Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nine Ways to Give a Better Reading

by Brad Phillips

We've all been to that book reading—the one where the book's author is so dull that you decide to return the book to the store shelf and buy something else instead.

I've been to many book readings through the years, and only a couple stand out as exceptional (Dave Eggers’ reading for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a rare gem).

The good news is that it's not hard for authors to improve their readings. In this article, I’ll offer nine tips writers can implement immediately to inspire audience members to buy at least one copy at the store—and sell many more through word of mouth.

1. Test The Microphone and Logistics in Advance: This is an easy one, but too many authors approach the lectern for the first time when they're about to begin their reading. Inevitably, they have to adjust the microphone, figure out where to place their water, and arrange their papers. Avoid that lousy first impression by arriving early, taking in your surroundings, and testing the microphone before the first person arrives.

2. Don't Begin With Thank You: Book readings represent the culmination of a years-long writing and publishing process, and authors are understandably grateful to those who have helped them reach that moment. But authors who begin by thanking their publisher, editor, cover artist, publicity staff, and spouse risk putting their audiences to sleep.

Remember—a book reading is an opportunity to sell your book. If you begin your speech with a soporific or redundant opening, you're less likely to achieve your goal. Begin with something that grabs the audience's attention first—then go back, if necessary, and deliver your thank yous.

3. Don't Read The Book to The Audience: Your audience can read your book themselves. Little is more monotonous than hearing someone else reading words aloud. Great authors elevate the text by using a compelling vocal delivery to emphasize key phrases, increasing the tempo to build suspense, and modulating their volume to match the content. Listen to a bestselling book on tape to get a sense of how the pros do it.

4. Match the Talk to Your Strengths: Are you a great extemporaneous storyteller? Why kill that part of your personality by merely reading from your book? Instead, consider reading a small excerpt of the book, then telling an extemporaneous story (you can alternate between the two throughout your talk).

5. Err on the Side of Too Little: How long should your talk be? Just long enough to sell your book, and not a moment longer. That’s a hard balance to strike, but my bias is to be on the slightly too short side (perhaps that's because I'm 5'5". But I digress). It's better to leave your audience wanting more than to wear them down—so keep the reading to about half an hour (experienced speakers can go a bit longer), plus 15-20 minutes for questions. Stick around afterwards to answer remaining questions from audience members who approach you.

6. Set Up the Questions and Answers: Before you begin taking questions, tell the audience how long you plan to answer questions. Twenty minutes might feel like an eternity if they have no clue how long you're planning on going, but it's fine if they can anticipate when the ending point will arrive. Keep your answers short—five-minute answers tend to bog down the question and answer portion of the talk.

7. Prepare for the Obvious Questions: A surprising number of writers fumble through their answers to basic questions. Think through the answers to the most obvious questions in advance, such as:

"What does the title mean?"
"What did you learn when writing the book?"
"What was the biggest surprise along the way?"
"What did the subject(s) of the book think of it?"
"What are the subject(s) doing now?"
"Was the character inspired by a real person?"

8. Repeat Questions for the Audience: Since many book readings are recorded, this is important even in small groups when everybody can hear the question.

9. Don't Limp to the Finish Line: Great books have a great closing, and so do great book readings. Instead of ending your talk the moment you finish answering your last question, provide a quick wrap-up. Your official closing doesn't have to last long—30 – 60 seconds is fine—but even those few seconds allow you to leave the audience remembering exactly what you want them to.

If you're stumped, try adding a very short anecdote at the end. Choose one that is emblematic of your book's theme and that helps reinforce one of your book's main takeaway points.

(Check out the original post here.)

Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, where a version of this story first appeared. His firm, Phillips Media Relations, specializes in media and presentation training.


  1. Thanks for the advice! I'm not published yet but will definitely try to remember this for future use! (I do moderate a panel at a local book convention, though, so maybe some of these tips will be useful there.)

  2. Good advice! My novel comes out in December, so I have about 9 months left to get myself ready for those scary readings.

  3. I would be utterly quaking in my boots if I had to do one of these things ;)

  4. VERY helpful! Thank you. Now, if only I'll remember this when I need it!

  5. Brad - thank you for one of my favorite posts ever! I'm serious - I'm bookmarking this puppy.

    As a weirdo who loves nothing more than going up on stage - I've done stand-up comedy, among other things - the above scenario is my dream of dreams. Too much fun, right there.

  6. Good post! A publisher once said to me, "treat your reading like a movie trailer and the DVD extras" and that's worked well for me. A coupe of short sections, some "behind the scenes" stories, some questions and we're done!

    I went to a reading the other day and it was painful when the author just wouldn't stop reading. The audience was lost and he hadn't noticed. At 15 minutes I was ready to buy. At 45 I was contemplating sneaking out.

    I think his post is good practical advice except #1. I've yet to see a bookstore prepared to do a sound check.

  7. Excellent! 'Tis true that some writers are not prepared to reach an audience whilst in person. What helps to sell my novel is to read excerpts in my best Glaswegian I can conjure up; this alone sells books. Authors who write fiction: did you fall in love with and also hated some characters you created? Then read aloud as you created. This is how I engage my potential book buyers and also, jokingly, insist them read my Scottish characters with their best Scottish burr.

  8. One question that I always get asked: "What's your writing schedule like?"

    And if you are ever speaking to teens, get prepared for a blunt: "How much do you make?"

  9. Excellent! I have a reading scheduled in a week and these tips are very helpful

  10. Some great advice there. I will be giving readings soon when my novel is published later this year and I'm petrified. Maybe preparation will make me less scared.

  11. Thank you for the advice, Brad! Frankly the prospect of doing a reading at all terrifies me, but it'll be handy having a checklist of things to keep in mind if (when) that day comes. :)

  12. Few do it well. It's a problem of the same voice, however pleasant, going on for too long. My novel is the story of a flamenco singer during the Spanish civil war. I'm from New York and talk through my nose. So I purchased a local flamenco guitarist's CD, picked out five instrumental pieces and began "fitting" passages to them. Then I drove him crazy until he agreed to collaborate with me. People love the show and the books sell when it's over, not before. We've copyrighted and recorded the seven-track creation and my goal is to get a real actress or other professional voice to sign-on and replace me so as to make this a new and successful "musical audio book" concept for an adventurous publisher.

  13. So glad to see this article! It's not a topic you see covered often. I've done 4 readings so far, and this article will help me refine how I approach such events!