How to tame your nerves at a live/online reading
By Lindsay Zier-Vogel
The other week, I stood on the edge of a stage down at Harbourfront, waiting for my cue. I wasn’t nervous about reading. After a year of online events, I was excited to read to a live audience, but I was nervous about being nervous.
Years ago, I’d done a reading that I wasn’t prepared for and I stood on stage at a small bar on College St and my legs shook so hard, I was terrified my legs were going to collapse. I’m no stranger to being on stage—I was a dancer once upon a time, but there was something about being unprepared that make my body literally quake with fear.
Ever since that night, I’ve done everything I can to prep for readings. And so, as I stood in front of the mic, I realized my legs weren’t trembling and my voice wasn’t shaking and I wasn’t even fazed when airplanes kept roaring into the Island Airport!
Whether it’s an online event, or in-person, here are a few tried and true tips that have helped me prep for readings and keep the nerves at bay.
1. Choosing the right passage
Find a passage that is engaging and dynamic (without giving too much away if that’s important!). When I read from anything that’s not the very beginning of my novel, I like to summarize the intro and lead into the section that I’m reading in point form on a sticky note.
And don’t be afraid to switch it up! I’ve read the same three passages for almost a year and at a recent reading, I decided to read from a new section and it was so much fun to share a new part of the book.
Generally, you’ll be given a time limit and make sure the passage fits in that allotment. And the only way to really do that is…
2. Time yourself!
When choosing the right passage, it is essential that it fits in the time limit you’re given.
If the organizer doesn’t tell you how long you have, ask! And then aim for at least a minute shy of that mark. No one minds if you’re under the time limit, but oh, it’s not fun when a reader goes (way) over (and that often cuts into time from the other readers!)
Make sure you include time for thank yous to whoever introduced you/the organizers/your publisher, etc, and time for a little blurb about your book/project and time to provide context for the passage if necessary.
3. Practice practice practice
Practice! Out loud! I cannot stress this enough! Reading in your head and reading out loud are two entirely different things. Find the words that trip you up; figure out the oral phrasing. After that one knee-shaking reading, I will never not practice beforehand.
I even practice my thanks yous, intro, and then the passage with a timer, so I know I’m going to be within the time limit. And then, if/when I get nervous, I can lean on the rehearsals I did for when I’m on stage and the nerves hit.
4. Finding places to look up
At my last reading, I had the great pleasure of reading after the 2022 ReLit Award-winning poet, Charlie Petch, who shared a great tip for connecting with the audience. If you’re worried about losing your place when looking up at the audience, tryunderlining a word while you’re rehearsing as a cue to look up at the audience. When you look back down to continue reading, you’ll be able to find your place! Genius!
5. Additional prep
Alison Gadsby, founder, curator, and host of the Junction Reads series, shared a great tip with me about prepping for a reading: “If you're joining an event with a panel of authors, read up on the other participants. If great questions don't pop up from the audience you might be needed, and there is nothing more flattering than being asked about your work by another participant.”
6. Spread the word!
Gadsby also reminded me of the importance of sharing your event with friends and family.
“Many authors are probably scared to share the eight hundredth reading or event with friends and family, and I get it, but sharing links to series' social media pages, websites and other events, supports upcoming events and fellow authors.”
7. Mic placement
For in-person events, Petch shared a most helpful tip: ensure the microphone is set under your mouth so that audience members are able to lip read.
And if you’re masking indoors, ask the organizers if they’re able to get screen to provides closed captions to ensure accessibility.
I am a fidgeter. Having to hold a book helps, and I know I have to wear my hair up or I’ll start playing with it. Petch had a great suggestion: If you feel yourself wanting to fidget, lean on your heels. Tada! Instant fidget tamer!
That said, don’t feel like you have to apologize for talking with your hands. Why does everyone do this? Let your hands be part of the story!
9. Go slow
Time can get weird on stage—it can stretch and compress somehow at the same time. It’s easy to rush the moment you’re on stage, but trust that you’ve got time. Your audience wants to hear your words, that’s why they’re there! Trust that you’re not losing your audience, or going over your time limit (You’ve practiced! You know how long you’ve got!)
Gadsby reminded me that many audience members take a while to join the conversation with a Q&A, and it’s a good thing to remember that it’s not a reflection of your writing or reading!
“The audience is usually too scared to sound like they have a dumb question, but when they're invited in with a question (from the host or fellow panelist) it has done wonders to lift the room,” says Gadsby.
I’m not above planting some questions in the audience. I also often have members of my writing group ask Qs to get the ball rolling! Thanks, as always, Hens!
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Lindsay Zier-Vogel is a Toronto-based writer, arts educator and the creator of the internationally acclaimed Love Lettering Project. After studying contemporary dance, she received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Her writing has been widely published in Canada and the U.K. Since 2001, she has been teaching creative writing workshops in schools and communities. Her hand-bound books are housed in the permanent collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. As the creator of the Love Lettering Project, Lindsay has asked people all over the world to write love letters to their communities and hide them for strangers to find, spreading place-based love. Lindsay also writes children’s books. Because of The Love Lettering Project, CBC Radio has deemed Lindsay a “national treasure.” Letters to Amelia is her first book.