Stage fright for authors

Me, only slightly awkward, talking at PF Wessex 2016.

This is a blog inspired by Myslexia – – to take part in a wider blog project. Thank you for the inspiration!

Most authors are, by nature, shy and retiring creatures. It’s an introverted career path, calling for long periods of silence, deep though and not interacting with others. Writers like to hide from the world, emerging blinking into the light between chapters, or when the coffee calls. However, once the book is written, and the reality of trying to sell it kicks in, the author has to become someone who can talk in public.

Podcasts, interviews, talks, book readings, workshops, panels at events… to sell books an author has to connect with people, and for many this is a tricky process. Last weekend, I was involved in a short story competition. One author confessed to never having used a microphone before, no doubt there were others with limited stage experience. They all did brilliantly, but I’ve seen authors caught like rabbits in the headlights at other times. It doesn’t matter how good you are on paper, it won’t help you when you have to get your body and voice in front of people.

On this score I have been tremendously lucky, because I came to the stage through folk music. I started singing floor spots in a folk club, and went on to singing floor spots on nights when there were performers booked. Next stop, MCing nights, and doing the odd small gig, and busking. I was gigging with someone, so could hide behind them. Having a process of building confidence and stage skills really helps, and that’s available some places.

When you get on a stage as an author, reading your own work, or talking about something, it’s all you. It’s totally exposed. Getting on stage as a folk singer, I have mostly sung other people’s songs, safe in the knowledge that the songs are excellent, and that other people have already agreed these songs are excellent. It’s a considerable comfort. A tune can carry the words, and when you’re signing, the pacing, phrasing, even how you deploy your voice is already dealt with. People can sing along, and in a set of songs, they tend to clap after each one, so you get little doses of reassurance that they don’t hate you. It’s much easier this way.

If the first time you get on a stage you do it to read, with a microphone, or talk, this is intimidating. Authors on stages need stagecraft as much as musicians do. You have to be able to look at the audience, talk to them, not just read to them. You have to be able to answer questions, and if you seem confident and relaxed, it’s a far better experience for them.

Most authors do not get away with avoiding public appearances, and if you want to be successful, it’s a necessary part of the mix. If you want to be good at being on a stage and it doesn’t come naturally, think like a musician. Find safe places to join in, where you can build your skills and confidence. Go out and watch other people doing it, and learn from their mistakes.

The thing is, very few of us are naturally good at standing up in front of people. Those who do it well make it look effortless. What you’re actually seeing is a carefully honed set of skills. If you are a shy and nervous woodland creature by nature, it’s just a case of learning how to appear otherwise for short periods of time.

Then at the end, they clap, and after the long silence of the writer’s shed, being applauded is a truly wonderful thing.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Stage fright for authors

  • David

    Thanks for the advise, I’m hosting first “Canterbury Poetry Group” reading night this evening. If it goes ok, we’ll be doing every last Wednesday at La Trappiste, Sun St. Canterbury. All Welcome.

  • Eliza Armitage

    Yep. My first voice teacher gave me some advice that is helpful to this day: always remember, even as your knees start to quake, that your audience wants you to succeed. They’ll be encouraging you with every note–or in this case, every word–and whatever makes you cringe, they’ll forgive; that is, if they even notice it. She was right.

    • Nimue Brown

      Just knowing there’s one person in the audience definitely onside makes a lot of odds. Performing in contests can feel a bit more hostile, but usually yes, audiences want it to be good 🙂

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Talk to my customers, it involved something of a performance to entertain, whether I sell anything or not. I often think that making them laugh, and encouraging them, may often be more important than making the sale, in the kind of world of high stress that many of us live in.

    • Nimue Brown

      I find doing a stall at events is quite a performance… and yes, engaging with people seems more important than taking their money. I think every time we do that, somewhere, a capitalist gets a rash,

      • Christopher Blackwell

        I suspect it may become reason that I am not likely to ever make a lot of money. While I need to pay bills and would like to put a bit aside on a regular basis, it is not otherwise all that important to me.

        I am amazed that here in America, that I am not picked up as a subversive, for my lack of interest in making money as the sole reason for living must be seen as a possible terrorist act within the bounds of our Homeland Security Act. They have a line in the act where anything that interferes with economic activity and growth can be considered a potential terrorist act. I have been doing this through near forties years of being in business.

        Then there is my other subversive activity, suggesting that people look inside, learn who they are, what their faults are, what their strengths are, and what things that are passionate about and build a life using those aspects to the best of their ability to, most likely, create a moderate happy life for themselves, rather than become the imaginary person who they are told that they are supposed to be by others.

        Worse, I even tell girls that the most powerful magical word in the English language, that sets limits, and develops respect, is the word NO. So I am quite amazed that I have not been picked up for my subversive activities and speech.

  • lornasmithers

    The key for me is rehearsing, whether it’s reciting poetry or giving a talk or leading a workshop. If it’s rehearsed it stays in your head even if someone’s banging a drum in the background or making cappucino. If it’s not it’s very easy to lose the thread and plot…

    • Nimue Brown

      Yes, definitely. Rehearsal is essential. I think the hardest thing for a first time performer is not being able to imagine what it’s going to be like to do it. I practice with an audience in my head. If I’ve been on a stage before, I’m picturing it I do what I’m doing there – if not, I make a guess, that still helps. I think about when to make eye contact, how to frame what I’m doing, all that kind of thing. Knowing the space helps a lot.

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