Most people are terrified to speak in public. As a writer who’s read in more coffee shops and libraries than I can count, I was once terrified, too. Here are two of my worst moments, and 10 thoughts about how to get over your fears of public speaking.
Very first reading
The very first time I read a poem in a tiny coffee shop in southeast Detroit, I had backed up to lean against a wall to keep from passing out cold. My mouth went so dry that I couldn’t move my lips. Luckily an intimate group of supportive fellow poets (all strangers) surrounded me, and someone offered me a glass of water. Problem was my hand shook so badly that I could hardly bring it to my lips to drink and water splashed all over. I was such a mess. Somehow I finished reading my poem and everyone clapped and cheered. When I sat down, I was quivering but strangely ecstatic: I had given my first public reading.
A lame joke falls flat
Another daunting time was when I won second place in a Metro Detroit Writers Prose Competition with a short sexy poem. Contest sponsor M. L. Leiber asked me to read the poem at a club downtown. “Don’t worry. You’ll do fine. Oh, and there’ll be about 100 people there.” Part of me said Hurrah, another part said Oh no! I almost backed out, but I decided this would be a good challenge. If I could read this poem in this venue, I should be able to read anything anywhere. Right?
To prepare, I memorized the poem. This is key — practice helps big time. That evening, I took a group of friends with me. Everything went well except for one major faux pax: Before I read, Ray McNiece, a terrific performance poet from Cleveland, read a poem referring to the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969. As a former Clevelander, I’d heard that story so many times that I decided to tease him when I took the stage. In front of 100+ people, I said “Thanks, Ray, for your Cleveland poem. I just have one thing to say about the river catching fire: get over it!” It did NOT sound as funny as I thought it would. It was not my finest moment. I later apologized to Ray. He laughed. He was a good sport.
My 10 tips for a successful reading:
- Practice! I can’t stress the importance of this. It will give you confidence.
- When you practice, also time your reading. If the host says you can have ten minutes, read for ten minutes, not fifteen. Leave your audience wanting more, not wishing you’d read less.
- Take water in a bottle you can easily sip from if your mouth gets dry.
- Remember the audience wants to hear what you have to say. They wouldn’t be at a reading if they didn’t. People admire others who can speak publicly– they want you to succeed, not fail. I often think back to my first reading and how everyone cheered for me.
- Engage your audience. Look them in the eyes when you read. It’s a great boost to look up to see that you have active listeners.
- Bring your friends. Remind yourself that they love you no matter what.
- Don’t tell the audience you’re nervous! If your voice shakes, it’s okay. They’ll simply think that’s the way your voice sounds.
- Be gracious and thank the readers who preceded you. Do not attempt to tease them.
- Thank your host for inviting you to read.
- Thank your audience for being there.
And when you’re in the audience: Give the reader your full attention. Smile and nod if they look at you. If you are so bored that you fear you’ll fall asleep, close your eyes and occasionally nod, as if you’re listening with deep concentration. Applaud wildly when the reader is finished. Take a moment later in the event to personally thank the reader by telling them you enjoyed it.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
2015 Great Midwest Book Fest Honorable Mention.
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters