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!