This piece originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure by Claire Fayers.
Thank you for booking the Society of Author’s Performance Skills Workshop. Please bring a short piece to read and a clean pair of socks.
Socks? Were we going to make sock puppets? Play sock-based storytelling games? Mystified, I packed my cleanest pair and set off to London.
That was my introduction to the performance skills workshop, run by storyteller and author Cat Weatherill. Of the eleven authors present, I wasn’t too surprised to find that many were children’s authors. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to get up and perform more often. As we puzzled over our neatly folded socks, we all agreed that performing doesn’t come naturally and we all needed help. The workshop proved so helpful, in fact, that I decided to share some tips here.
Before we did anything else, Cat asked us to imagine our perfect performance. What could we see, hear, taste, feel? We so often imagine all the things that might go wrong. Taking some time to picture everything going right made a nice change. It's a useful exercise before a performance and can put us in the right frame of mind for success. It also helped us focus on what we wanted to get out of an event.
We all wanted similar things, it turned out. To feel relaxed, confident, in control; to connect with the audience so that we held their attention.
How to be confident
It’s all very well to say ‘be confident’, but how do you do it? There are ways of building your confidence, Cat told us. Confidence comes with experience, from belief in your content, from planning, from audience expectation (a good audience can work wonders), and most of all, from being in control.
So, take control of as much as possible. Make sure you’re fully prepared, find out as much as you can about the venue and audience. Of course there are some things we can never fully control – the technology, or the audience Q&A – but there is a lot that we can control.
Speak, don't shout
This one came as a surprise to me. I have a naturally quiet voice and my biggest worry is that people won't hear me, so I tend to compensate by shouting at an audience. But, when we took in it turns to read in pairs, we found that speaking quietly and clearly carried just as well, if not better, than bellowing. It helps to use a mic, of course, and we all got to practice, taking it in turns to read while the rest of the group threw socks at us. (Yes, that’s what the socks were for!) If you can keep your head while all about you are hurling socks, then you can probably stay focussed through anything.
The egg of enchantment & the five golden lanterns
Once the socks were back in the bag, we moved on to thinking about engaging the audience. Their attention, it turns out, is bit like an egg.
We want to draw the audience into the centre of the egg where they’re fully immersed in the performance and time seems to fly. But all the time we are battling distractions - background noise, people talking and fidgeting and simply drifting off into their own thoughts. Keeping them engaged takes work - and this is where the five golden lanterns come in.
When we write, it’s natural to think about how we engage our reader’s emotions, but I’d never thought about performances in the same way. When I've prepared events in the past, I've focussed on the information I need to get across - appealling to the audience's minds, maybe. But there's far more to a person than that, Cat explained, as the golden lanterns demonstrate. Above the head is the appeal to spirituality, then the mind, the heart, the belly (which is inspiration), and the groin (which we don’t really need to worry about for a children’s audience.)
The trick is to try and light up the different lanterns throughout our performance. I’ve just started preparing for my next book tour and I’m finding it very helpful to consider how I can appeal to different ‘lanterns.’ Something to make the audience think, something to make them laugh, something to make them believe in power of their own stories.
You are not as bad as you think
As an author, you are a unique and fascinating individual. You are the person that other people want to be. You have something special to offer.
I came away from the day almost believing that was true, and certainly believing I was a lot better at this than I’d previously imagined. There was so much information to absorb and practise, and it was fantastic to spend the day with other authors. If you ever get a chance to go on one of Cat's workshops, I thoroughly recommend it - she mentioned the possibility of a workshop specifically for picture book writers, so keep an eye out for that. Don’t forget your socks!