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Opinion: Why Less is More When Reading or Performing Your Work in Public

Dan Holloway head and shoulders photo

Dan Holloway, performance poet and author extraordinaire

An invitation to read your self-published book before an audience at literary festivals and other events provides a great opportunity to gain new readers – if you do it well. It can also be great fun, allowing you to connect with readers and to experience direct feedback on your work.

But only if you time it right. While instinct might tell you that if you’re given the chance, you should spend as long as you can on stage, to build a better bond with the audience, read on, to hear why award-winning performance poet Dan Holloway recommends sticking to a strict three-minute performance.

Three Minutes of Fame

I get up in front of people and say my words a lot. Both poetry and prose. I also run a lot of events. The combination gives a fascinating insight into what makes a reading work well.

The really interesting thing is that from both sides, three minutes works incredibly well if you are putting together a series of readings.

Practical for the Organiser

For an organiser, with a tight schedule you have very carefully crafted so as to do right by audience, venue, and every author with their individual needs, you need people to stick to the time you have given them. Not doing so is, quite simply, rude. And three minutes of reading means five minutes per person, once you’ve introduced them, people have applauded, and everyone’s done the shimmy to the front and back again (when you see a time that says you’re reading at 7.45 and the next person’s on at 7.50, and the organiser has said you have three minutes, they *mean* three minutes and these changeover rituals are why). And five minutes is an easy time to work with.

Most Winning with the Audience

For both of you, though, there’s another reason three minutes works. And that reason is the most important thing about the whole event. Your audience. What do you both want for your audience? You want them to go away and tell everyone about these amazing writers they heard. And to just have to find the books of the ones they really loved – the books they didn’t walk out with under their arm.

Which brings me to another incidental point about multi-author events and three minutes. The thing with such wonderful diverse events is that everyone will love something. And no one will love everything. And that’s how it should be. And everyone’s prepared to sit through three minutes of something they’re not into to wait for the stuff they might really love. 27 minutes – not so much. People might leave. Because of you. That’s the audience you’ve annoyed, for that reason the organiser, too, and also those fellow authors who never got heard by people who might have loved them.

Anyway, back to the real reason for three minutes.

The Gold Standard

Three minutes is the standard length allowed for readings at a poetry slam, because it maximises the author’s ability to demonstrate their skills without pushing the reader’s attention span to breaking. And this holds for prose as much as it does for poetry. For that reason, even if what you have to sell is a novel, then (unless you write thrillers and have that classic ba-doom prologue) I recommend you read short/flash fiction, because the perfect reading is a showcase for your skills, a sampler. It should:

  • show that you can tell a story – it needs to go from somewhere to somewhere
  • show that you can do character – it needs to show you can handle motivation and interaction and the way action and motivation relate

The one caveat is that whilst it’s great to show you do good dialogue, you should have your dialogue as sparse as possible. It’s really hard to make chunks of dialogue in a reading

The other advantage of a short/flash is you don’t lose your audience in the contextualising.  Again, slam is a great teacher – the clock starts when you address the audience.

A great reading isn’t three minutes *plus* “this is how I came to write the book, this is what happened previously and what is facing my character now”, it’s three minutes including that. A self-contained piece needs little or no introduction.

So the perfect set? By all means give us your elevator pitch, a really witty or catchy intro, say 15-20 seconds, and allow the audience five seconds to laugh, squirm, applaud uproariously. Then read for two and a half minutes, thank everyone, and wave your book as you leave in triumph.

Still not convinced? Then witness Dan practising what he preaches:

OVER TO YOU

  • Do you agree or disagree with Dan, and if so, why? We’d love to hear your verdict!
  • Do you have other tips to share about how to do a public reading?
  • Do you have anecdotes to share about your own public readings? We’d love to hear them!
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18 Responses to Opinion: Why Less is More When Reading or Performing Your Work in Public

  1. Sarah June 2, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    I would say I mostly agree. For me I have trouble writing novels, as I was mostly born and raised in short fiction.

    My issue is reading speed is relative. My room mate can read half a 20,000 word novella in an hour and a half.

    So I’m unsure if 300 words would actually be three minutes. My poetry might be a safer bet.

    • Sarah June 2, 2016 at 9:28 am #

      In fact the one near novel I have (I mostly have poems, shorts, novellas, and a script) is structured as a story collection.

      So it wouldn’t be to hard just reading a small portion of chapter one.

  2. Barry Knister February 22, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

    Dan–
    This all makes good sense to me. I think you’re also right in arguing against fiction writers trying to read from more than one piece.
    I’ll add something else about this issue as it applies to something else: writers’ groups. I once belonged to one, but was driven away by the tedium of having to sit through long recitations of other people’s work. I came to think the whole exercise had little to do with gaining feedback, and mostly to do with self-assertion. I just couldn’t endure the long preamble setups, followed by even longer readings. None of it was worth a glass or two of jug wine.

