How to ‘Read’ in Public
by Ian Cognitō
Due to the pandemic, more and more authors have been sharing their written work online through a variety of forums that have emerged to help them promote their work.
However, as seasoned as some of these writers are, they may not have had as much practice as reader/presenters. Stretching their stuff before a ‘live’ audience can present new challenges. And this is where I come in; I have a narrow attention span. If you can sustain the interest of someone like me for the duration of your presentation, you’ve done very well indeed.
I have assembled below some principles to help reader/presenters attract and maintain the interest of even the more attention-challenged among us:
1. If you are reading prose, in particular (or a longish narrative or prose poem), consider building in more breaks, or pregnant pauses, to arouse a bit of reflection or innovative thinking in the listener. (Nothing engages like personal relevance).
An oral presenter, who continues unrelentingly, without breaks or catch-up pauses, can leave ‘detour takers’ without landing pads for when they touch down again. Even the very best of listeners may need a few silent patches in which to process what they have just heard. We are talking seconds here, not awkward minutes.
2. Better than presenting one long piece, with appropriate pauses, consider reading excerpts. Excerpts can be deliciously short, and breaks tend to be built-in with helpful introductions to contextualize passages. Also, an overall impression of a longer work can be cultivated by strategically selecting representative moments from within the whole.
Subtitles, question headings, and anecdotal entry points can be helpful, too; not only do they provide valuable schemata for the listener, but they also inject natural breaks.
3. Focus on passages or pieces that have a more immediate quality (i.e. less exposition or background). This might mean choosing something that is topical, a description with lots of sensory detail, a particularly lively passage, or a segment with dramatic or comedic appeal. Note: dialogue, as immediate as it is from a presentational perspective, can be confusing for a listener when speakers are not clearly delineated.
4. During your presentation, use a calm, yet energetic, tone and vary your rhythm and speed of delivery. Be wary of becoming hypnotized by your own voice and your typical rhythm patterns, as you can be certain you will not be the only one to succumb. Again, remember to pause—dramatically, effectively. A healthy pause is a moment for a deep breath, and everyone—both the reader and her listeners—will need this from time to time.
5. Adjust your vocal tone, pacing, and emphasis to highlight important transitions and any moments you would like to register with the listener. Get to know where these moments land beforehand so you can deliver them effectively.
6. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. This will give you more confidence and competence as a presenter. It will also help you uncover colours, contours, and nuances you may not have known were there. Of course, spontaneity is great too, but tapping into that usually requires more ‘schooling’ before a live audience.
7. You can over-rehearse, as well. You still want to appear genuine and to be responsive to your audience. Nothing, I mean nothing, is more boring than straight recitation, and the whites of your eyes will not inspire a sense of connection with your listeners.
8. Visuals, body language, eye contact—the public speaker’s grab bag—all worthy additions, though these can be over or under-cooked and come best with experience and presentational ease. In addition, online platforms with their bust-image framing do not always lend themselves to some of these tools.
In closing, I must acknowledge that I have not been speaking from a perspective of expertise. I am still very much immersed in the process of implementing, adapting, perfecting, and learning from the techniques I have advocated here. Hopefully, though, some of these tips will help you, the reader/presenter, connect with your cherished listeners thru your divine invocations.
This article appeared previously in WordWorks Magazine (BCFW: Volume 1, 2021)