When I was ten, I was asked to read the lesson in my school’s annual carol service, which took place in an enormous church. I felt a sense of blooming at the task – the honour of having something important bestowed upon me. I knew I was capable – otherwise I wouldn’t have been chosen – and rather than panic, or dread, I was able to feel more relaxed because the feelings that drove me (that drive me) are desires for worthiness. I could finally stop, take a breath, and think: I’ve arrived.
I realise, for a lot of people, standing up in front of an audience, delivering a speech, can bring feelings of deep terror. Even imagining doing something like this can make us sweat, turn ours mouths dry, our tongues numb.
Here are three practices, which will help.
The speed at which you read is the most important thing to be aware of. No matter how good the writing, no matter how animated the delivery, if you read too fast your audience will lose their way.
You are a tour guide, taking sightseers through the jungle. If you move too fast, your group will be unable to keep up. Eventually, they can no longer see you. But you are so dogged on making your path through the maze of trees and undergrowth that you have forgotten to turn around.
This isn’t to say you must find a plodding rhythm and stick to it. Imagine your material as the jungle: which parts are steep, which are overgrown? The terrain will change – there may be demanding climbs you want to take slowly; or perhaps a downhill section, which you can race down. A sharp bend requires you to stop just before, ensure your group is with you, and then guide them around.
Your material will reveal at what point you speed up and slow down, but a certain amount of awareness of your writing is essential: read your work like a map.
But how do we increase and reduce our reading speed?
We know how to walk slower because we’ve done it dozens of times – slowing to cross the cross, or when the path underfoot is craggy, wet or perilous.
We also know how to speed up – running to chase a bus, or go after a child, or win a race.
We’ve been speeding up and slowing down our whole lives.
But what about talking?
Often, our experience with talking rate is a negative one: we know we talk too fast – people have said. Nerves make us want to race to the end so that we stumble over words, or swallow them. How many of us have actually spent time, thinking about the mechanics of speaking?
Words are shaped in our mouths, produced by the lips, the tongue, the throat, the belly, the lungs. How many of us have actually spent time, feeling those individual components; how the breath is drawn in, released?
This is the key to having control over the speed at which you speak.
The way to begin exploring this is to take individual words from your text: a range from one syllable, to two and three etc.
Begin to say these words to yourself.
Repeat them, seeing where the consonants and vowels come from. ‘W’ comes from the lips, for example: WHERE.
‘K’ begins at the back of the mouth, with the base of the tongue, reaching up to the soft palette. There is also a sense of hollowing at the back of the tongue. It shapes itself like a bowl for that ‘K’ to echo into and out of.
Explore different words throughout your text and make a note for each word: where does it begin, where is its middle, and where does it end?
In this way you’ll be able to slow your reading down at any moment because you will be able to trace exactly where each word is, and be close enough to stop, or slow down. It can help to format your text, using a slightly larger font for areas you want to take slower – this will help you visualise taking more time on words and sentences, reconnect you to the act of exploration.
As you explore your words, don’t assume anything.
For example, don’t assume that a one syllable word will begin and end in the same place.
‘ONCE’, begins at the front with the lips making a W. But then the vowel sound travels back far into the mouth, again the tongue shaping into a bowl to create that echoing sound, (which is where you can start expressing emotion). You end with the tongue behind the back teeth. So, there is a three part journey to a one syllable word. Interesting when you start to think how much more possibility the word ONCE has. That three part journey gives you more room, more time to layer a word with meaning: ONCE you were young, ONCE you were happy, ONCE you were alone.
The more you explore each word, the more you will get to know your mouth, the muscles. It will become like a machine, as though you have taken a radio apart and become familiar with each component. With care, you can put it all back together again. The more familiar you are with each letter and word, the more you will be able choose the pace at which you read: you are not dragged by nerves and uncertainty, you are guided by knowledge and awareness.
When we have full understanding of something, we are completely in control.
Knowledge comes from practice.
Another important component to a good reading is eye contact.
The more you practice your piece – starting with those individual words – the more you will get to know it. This will enable you to feel more confident about looking up from it.
Moving from individual words to sentences, take a highlighter pen and choose several lines throughout your piece. The highlighter is important. It provides something to catch the eye when you look back down again. A lot of my students become so nervous at readings the words dance on the page and sometimes disappear, and the thought of looking away from them is terrifying. The highlighter is a beacon, guiding you back. Of course, the more you practice, the more those words will come under control.
There’s a type of nervous eye contact that can often happen in a reading, where the reader bats his eyelids up and down, flicking awareness at the audience in an arbitrary way. It has no connection with the text, it’s simply a nervous twitch.
The more you practice eye contact, the more you’ll become aware of such mannerisms.
We are never trying to stop ourselves doing something, simply to become aware at all times of whatever it is that we are doing. The rest takes care of itself. Trying to put yourself in a straitjacket in an attempt to ‘get it right’ will only lead to deeper nerves and tension. Be exactly who you are, with only the one rule of staying present and observing throughout. That is your focus.
If you make specific intentions to look at your audience at certain points in your text, that’s where your focus will be, and so nerves will diminish.
Looking up for an entire sentence can be tricky, and not always necessary.
Perhaps you choose to deliver the first four words of your sentence looking up, and then you look back down at your page and continue. Or perhaps you begin the sentence, knowing that you will look up at the end section.
This method of eye contact is also very important for the first line of your piece, and also the last line.
