Ten Suggestions for Reading in Public
Once your book is published you become passive and the reader becomes active. The dynamics change when you read your work in public. Now you are back in charge in the most wonderful way. You make decisions about how the listener will hear your words. Here’s how. For ease, let’s use the beginning of the Gettysburg Address. Of the five handwritten originals, this one is from the ABC website. Use it as your template for the exercises.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
Goal One: CLARITY - Place a forward slash between the words AND every syllable. Read it out loud with a heartbeat pause at each slash. It feels un-natural, but trust me. The pause gives the word following importance in the ear of your listener. Note how the written comma, semi-colon, and period mean nothing to the reader getting the meaning across. More on this later.
Goal Two: BREATHE - Take time to breathe; chart it. A dramatic pause is NOT a giant gasp to gather oxygen for a deprived body. Learn to plan when to breathe in your oral interpretation notes.
Goal Three: VENUE – Don’t be comfortable. Your goal is to be active, not passive like you’ll feel in a comfy easy chair. Instead hang onto a podium or lean against a stool.
Goal Four: EMPHASIS – Pick out the words you want to emphasize and those you want to de-emphasize. Now vary the pause with a relative importance using one / for heartbeat, // for two, and /// for three. See example below. (Notice that the comma often is followed by unimportant words—like ‘a’, ‘and’, ‘as’. Periods are followed by ‘now’, ‘we’. I doubt those are the words deserving the importance the pause places on them. When reading out loud you barely break at those grammar marks which were so important when seeing them on the page. You are reading to someone’s ear.)
Four score and seven years ago our /fathers brought forth on this continent, a /new //nation, /conceived in Li/ber/ty, and ///dedicated to the proposition that ///all //men are /created //equal.
Try different combinations and hear the difference. You make the choice of importance through conscious decisions of what YOU want to stress.
Goal Five: VOLUME – underline words you want to say louder. Whereas the pauses provide importance to words, volume provides hard substance. In the example above draw a single underline mark beneath 'new', 'conceived', 'dedicated'. Double underline ‘all’ and triple underline ‘equal’. Increase your volume on single underlines, louder for double, and still louder for triple.
Goal Six: MELODY – Now you play with the forward marks and the underlined volume marks. Notice, as you read, how the increase in volume on one word leads to a new gentle or perhaps violent dawning for the next in line. Look at ‘/new //nation’. You can roll gently off the increased volume of ‘new’ into an elongated and even louder ‘nation’, giving it an awe inspiring elegance. By this point, you’ve moved the 2D words to 3D and given them a forward movement. Use vocal variance from soprano to bass to color the work and give it a melody. No monotones!
Goal Seven: PACE – If you thought you were harsh with your editing knife writing your first pages, it will be baby play compared to this step. You can’t emphasize every word through an extended reading. You’ll bore your listeners. They crave the pauses, but too many and you deaden their ears. Therefore, you chose what is important and what is not. Every word is important and must be perfectly clear, but you must decide what is MOST important. Then you learn to crisply rush over the less important. The listener accepts it, but will CRAVE the paused & volume controlled important words.
This means you can virtually run sentences together, completely ignore prepositional phrases, and all sorts of things to attain your goal. Sometimes things like a long series of prepositional phrases so pretty to the eye on the page, get be just as lyrical as you bounce quickly across the surface of them for your listeners. “Over the bridge and through the snow to…” The bridge and the snow aren’t important words--over and through are. The phrases add flavor and beats that lead up to the important /grandmother’s /house we go. There is a great short story by John Greene, I think, that is filled with tension and suspense, but just before each ‘got you’ moment he lulls the reader with beautiful ten or twelve prepositional phrases. Then BOOM.
Goal Eight: EMOTIONAL TONE – We’ve changed your words from 2D on the page to 3D for the listener’s ear and given it forward motion and drive. Now we add EMOTION or more accurately an EMOTIONAL HOME. You won’t read about a death with the same tone as reading about two kids playing in the sandbox. Smile when you answer a phone and the person on the other end will hear it. Imagine your pet dying and your words convey sadness. Find emotion in your printed words and let it out. Don’t act it out, but let your voice hold the emotion. If you want to get clinical, it’s a matter of tightness in your vocal box and facial expression, perhaps use your hands, and the all incredible vibrato you can add like an opera singer can. Yeah, that one takes practice—so keep it simple.
Goal Nine and Ten: HAVE FUN – and so will your readers.