Thursday, September 15, 2016

Solid Tips: Grabbing a Live Audience

Zestful Blog Post #176

Hi! Yes, vacation was great; gorgeous vistas and happy times with old friends; more or less relevant snapshot to follow.

I’ve never been an audio-books person, preferring to listen to music in the car, or while exercising or doing chores. Just habit. But when my Lillian Byrd novels got produced by Audible this year, of course I had to start listening.

The narrator, Dina Pearlman, and I had a phone meeting before she got to work, which went well. I felt good about her voice and personality. Next I recorded for her a series of names, place names, and any idiosyncratic words and pronunciations that I thought would help her sound authentic.

Then she got to work, and a few months later the recordings were done. As I started listening to the first in the series, Holy Hell, I was struck forcefully by Dina’s competence as a vocal actress. I know most professional narrators can make just about any prose sound way better than an untrained person can, but I’d never paid all that much attention before. Having done a tiny bit of acting in community theater and as a host for corporate audios and videos, I knew basics like don’t talk too fast, and keep your gestures smooth.

But I’d never noticed so much about the technique of good reading until listening closely to Dina reading fiction I’d written. I kept thinking wow, yeah, I wouldn’t have thought to do that like this, or this like that. All this in spite of the fact that I’d read my own work aloud to audiences countless times.

[The most awesome thing about this glacier (the Dawes in Alaska) was its sound. As the thing moves, it gives off sudden huge booms and cracks, like artillery and rifle shots. Never knew about that before. Never had an opportunity to listen to that before.]

Knowing that I had a reading coming up at the Ringling College, I decided to try to fix a few things in my mind, practice them, and execute them at my reading. For your benefit, here they are:

- Go way slower, overall, than you think you should.

- Don’t rush the first couple of words in sentences, which most nonprofessionals tend to do. This alone will transform your reading-aloud performance.

- When an abrupt change happens, such as an interruption, stop cold at the em dash before going on, unhurriedly, to the next words. Like here:
            “So I think we should have a meal before we—”
            A shot rang out. [Do a real pause after that em dash.]

- Vary your cadence. Here’s the great benefit of keeping your ordinary cadence, or pace, fairly slow and deliberate: You can shift gears! When you shift up to a faster cadence, as Dina subtly but hilariously did when Lillian describes her stove-cleaning routine, you catch hold of the listener’s attention and bring their heart rate up a little bit. Then when you downshift, they keep paying attention.

- Take care to enunciate. If the word is important enough to be there, well by gosh give it its due. Pay attention especially to the ends of words, which tend to get swallowed in everyday speech. For instance, that last word, speech, should almost sound like a syllable and a half: spee-ch. See what I mean?

- Vary your tone, of course. This is especially helpful in passages of dialogue, to help make clear who’s talking. Dina was able to produce a wide variety of tones and vocal styles for different characters. For the rest of us, simply raising or lowering your pitch a little bit between characters will work.

When I gave my reading at the college, I put most of those things into practice. Tried to read as if I were making a recording, which I actually was; the film students were making a video of my gig. It was like magic, I swear to you. I read chapter one of The Extra, which concerns Rita Farmer in police costume during a movie shoot. (She wanders off set and gets drawn into a real crime scene.) The audience was a nice group to begin with—a mix of students, faculty, and members of the public—but man, they really enjoyed that reading. I tell you this not to boast of the material, but of my new and improved delivery. I’ve had audiences like my readings before, but never to this extent. They chuckled, gasped, murmured in alarm—everything you could want. I couldn’t believe how well those techniques worked.

So: TL;DR: Listen to a professional, then do like they do.

Have you an interesting experience reading aloud? Tell us about it!
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  1. Very helpful information, even if reading to a child. Thanks again for all the useful and entertaining blogs.


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