If your piece opens with a short line, it’s very effective to look at the audience for the duration. If the line is long, choose at which point you are going to look up – the beginning, the middle, the end – but there must be some contact in that first line. The same with the end. The end is like a song fading out – you are slowing yourself down, being intricately aware of the mechanics of your mouth, the way the words slip off the tongue. Slow right down and then at the key moment, bring in the eye contact. Often this happens for the very last few words. Then, hold the moment, for a breath, and if the audience haven’t realised you have finished, a trick is to lower your pages down to your side, so it’s clear that you do not need them any longer.
Take a moment to acknowledge that pause. Too often at readings I have seen authors keen to leave the stage – relieved that the ordeal is over, I suppose. But that one act of escape can undermine a whole half hour’s enjoyment for the audience. Stay for a moment, tip your head in acknowledgement, and then leave.
A final technique for a reading is learning to pause.
Pauses will happen throughout your piece, and can feel intimidating – allowing a moment of silence – especially when stress is trying to drag us to the finish line as fast as possible. Nerves give the sensation that there is not a second to waste. It will seem impossible to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Perhaps you’re afraid the audience will see. But breathing is essential for life – why should it be so terrible the audience see you, taking a moment to collect your self, your thoughts, and nourish your lungs? They would far rather see this, than witness a human too far gone in the landslide of their anxiety to allow themselves to stop.
Pauses will happen throughout your piece and you’ll do well to mark them.
Firstly there is the pause right at the beginning when you take your position in front of your audience. Make sure that you come to a point of stillness before greeting them. It looks nervous to welcome an audience whilst moving.
Plant your feet on the stage and then look about yourself, say hello. Try smiling!
You may have an introduction you wish to give.
An introduction that’s delivered from memory is very effective. It also gives the audience a chance to acclimatise to your voice. You may have an accent. Even if you don’t, everyone speaks differently and this is a way of introducing your vocal mannerisms to the audience, the nuance of your speaking rate, and allowing their ear to connect – like tuning in a radio station.
The tendency is to rush straight from the introduction into the piece, but it’s important to make it clear that the introduction has finished and the piece is about to begin. Once you have given your introduction take a slow deep breath, signalling to the audience that you are about to start. This will also settle and prepare you! When we are nervous, we rush to the surface of our body, searching for a place of lesser feeling, perhaps even trying to get out. The breath brings you right back into that central point, which is the strongest part of you. Support your lungs. Stress makes our breathing shallow, and that in turn can make us light-headed. Often, half the discomfort of nerves is simply the symptoms of shallow breathing, or no breathing! This is simple to deal with by making sure throughout your reading you Feed your lungs and your blood.
Take a deep breath in, let it out, take another deep breath in and say the title of your piece.
Titles are important. We spend a lot of time, working on our titles: changing them; rearranging them. Sometimes a title doesn’t come for months, and when it does it feels like a gift from a magical place.
Rushing straight from your title into your piece, doesn’t give your audience a chance to associate with that title, to allow their imagination to begin.
Once you’ve said your title, take another breath – a slow breath in, and a slow breath out. While you are doing this look down to your first line and set your focus. Slowly breathe in once more and begin to deliver that line, preparing yourself for the moment of eye contact.
This breathing and pausing at the beginning of the piece will set you off to the best start possible. Nerves make us rush, so right from the start we’re already on the wrong foot. And then often it goes downhill because we spend the entire reading, trying to catch up with ourselves.
If you start well: with the feet grounded, the lungs being used to their full capacity, the blood oxygenated, the head feeling strong as a result – we give ourselves the best chance.
Pauses are very useful to use during dialogue, taking a breath in between each character’s line. A pause will signal to the audience, so they will be prepared for something. It’s logical that, during dialogue, they are being prepared for a swap from one character’s speech to another, or a switch from dialogue, back into the narrative.
There might be a change of scene in your reading, or a leap in time. Again, take this opportunity to draw air in, let it out, draw it in again, and continue. This breath is the perfect timing for a pause. It’s difficult to do, and while you are doing it you will feel nervous, you will want to rush. But pausing by breathing in this way serves so many valuable purposes. It allows your audience that moment in that jungle to catch up, to look around, to see you – the tour guide – up ahead, to collect their thoughts. But it also allows you a moment to check in, to reset, to nourish the brain, the head, the soul.
Mark the pauses with a line space.
That way, you’ll visualise what you are trying to create in your reading. Essentially, space – space in a situation that has a tendency to become overcrowded, due to stress.
For example, if you have dialogue, you’ll have one character’s line of dialogue, then an entire clear line, then another person’s line of dialogue. Do the same wherever the setting switches, or time changes.
For a smaller pause, a beat, a thick black line between words will suffice.
Nerves are tricky to navigate. They are the wind that makes the sea rough. We will never be without wind, it is an essential component of life. Nerves are part of our animal instinct, preparing us. A challenge lies ahead, the body needs to be ready, alert. This is fight or flight.
Rather than see nerves as a signal of pending failure, be grateful for them: they remind us that we are alive, that our bodies – our inner workings – are infinitely complex; that we are amazing. Nothing as intricate as a human being could be designed and made. We should embrace all the nooks and crannies of strangeness that we are composed of. The wind comes and blows the rough seas, and rather than scream and turn our back on it and wish we weren’t there, we can choose another path, which is to simply take care. That is how you deal with nerves. Closing your eyes and hoping for the best is not taking care. Watching the seas, listening to the wind, keeping your lungs nourished, will ensure a safe passage.
For a useful information on dealing with nerves, based on a personal drastic experience, please see my post: Worry – what’s the worst thing you can imagine?
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