It’s open mic night. It seems simple enough. Just get up there and read your work, right? Not quite. As the saying goes, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. My suggestion is to go a step further: read like a pro.
Not that you’re expecting to be paid to read your poem or prose piece to a group of ten to thirty people, but it’s better to read as if you’re getting paid for it. “Professionalism” is really about doing your best, delivering a quality product, satisfying your customers and making them want to come back for more. It’s both substance and image, the steak and the sizzle. Some tips:
Be ready to read. Have your poetry or prose handy and in the correct order. If you plan to read from a book or electronic device, flag the pieces in advance.
Approach the stage briskly. Try to reach the microphone before the applause dies out. A brisk approach will energize you and raise the level of anticipation in the audience. If you have a mobility impairment, sit close to the mic, so you have less distance to cover, and ask for assistance if needed.
Treat the microphone as your friend. Speak up! The number of readers who can’t be clearly heard outnumber those who are “too loud” by a factor of at least 10 to one. Understand that not all microphones are the same. Some work just fine 12 inches from your face; others you almost have to kiss. Could you hear the readers ahead of you? If not, speak louder or get closer to the mic. Don’t tap on the mic, but feel free to ask, “Can you folks on the back row hear me clearly?”
Limit introductory and transitional remarks.You’re sharing time on the stage with other readers, so be considerate of everyone’s time.
Speak in the Goldilocks Zone. Reading in a monotone can make a good poem or story sound dull. Reading in a bombastic or melodramatic manner can be annoying to the audience. Find that “Goldilocks Zone” in between. Give your transitional remarks a slightly different “voice” than your reading—just enough so the audience can tell the difference between your remarks and your reading. I remember attending one open mic where the author used the same tone and inflection in her remarks as in her poems. The audience didn’t know when to clap.
Make eye contact. To the extent you can do so without losing your place, look up occasionally from the page and make eye contact with the audience. Try to scatter your eye contact so that people on the right, left, in the middle, front and back feel as though you are speaking to them personally. This helps the audience to stay engaged and shows that you are interested in them.
Don’t apologize for your work.People don’t want to hear, “I wrote this ten minutes ago on a cocktail napkin” or “I know this a piece of crap but I’m going to read it anyway.” Just do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Do what you can to look good, sound good, and show interest in the audience. Who knows? Someday you might actually get paid for reading your work.
Richard Allen Taylor is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Armed and Luminous (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016). Richard’s poems, articles and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Comstock Review, The Pedestal, Iodine Poetry Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Toastmaster Magazine and South Carolina Review, among others. He currently serves as review editor for The Main Street Rag and formerly co-edited Kakalak. After retiring from his 44-year business career in 2013, Richard earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2015.