Performing live isn’t something I ever thought I would do. While I’ve never been particularly shy in groups of people, I’m far from a brilliant public speaker and have had issues with speech impediments.
The first time my poetry was ever read aloud was by someone else. I was so nervous that I asked my friend Ceri to read my poem. She read it brilliantly, and the poem got a great reception, but I felt I’d let myself down.
Over the next weeks and months I went to open mic nights around London and would occasionally perform, increasing in confidence only to be knocked back when I was overly hard on myself on the few occasions that it didn’t go that well. After some trying I received an offer to go and perform in Cardiff as a featured artist, shortly after that my first was published, and since then I’ve been continuing to go around the circuit doing the odd gig and working on my second book.
I often get asked for advice on getting the courage to perform – performance style is for someone else to talk about, I’ll stick to courage.
Five things to remember
1. Don’t forget, everyone who is at the gig is there to support you.
2. People want you to do well.
3. People have no expectations when attending a gig beyond enjoying themselves – and it would have to go very wrong (punching an audience member wrong) to ruin it.
4. Most of the audience want to be you. They want to be stood up their reading their work. They’re not bothered about how well you read, they just respect you for doing it in the first place.
5. If the audience don’t want to be you, it’s because they’re also on the open mic that night. Some gigs have no open mic, some just a few slots, and some are pure open mic.
Reading aloud is hard. Yet for all of the challenges myself and others have faced on stage, I’ve never ever seen anyone do anything but support, clap, and encourage.
No one will invite you to perform if they’ve not seen you perform before and open mics are great for giving your work some air time. Many promoters go to open mics with one eye on getting people down to perform at their future shows – so even if it’s a tiny crowd in the upstairs room of a pub, give it all you can because you don’t know who those three people in the corner are.
Be familiar with what you’re reading but don’t worry about memorising your work. You may have written it, but in my experience if you don’t practice you end up unknowingly editing as you read and then you get muddled.
It’s easy to be intimidated when you see great writers and performers doing it without the work in front of them, but don’t forget, they probably went to drama school and learnt the skills or they’ve been performing the same pieces for years.
In time you may acquire the skill to share your work without it in front of you, but if not, many great performers read directly off the page, so don’t worry.
Build a set
Even for open mics, decide what you’re reading in advance. Don’t stand there and flick through trying to find a bit you want to read, and resist the temptation to change your mind as it will only through you off balance.
Open mics often only have a limited time slot – so if you want to maximise your impact then bang out a few poems, don’t spend your time scrolling through papers, or trying to introduce each piece. No one carers about the context, or why you wrote what you wrote – they want to hear your work.
Read from the page
It sounds simple, but too many people try to make themselves look like a performer before they are one. People have come to hear you read, they’ve not come to see Kenneth Branagh.
People have come to hear you read, they’ve come to support you and the other performers, so be proud of yourself and enjoy it.
When you smile you sound better. Everyone does. When you smile, you sound more sincere and genuine, and it’s the best way to convey the emotion in your writing.
Carry on regardless
If you go wrong, no one knows, so carry on. Don’t stop and apologise. Don’t panic. Just carry on.
Good luck and get gigging!