From: Sheila

Just want to say thank you for your piece on author readings. I have done many over the past eight years, but always wonder if I am “doing it right”. So with one scheduled for tomorrow and another in two weeks, I went in search of someone else’s perspective and found your article. [Author Readings: a guide] Thanks for that.

What I am struggling with is how to connect the audience with the piece I am about to read. My books are collections of short personal essays with the humorous ones getting the best reaction when I read. In the past I sort of said hello and started right into reading. But I am feeling that I need to ease them in with a bit of talk about the subject of the essay I am about to read.

Do you have any tips to offer?

Yes. Ease them in. Say hello, tell them how happy (or not) you are to be there. And why. Tell them what you’re going to read. Tell them how long you’ll read, and what happens after that. Audiences don’t like to be surprised. Give them context: don’t be afraid to tell them the mood of what they’re about to hear: funny or sad, joyful or grim, frightening or sexy. Audiences love knowing what to expect. (Go read up on the science and marketing of movie trailers: the more you tell and audience about the film, the more likely they are to want to go see it, and–when they are watching it–to enjoy it.) Tell them what to expect. Then give them what you promised.

Here are two examples of my reading–from the same book (And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, my memoir), and on the same evening (a reading at Hugo House). ANWAGTHAP is a book with a serious arc but light moments.

There’s a lot of stuff missing, and the poor sound quality makes me sound as though I have a lisp (I really don’t), but you can see how I set the context for the first reading: that it’s meant to be short and light.

For the second, I signal that although it, too, will be amusing in places, it is more complicated, emotionally: some light bits but serious at its core.

I like to give my audience a notion of the emotional flavour of what I’m about to read. But I work hard to never, ever insist on it. If I read something I think is sexy and people laugh, then it’s not the audience that’s at fault, but me: the writing, or the delivery, or the context-setting. Blaming the audience is counter-productive.

One of the first readings I went to, long ago, was a standing-room-only performance by Alice Walker. She talked for a while. We laughed. Then she read a poem. At the first line, we (mostly women; lots of people of colour, lots of white people) laughed. She flew into a rage: It was not funny! She lambasted us for at least two minutes.

The thing is, it was funny. She might not have meant it to be funny, but it was, because that’s what we were primed for. So we laughed. And then we felt stupid. And racist. And guilty. We (I, certainly) felt resentful.

Here’s a tip: you never, ever want to make your buying public feel stupid, resentful, or guilty.

If Walker had simply said, This next poem is about horror and racism, we would have listened differently. We would have been primed.

So set the context, especially the emotional context. Then have fun. (Or feel righteous rage. Or wildly hot. Or a sensawunda.) Just let the audience know what to expect.

I hope that helps.