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

      Oh yes – writers’ groups work much better when whatever’s being discussed is circulated beforehand so people can get their thoughts together and then get on with talking about the piece when you meet

  3. Edmund Pickett February 22, 2016 at 6:40 pm #

    I completely agree about introductions. Avoid them! If they’re necessary then they should be part of the story. If they’re not essential skip them!! We the audience don’t need to know where you were or what you were doing when you got the idea for the story, or who you think your literary influences are or if you’re now solo, married or single parent, we only want the story. Just the story. I think singer/songwriters are the worst offenders with introductions but poets and novelists can also transgress badly.
    The point about avoiding dialogue is also spot on. If you read your dialogue as written, chances are the audience will get lost concerning who is speaking. That’s because with text, we let the formatting show that the speaker has changed. When you’re live there are no paragraph breaks or line changes or quotation marks. When you decide to read your text live, for an audience or for an audiobook recording, you need to add some more “he said/she saids.” Otherwise you will have to put long pauses every time the speaker changes, unless you are a master of accents and voices. I recently decided to record one of my novels for audiobook release and after recording three chapters I realized I had to stop and revise the entire book so it would make sense for those encountering it on headphones. A live audience is in the same position. Don’t be afraid to stick in those “he said” and “she saids.” Or take Dan’s advice and avoid dialogue!

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

      Very good points there for the increasing number of people making audiobooks

  4. Francis Guenette February 22, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    Excellent advice whether part of a group or presenting poetry or longer works of fiction at an event on one’s own. Dan’s short video clip made me realize that three minutes is longer than one might imagine. When I’ve done readings at book shops and libraries, I’ve always chosen three to four short pieces (2 to 3 minutes of reading for each) and interspersed these with questions and comments. Sure works for me since I detest holding center stage. Great post

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 4:57 pm #

      interspersing with questions works well – it breaks things up and keeps people much more interested than the rather long introductions many of us are prone to using as segues

  5. Amy Shojai, CABC (@amyshojai) February 22, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    I’ve not done a lot of readings, but do a lot of YouTube videos and the time typically is even shorter (2 minutes is LOOOONG for that). I write thrillers, nonfiction and lyrics/songs, and have found that short and sweet works best.

    The exception may be when you’re the solo attraction at a book club event. I was asked to read from my debut thriller LOST AND FOUND, and stopped at a cliff-hanger moment midway through an early chapter. And the audience begged me to finish the chapter (and then bought the book!). So judge your audience, too.

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

      Yes, always be nimble in judging your audience – unless you are part of a schedule in which case by all means change what you were going to read but not the time you take to read it!

  6. clare weiner February 22, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

    Hum: I am going to be very challenged, since I only have novels to read from (except poems) and shan’t be writing a flash piece specially … ! But I get the reasons … all very reasonable …

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

      Looking forward to hearing what you come up with for us 🙂

  7. Marc Nash February 22, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    I’ve been on several bills with Dan and love his work and his performance. But I have a couple of caveats. As an indie-writer, when you’re paying your own train fare to Bristol or Brighton or Oxford, that’s a lot of money to fork out for a three minute slot. It’s largely why I’ve as yet resisted trying to get readings in Manchester (the land of my mother) and Hartlepool where I know some people…

    I did a gig in Brixton where there were maybe 10 readers and we had 5 minutes each. For me that was 2 flash stories. Virtually impossible to get 2 flash in 3 minutes. I think it works more for slam poetry than prose.

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

      I think that’s a very good point about what happens when you are paying your own expenses. I think it depends what you want out of it – if you want readers to go away desperate to find out more about you and buy your books, I still think less is more is the best way. I’m not a fan of two pieces for a reading, because I think the journey you have as a listener becomes confused. I think that works better with a split bill – everyone reads once, there’s a break, every one reads a second time. And a full set by an expert performer is of course a whole other matter.

      If there’s anyone who doesn’t know Marc’s work, btw, please take a look – he pushes prose forms to their absolute breaking point and comes out with something remarkable

  8. Debbie Young February 22, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    As someone who organises events (http://www.hulitfest.com), as well as one who enjoys reading at them, I am delighted to have this post to help persuade authors to keep their readings short, for everyone’s benefit. And having just been reading (a very short story) myself last night as part of a ten-reader event, I appreciate how much harder it is to stay attentive to a really long reading, even when the words are great and the delivery is terrific. Thanks for this great piece, Dan, I’m sure it’ll be used again and again by event organisers!

    • Dan Holloway February 22, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

      Really looking forward to HU Litfest. You’ve done a remarkable job putting it together!

      • Debbie Young February 24, 2016 at 8:52 am #

        Thanks, Dan, I think it’s going to be great fun – and I am so grateful to you and all the authors and illustrators taking part for donating their services so that we can make this a free festival, open and accessible to all. 🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Keep it Short, Stupid | Pills & Pillow-Talk - February 23, 2016

    […] You may like to read: 10 Tabloid Tips to Better Writing, from Writer’s Digest and my writing colleague Dan Holloway on Why Less is More When Reading or Performing Your Work in Public. […]

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