Performing a Live Reading

Readings can be daunting. This series looks at how to survive a live reading, with this essay focusing on performing successfully.

Image Credit: 
© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Practicing

On the day of your live reading you will be nervous. Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. Some people turn to liquid courage and have a few drinks first. If you need to then go ahead, but don’t drink so much that you cannot read words from a page. I prefer to go about these things with a relatively clear head, so I’m usually stone sober when I read, but that’s just personal preference. A lot of people find a drink or two will loosen them up and lower their inhibitions enough that they can climb onto a stage and speak to a room full of people.

Make sure you are at least on time, if not a little early. It’s not cool but it prevents you feeling rushed and in a panic. You want to remain as calm and unflustered as possible, especially if this is your first time. It’s also worth going through a few last minute checks. Have you got everything you need? The piece is printed? Any props you require are with you? You’re dressed up and look amazing?


Now onto the event itself.

Warm Up

A musician tunes their instrument before they perform. Your voice is your instrument, and you need to treat it the same. Vocal exercises and treating your throat properly will help your reading go smoothly and put you at ease, as they take your mind away from what you are about to do.

Don’t drink coffee too close to reading. It dehydrates your throat. To be honest, don’t drink too much of anything beforehand. Right before you go on stage your bladder will decide it is full, even if you just emptied it. Don’t give it more ammunition that it already has.

Before you undertake any vocal warm-ups, gargle a mouthful of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or equivalent cola drink. It will foam in your throat, but that is simply a side effect of the liquid clearing away all the old mucus that lines the top of your windpipe. Mouthwash works almost as well, but if you have neither to hand just go for the most sugary, fizzy liquid you can get. Beer doesn’t work.

© 2016 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

© 2016 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

You now need to replace the cleared mucus with fresh stuff to prevent your throat getting dry when speaking. There is a great trick here, and it is as odd as it is effective. Eat a Babybel or two, but make sure you chew them up until they are practically dissolved before you swallow them. Something in the lactose causes a reaction in the throat that lines it with mucus, ensuring you can talk comfortably, whilst projecting your voice, and not dry out. If you are vegan, lactose intolerant, or cannot stand cheese, then try brushing your teeth with twice as much toothpaste as you would usually use; although this doesn’t work as well, it creates a similar effect.

Now your throat is ready to go, you need to tune your vocal chords. Talk, make sounds, read tongue twisters. Read through this whole list out loud:

The next nest will not necessarily be next to nothing.

Little lucky Luke likes lakes, lucky little Luke likes licking lakes.

Only royal oily royal oil boils.

Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran.

Jingle jungle jangle joker jangle jungle joker jingle.

Peter Prangle, the prickly pear picker, picked three perfectly prickly pears.

Don’t doubt the doorbell, but differ with the doorknob.

I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch.

Xylophones exist or so existentialists insist.

Can I cook a proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee pot?

Six stick shifts stuck shut, stuck shift stick shut six.

Big black bug bit a big black bear and the big black bear bled black blood.

Zoologists illogically love to read astrology.

Grab the groundhog from the glazed grass.

Moronic monkeys make monopoly monotonous.

The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday.

The free thugs set three thugs free.

How can a clam cram in a clean cream can?

You should now be ready to speak. Make sure you have a full glass or bottle of water to take on stage with you. Take a sip beforehand, you’ll need it.

On Stage

Put your shoulders back, hold your head high, walk with a straight back and smile. Smiling changes the muscles in your face and can be heard in your voice, and also releases hormones into your bloodstream improving your self-esteem, therefore enhancing your vocal projection. Make sure you move with purpose—fake confidence and it will come to you. Everyone will be nervous, but some more than others. If you feel your nerves are really affecting you then tell the audience, but only tell them once. They’ll forgive your nerves, but they won’t forgive you constantly trying to excuse them.

Talk clearly and with emotion. The tone of your voice is just as important as what you are saying, if not more so. Be passionate and enthusiastic when you speak. There is nothing more boring than listening to someone drone on in the same monotonous voice. Feel what you say.

Stand tall. Slouching or leaning forward constricts your diaphragm, leaving you with less lung capacity. Good posture improves both the projection and resonance of your voice. Remember to breathe. Slow down your delivery, you will always talk faster than you think you are. Use dramatic pauses to take deep breaths and refill your lungs, ready for the next sentence.

As you speak, share your eye contact with the audience. It may well be that there are bright lights pointing at you so you can’t see anyone. Even if there isn’t, what you are going to see is an ocean of people; you won’t really be able to focus on any individuals, at least not immediately. Don’t worry. Glance around in the direction of the audience, pausing for a microsecond every time you move your eyes. From the audience point of view you will be looking them all straight in the eye, talking to them.

Eye contact is the most overlooked aspect of live readings. If you don’t make eye contact with your audience there is a risk they won’t connect with you, or with what you are saying. As you read your piece, look up from the paper. Remember the audience are there. Look at them. They’re not that scary.

Don’t Ad Lib

Obviously before you read, and after, feel free to improvise as much as you want. But whilst you are reading your piece, that thing you have spent a long time writing and working on, stick to the script. An audience cannot tell the difference between you reading and you just saying things. They will believe anything you say in the midst of your piece is scripted, is part of it. So when you feel tempted to drop in a humorous or sarcastic comment, or a wry or factual aside, don’t.

If it’s not in the piece it shouldn’t be said during the piece.

How long did you spend ensuring that sentence was perfectly crafted? How much effort and life did you put into assembling those words in that order? Don’t ruin it by adding in extra things. It won’t be funny, it won’t be clever, and it won’t work. If anything, it will be detrimental to what you are reading. If you really have to mention that this paragraph in your short story is true, or that line of your poem was something your ex-boyfriend used to say, then say it at the start, or better, at the end.

Be Gracious

Hopefully, if you’ve done your job properly, people will applaud. Be gracious in your acceptance of praise. Smile, thank the audience, but don’t act like you’re Mick Jagger. You’re not.


The only real way of succeeding in a live reading is to do it. Your first is likely to be at a small venue with only a few people there, so this is a chance to get things wrong and improve. Print off a few things and test them out. Read them to your family. Read them to your friends. Go to reading nights. There are plenty of poetry and prose open-mic sessions around these days, you just turn up and share. The more you do, the more comfortable you become with the situation. You’ll still get nervous, but at least you’ll know what you are doing.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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