1. Make eye contact at the beginning and end of a piece, also (if poems, for example), between individual pieces. It can be hard to make eye contact while reading (try to if you can) so make sure at least a few times you do this.
2. Don't mumble. Check in with someone in the back of the room to make sure your voice carries.
3. Read slower than you think you should. In rare cases, a reader is too fast, but this seem very rare. Speedy is usually the rule.
4. Don't give too much background: just enough. Talk between pieces sometimes, but for short works (e.g. some poems, flash fiction) read two or three in a row just announcing titles. A little mystery can go a long way. But this varies with genre so see what's appropriate for fiction, poetry, non-fiction, etc.
5. Watch the pacing between pieces. For poets, don't rush from one work to the next. Figure out a suitable pause, even between short lyrics.6. Resist the temptation to over-read. Writers are hungry for audiences, but it's always better to leave an audience wanting more. So, if you can reasonably squeeze, say, 12 poems into a reading, try 10 (as opposed to 15). This will also give you the time to practice the tactics I list above.
First off, it's ok to be nervous. The best reader I know gets so nervous before her readings she can barely talk, but she still manages to bring people to tears with her poems (and not because they are sad). Once she is at a podium, she leaves her nervousness behind and reads as if it is the most important thing she has ever done. I've had my voice crack, my throat get dry, my hands shake, and I've blushed so fiercely I've thought people might think I was on fire. Find a way to get past however your nervousness manifests. Accept it if it is there, but learn to concentrate just on the work and on the fact that you wrote it to communicate to someone else. People are mostly at a reading to be the best listeners they can. Your job is to give them your work as clearly as you can. I find it really useful to shift how I think of my work a few hours before a reading. I stop thinking of my poems as things I have written or things I may revise--and I start to think of them as poems that exist in world--poems that I want to do well by as a reader. In other words, I stop focusing on the fact that I wrote them and start thinking of them for what they do in language. For me, this grew out training in theater. Think of it this way: if you were an actor, you would be given someone else's words and your job would be to communicate those words well--to make sure your audience understood the ideas in them and that they felt the emotion in them.Treat your own work the same way. Think about how your pacing and tone of voice and expression can help a listener build images and action in their minds. Vary your tone, speed, etc to suit what is happening in the piece. Read your work like it is the most important thing in the world--not because you are trying to prove to anyone what a good writer you are but because you are trying to help them hear what it is the piece is communicating. Practice your reading a few times, maybe even in front of friends, but once you are up in front of the microphone, have fun, enjoy what you are doing and speak to your audience. You are in conversation with them, and they are waiting eagerly to hear what it is you have to say.
Stick to time limits. Religiously.
Read with energy and flair, but let the lines themselves do the work. This isn't to say that you can't "do the police in different voices," (from Dickens, cited by T.S. Eliot), i.e. give the characters in a short story or a poem some identity of their own, change tone, tempo, etc. etc. but there is a certain kind of "dramatic reading" voice that is cringe-inducing in an audience. That said, you don't want to just stand there and read as if you were reading aloud to yourself. That is an audience out there. Stand up straight, look them in the eye, and read with enough energy and volume to be heard. Too slow is probably better than too fast. Let the words direct you in how to speak them. And remember you can experiment with different ways to read a line or passage; try varying volume, tempo, intensity, and phrasing for instance.
Never hold for an expected laugh unless you are really really sure that's what you're going to get, and even then only hold for a heartbeat. Audiences are wildly inconsistent and will probably respond differently every time you read. You can learn something from readings if you are willing to be, as they say, "in the moment," always open to finding something new in your work. Audiences like to feel that you are not just reading at them, but sharing in the experience yourself.
- Less is more. You may want to share everything, but in an Open mic scenario, you want to leave people wanting to hear the rest rather than waiting to hear the next reader.
- Practice. Read your piece to yourself at least three times. You'll be able to figure out which phrases are liable to trip you up. You'll be familiar with the rhythm. Practice some more.
- Practice will also get you familiar enough with the piece that you'll be able to tear your eyes away from the page and make eye contact with your audience. This is important.
- Slow the heck down. Write SLOW on the top and bottom of every page. If it feels way too slow, it's probably about right. Adrenaline can get the best of us, and in those cases, we naturally speed up. So fight that.
- People have come to hear you read your work, not to hear you talk about your work. If you must preface your work, keep it limited to the information necessary for the audience to understand the piece.- Most important, HAVE FUN! As writers, we only rarely get the chance to share our work in person. Take advantage of the opportunity, and enjoy it.