Facing the Terror of Reading Your Work in Public
by Mary Maddox
This summer I had the pleasure of participating in a group reading at a local community theater. Everyone else read memoir pieces. Only I read a passage from my novel, so I felt a bit out of place. I tried to think of it as good thing – nothing wrong with standing out from the crowd.
All of us sat on stage and came to the podium one at a time to read. The director reminded us to look interested while others read. How could we expect the audience to be attentive if we weren't?
Everyone followed his instruction except one woman. She huddled in her chair, staring ahead with a pained grimace. Was it toothache? No, her eyes were glazed and her shoulders hunched. It was terror. When her turn came, she crept to the podium and rushed through her piece in a voice too soft to reach the back of the theater.
This writer obviously dreaded reading in public. And things didn't get easier for her in the second and third performances. I know this fear. It’s an instinctive response to the collective – and potentially hostile – stare of twenty or thirty people. It’s the certainty that somewhere out there one of them is snickering.
After years of college teaching and numerous public readings, I've learned to move beyond the fear. My approach is commonsensical and rather obvious, but it works for me.
- Rehearse, preferably in front of someone you trust. You'll feel more confident if you know the material and get some feedback on how you look and sound.
- Consider your feelings about the audience. They are not the enemy (not even when they're students taking a required course). They would rather be entertained and informed than bored, so give them your best effort. Most will appreciate it. A few will be unhappy no matter what you do. Accept that.
- When you stand in front of them, don't continuously stare at the page you're reading. Lift your gaze from time to time and make eye contact with individuals. Let them know you see them and appreciate them. You change the nature of their stare simply by looking back.
- Make your breathing slow and deep. It keeps you from rushing through the material and gives you the lungpower to reach the back of the room.
- Try to forget yourself and concentrate on what you're doing – delivering your story to the audience. It's a gift to them. They've shown up especially to receive it from you. Set it before them with as much grace and skill as you can muster. They are not dragons. You are not a fearful peasant dropping tribute at their feet and scuttling away before you get flamed.
Of course you might get flamed if there's a dragon in the audience, but it happens rarely. And you heal.
That’s what I tell myself anyway.
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Genre – Thriller / Horror
Rating – R