For the Novice: 10 Tips for Dramatic Readings

For the Novice: 10 Tips for Dramatic Readings

Make your stories sing with voices, accents and quirks. 

By Mark McLaughlin, ATMB, CL

I am a man with a secret life! By day, I am the public relations specialist at Nehlsen Communications and also a member of Toastmasters. But by night, I create – and kill! – vampires, zombies and monsters of every size and shape imaginable.

In other words, I am a horror writer. Over the years, I have written several books and hundreds of short stories. My writings are like my kids, and though I love all my children dearly, my proudest achievement would have to be The Gossamer Eye, a book of poetry by Rain Graves, David Niall Wilson and me that once won the Bram Stoker Award for Literary Excellence.

I’ve given readings from my books at dozens of literary conventions across America and in England, and because of those readings, I’d considered myself a pretty experienced public speaker. Then I joined Toastmasters and soon learned that being able to read well from a book does not necessarily make a person a great speaker. A person also needs to learn how to speak off the cuff – at a moment’s notice, if necessary.

I have reached the level of Advanced Toastmaster Bronze, and because of the speeches I’ve given, I feel that the book readings I give these days are much better. I’m much more at ease in front of an audience.

Over the years, I have come up with a variety of handy techniques to improve the quality of dramatic readings, and I’d like to share my top 10 secrets with my fellow Toastmasters:

1.  Unless it’s a large-print edition, you may not want to read straight from the book. Enlarge the pages on a photocopier.

2.  Develop a different voice for each character. The listener has to know who is speaking – otherwise, they may get confused by your narrative. You don’t have to be a Mel Blanc-wannabe who can do a million voices. Simply change the tone of your speaking voice for each character.

For example, male characters can have a tone that’s a little deeper than your usual voice, and female character can have a lighter tone. Have one character – perhaps a child – speak a little faster than the rest.

3.  Use different highlighters to mark the words each of your characters say. Find ways to remember which color goes with which character: When Bobby is in blue and Ronald is in red, you’ll never get the two mixed up. Make sure your highlighter doesn’t smear the print, or isn’t so dark that it is hard to make out the words.

                    “Over the years, I have come up with a variety of handy
                    techniques to improve the quality of dramatic readings.”

4.  Develop mannerisms for characters, in addition to their voices. In one of my stories, there is a character who is both an exuberant artist and a chain-smoker. When I do her voice, which is a little raspy, I also wave one of my hands around as though I’m punctuating the air with a cigarette holder. I also throw in an occasional cough for her. If a character is nervous, I portray him or her as wide-eyed and breathless, with quick, jittery gestures.

5.  While rehearsing, experiment with different vocal patterns for characters. Try different accents. For example, maybe the neighbor in your story should have a compelling Southern accent. Make it a point to avoid stereotypes: People might be offended if they think your version of an ethnic accent is making fun of that ethnicity.

6.  Practice the story at least a dozen times before you read it for any audience. Videotape a practice performance so you can see what your audience will be seeing.

7.  Read the story to a friend and ask for feedback. Just make sure it’s not a hypercritical person who’s prone to finding problems when none exist, or the exact opposite, someone who is helpful to a fault and will automatically say anything you do is wonderful.

8.  During the reading, be sure to look up at the audience regularly. Keep a finger on the page where you left off, so you’ll know where to pick up the story again.

9.  To be used only in case of emergencies: If, for some reason, you completely lose your place in the story and you need some time to find it, give a quick question to a nearby member of the audience, like this: “If this story were made into a movie, who would you pick to play Andy, the lead, and why?” While that person is talking, you can find your place in the story.

Be sure to listen to what the individual is saying, and respond appropriately before continuing with the story – for example, “Tom Cruise? I like that idea! Now let’s see what Andy is going to do next...”

10.  Have fun! If you practice enough, you will feel more confident and have fun with your reading. The audience will be able to tell if you’re not enjoying the reading experience.

So there you have it: my top 10 secrets! Here’s a bonus tip that’s pretty obvious, so I can’t really call it a secret. Always make sure you have a glass of water handy – all that talking can dry out your throat. I hope my tips will help make all your future readings a rewarding experience for both you and your enthralled listeners. 

Mark McLaughlin, ATMB, CL, is a member of the Quad City Executive Toastmasters in Davenport, Iowa.