation. Craft a presentation or image loop. If your book takes place in Spain or Harlem, consider adding a flamenco or jazz soundtrack behind your reading. Added media reinforce your speaking and help audiences focus by engaging more of their senses. And if you’re a performer, nothing moves audiences like live music.

Reading Aloud: The Business Side

Of my clients, the ones who sell meaningful quantities of books are those who speak professionally. One sold 1000 books at a single speaking event. Speakers build relationships with audience members and sign autographs in the back of the room after keynote addresses and training sessions. Authors with messages to share find speaking business, contract and consulting work, and opportunities to engage, inspire, educate, and change lives. Book sales bring auxiliary income; the product is you.

Get Ready to Read Aloud

  • Select the most potent passages from your writing.
  • Distill your passages down to their pure essence by eliminating any content that doesn’t absitively posolutley have to be included.
  • Get a timer application for your computer or use an online one. Practice reading slowly and dynamically. If you go over five minutes, try cutting more material. Journalists and news editors deal with word count requirements every day; you can learn to say what you want to say in x words or less.
  • Add notes to your text to remind yourself where to pause, or bring the intensity up or down. Or use red and blue markers to indicate “hot” and “cold” phrases.
  • Practice.
  • Practice some more.
  • Try giving your presentation to friends, either in-person or online via video-chat.
  • Use maps, images, statistics, etc. that complement your written passages. Upload to your favorite image sharing site, incorporate them into an album, and run them as a slide show.
  • Choose reading environments with good lighting, professional sound systems, and few distractions.

Reading Aloud: Conclusion

Reading aloud can reduce the best of writing to a droning soporific dirge, or elevate it to high performance art. Authors learn to write well with time and practice. The art of elocution is likewise a learnable skill worth adding to your publishing toolbox.


Reading Aloud: Author Open Mic Night Doesn’t Have to Suck — 7 Comments

  1. Well worth having these thoughts! Thanks. Yes, of course reading is performance, in spades- maybe not every author should try to read aloud for audiences. Personally, as an old theater hack I LOVE it- I do the voices, sing where there are songs, gesture, pause, very Shakespearean. I love my tales, and I love to read them aloud.

    But every notion you have here has a potent flip-side I’d like to point out. Authors without exception should be reading their work aloud AS THEY DRAFT! Go back in quiet times and look at that previous chapter and read it aloud. You will uncover repeat words, unneeded clauses, tangles of logic, and more. You don’t have to be James Earl Jones, read it to the cats, to the mirror, whisper it to yourself, doesn’t matter. But do it BEFORE you publish and do it all the time. The best stories, I am absolutely convinced, can all be read aloud. Don’t save the cutting and trimming you mention for the live audience. Put the best and most concise prose before your readers too.

    • Absolutely. Reading aloud is an excellent editing technique, but I also think some excellent writing is sometimes better off sacrificed to the gods of successful live performance. Even after a thorough edit, the stage is different from the page. Make the message fit the medium. Thanks for your comment, though. You raise an excellent point.

  2. Authors reading their own work makes me cringe, with few exceptions. If I hear on NPR that “coming up next, [insert author here] reads a passage from his/her book,” I can’t change the station fast enough. You make several good points, including that reading aloud is a performance. I ask, Where is it written that the best person to read something is the person who wrote it? I doubt anyone would want to see their favorite TV characters portrayed by the people who write their dialogue. Have a fan read your work, or maybe better yet pay a theatre major a couple of bucks to read it. Cheers!

    • When I did the audiobook version of my memoir, I used Amazon ACX to connect with a professional voiceover artist. I did struggle at first with the idea that my story wouldn’t be told in my own voice, but readers don’t know what I sound like, anyway. The audiobook was produced to a high standard and I’m happy with the results. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Thanks, Dave: Your advice should be taken to heart by every author, everywhere; no exceptions. I, too, have been to innumerous readings where I wanted to bring out the hook (truth be told, I had moments when I wanted to do something much more drastic than that); the most vivid example being when Joan Didion read from her book Year of Magical Thinking…, I literally couldn’t believe that nobody in the audience walked out as she continued to drone on in her monotone. After that experience I said to my husband to count me out from further readings. But then the Magic happened: a best-selling author who didn’t read at a reading!

    Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts) announced at the beginning of a presentation before several hundreds of people that he didn’t like readings, and therefore he was not going to read. Instead, he talked about the process of the book, which included the exciting travels to do research.

    Finally, I said to myself, an author who respects both the time and intelligence of his audience. I made a note to myself, and have also passed it on to authors with whom I’m friendly so that they could change the plan for their readings. Now, if only the rest of the writing world would take note of Dave’s advice! Thanks again.

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