Public Reading

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

— Sir Winston Churchill

Yesterday, I attended a class on public speaking given by Jennifer Bew Orr (from our one and only Geneva Writers Group) and by John Zimmer whose website, Manner of Speaking, is chockfull of useful information and fun videos.

The reason I attended this seminar was to prepare for readings to come. Writing and reading are two very different tasks and yet part of the same job: being an author. You need to know how to deliver those gorgeous words you’ve penned, how to pick the passages most appropriate for your audience, how to adapt your tone to match your story’s rhythm, and how to articulate.


John and Jenny couldn’t stress enough that you must think of your audience first.

  • If they’re tired, keep it brief and choose a light passage. If they’re full of energy, select a vibrant passage, but still keep it brief.
  • Never exceed 5 MINUTES! That is (in most cases) your audience’s attention span.
  • Make sure that you don’t sound monotonous (i.e. vary the tonality of your voice).
  • Make notes on the passage you’re reading: jotting down breaks in places where you need to take a deeper breath, and underlining words that require a strong delivery.
  • If there are words that your audience might not know in your passage, try to mention them in your intro so that they don’t stump your audience. And then make sure to deliver them clearly.
  • Write your passage out like a poem, not as a continuum. It will help you pause at the end of each sentence.
  • If you elicit laughter, give your audience time to enjoy the moment by pausing. Pick up the reading when the glee begins dying out.


Now the other thing they both stressed was the importance of warming up your vocal cords with exercises (do this in private just before you speak). Here are some they suggested:

  • Place a pencil between your lips and read a few lines.
  • Pronounce “zzzzzz” / “pppp” / “dddd” etc… “can’t you, won’t you, don’t you” / “did you, would you, could you”
  • Trill your tongue.
  • Before everyone arrives—if you have access to the space—have a friend stand at the very back of the room and then deliver your passage. That will help you adjust your voice’s volume.
  • Do not drink anything hot, cold, or containing dairy before speaking.

Our questions to them.

We asked: About the importance of eye contact:

  • if it doesn’t make you lose your place in the story, then go ahead. If not, it won’t break your reading.

About what the audience will remember:

  • how you made them feel (but probably not much else of what you said).

About what to do if you stumble:

  • either make light of it, or pause a second, then press play (most probably, no one will notice).

About what to do if the room is big but you don’t have a microphone:

  • lower your octave, it will raise your voice’s volume.

Apparently the above book, Confessions a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun is a little jewel on public speaking.

4 thoughts on “Public Reading

  1. What a great summary! It was indeed a very useful session reminding us how to really make sure the words we have slaved over in writing come across just as well when read out loud.
    Just one small remark: I don’t think they said don’t drink anything before speaking – on the contrary, you should always have some room-temperature, still water close to hand, in case you cough or choke. But nothing too hot, too cold or too sparkly/burpy!
    I was very impressed with your reading, by the way – both content and stage presence. Thank you for coming along and sharing. Would love to read more.

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