What are some tips for reading poetry out loud when you have anxiety?

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Answered by: Kathryne, An Expert in the Poetry on Stage Category
Reading your own writing out loud can be a terrifying experience, especially for beginners. Sharing something that you created, something meaningful to you or something from the heart, is intimidating even for those who’ve been around for decades. It’s bad enough on its own, but these nerves can multiply a thousandfold if you have social anxiety.

These are some of the things I've learned that have helped with my anxiety while reading poetry out loud, and I hope they’ll help you discover a love for reading your work, too.

1. Find a safe place

If you’re just starting out, finding a safe, welcoming venue can do wonders. Do a little research and find a small, casual open mic night or reading series and find out how to get involved. Attend a few sessions before you read. Gauge the audience reactions to different pieces, if they’re polite and encouraging or disinterested and curt. While it may seem counter intuitive, reading to a disinterested crowd is worse for anxiety than one that’s actually paying attention.

2. Start small

Reading poetry out loud, a lot of it, is challenging. Choose 1-3 to start, or a section of a short story. Aim for about 5 minutes. That should give you enough time to find a groove, but not so long that you’re up there quaking in your stylish but functional boots. Most readings have limits, and it’s better to go under than over. Audiences--and especially organizers--can get uncomfortable or antsy when they know things are supposed to be moving along.

3. Look up

Psychologists believe that changing your posture can affect your emotional state, and the more confident you seem, the more confident you’ll actually feel. You don’t have to make eye contact with anyone, either. If you’ve a friend or family member in the audience that can encourage you, great! But if you’re nervous about looking at the crowd, find a spot over their heads or on the wall behind them.

4. Don’t use your phone

A lot of readers use their smartphones to read from, but if you have anxiety, it’s not always a great plan. Cell phones provide more complications than a simple print out, such as accidental scrolls, screens going black. and so on. The best thing to do is have a clear, large print out of your work, something you don’t have to squint at.

5. Sit down

Most places will also have a chair you can use. If your legs feel wobbly, sit down! Venues often use adjustable mics, and no one will mind if you sit for your reading. Just be sure to let the organizer know ahead of time, so no one is scrambling just before you go on.

6. Don’t preface your poems.

A short introduction is okay-- “This poem is for my father,”or “I wrote this when I was in Bermuda"--but don’t give a lengthy speech about it. Pausing between poems to tell their backstory gives you too much time to over analyze the room, and think about what other people are thinking and doing. A pause between each poem, or simple, “This next one is called ‘The River’” is good enough.

7. Don’t diss your work

“I haven’t written a lot I hope it’s not bad,” or “This is a rough draft, sorry” or “I’m not sure about this one” are no-gos. Not only does it signal to the audience that you aren’t confident in your work, it also makes them wary about what they’re about to hear. Instead, just read your work and let it stand on its own.

8. Speak slow and clear

You might want to get the reading over with as fast as possible, but rushing through it doesn’t help. Speaking slowly can also help regulate your breathing, which in turn will calm you down and give you a clearer head. You won’t stumble as much, and audiences will enjoy the reading a lot more if they can understand you.

9. Don’t beat yourself up

If your first reading isn’t brilliant, that’s okay! Sharing your work out loud is an art form, just like any other, that has to be be practiced before it can be mastered. If you stuttered, if you fubbed a line, even if you completely tanked, don’t beat yourself up! With anxiety, we’re always prone to overthinking/over-analyzing every situation. Try not to. Take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself that you did it!

10. Practice practice practice

The best way to get better at anything is to practice. When you’ve got anxiety, going into any situation where you feel like you don’t have control can be nerve-wracking. So before any reading, take the time to practice. But make sure it’s out loud--reading it in your head is a completely different experience than reading something aloud.

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