How To Read To An Audience
by Steve Rapson
You read your best when you use your normal speaking voice. You increase the communication quotient if vary your pace: faster, slower, silence even. Experiment with volume. Allow your voice to modulate up and down as you would in normal conversation but be more purposeful about it. Try reading the beginning of phrases a bit louder and then trail downward. The opposite is also effective. Do this without any other emphasis. And, of course, the looking around and at people is the next level for true audience connection. Once the people decide they like you, you can recite the ABC's and they will find it a fine bit of work. They will like you if you give evidence that you like them and are interested in connecting with them, and not at all concerned about whether they will like your piece, or anything else that is not about them.
The Power of Silence
My seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Gilgan, used to read choice student papers aloud to the class. One day she read mine. It was about waking up on a Saturday morning and seeing the sun streaming through my dusty bedroom window, hearing cheeping birds, gentle wind rustling wet new leaves, brother and sister arguing in the bathroom.
As she read my paper, she paused at a particularly poignant moment, I thought. With her arms folded across her ample dowager-like bosom, she inhaled slowly while surveying the class to see if they were catching the full impact of this fine bit of writing. At least that is my memory of it. Virginia Nihill (whose brother used to regularly beat me up)stage-whispered to me across the aisle during this pause, "You didn't write that!" Even then I realized the compliment she was inadvertently bestowing, and would surely have withheld had she thought about it. The silence was powerful and none of us stirred in our seats, making Virginia's whisper easily heard by all. I have since seen many a speaker use that technique: The great pause and the sweeping gaze over the room. I got an A+ and happy memories of how silence was the best part of Mrs. Gilgan reading my essay to the seventh grade.
Prelude to Memorizing
Try the following reading technique:
You may fear that your piece will drag doing this. It will not. This is a performance technique taught to presidents, preachers, & teachers; experienced speakers of all kinds do this.
Memorize, Then Forget
Robert Frost said, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." I would extrapolate that to, "No surprise for the reader, no surprise for the listener." As your piece unfolds try to re-discover it as you read. This will inform your performance with no extra effort on your part. A good way to prepare to do this is to know your piece so well you can forget about it. Actors do this. They let each cue lead them to their next line. They are always a line or two away from being tripped up. The result is that they say their lines as if they are occurring to them at the moment. It is a secret of the acting profession: know your lines and forget them. When you have honed your material to its sharpest and then apply this high level skill to its performance only good things can happen. To name a few:
1. You will command the silence.
The hardest technique for a speaker to learn is to not speak. This little system automatically builds in silence.
2. You will make a personal connection with one to several audience members with your eye contact.
To connect with the audience you must look at them early and often. You cannot look at them while reading. You don't have to memorize everything all at once. Try to hold a few lines in your head and deliver them to the audience, or to the wall if you're at home. Look down when you run out of lines.
3. You will begin to memorize your pieces.
By practicing and performing this way you will be burning the words in with no additional work except perhaps reading your words through a few more times than you normally would.
4. You will own the room.
Owning the room is not an arrogant thing. It means that there is nothing else going on the room that is more interesting than you. Our job as performers is to compact and heighten our natural communication abilities so that, for the moment, we are larger than ourselves and thus can contain the whole room and everyone in it for the time that we are doing our act. When the act is over, we return to our normal proportions and are no longer the most interesting thing going on in the room. Some of us forget this, to our detriment.
You will be at your best once you are "off the page" and all of you is available to the audience. Looking at them and speaking in your normal voice while delivering that which you have carefully written is the highest level for speakers of all kinds. It is not easy, but neither is it impossible.
Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium