How to prepare for a zoomed literary reading

pandemicity tagListen, I’m no expert. Last week was my first time participating in a live literary reading online. But here are some things I learned.

Teleconferenced poetry readings are… weird

I’m not new to Zoom, or Webex, or GotoMeeting, or any of the tools that are part and parcel of my job as a remote worker. I’ve worked from home since 2015, so this isn’t a post about getting used to the format.

However, having a meeting online is just not the same as a poetry reading.

When I’m in a meeting online, it may be that I just phone in and listen. Or, I have a placeholder image of myself that I use instead of a live video of me sitting in my office, which has been fine in the past. And if I don’t look at anyone in particular while delivering my feedback in an online meeting, that’s fine. It’s not a performance, after all.

But a live poetry reading needs you to be visually present. For me, that means things like posture, appearance, establishing eye contact, and rehearsal. When there is no one directly in front of you who you can read to, whose eyes you can look into as you read, it makes things a bit janky.

Appearances are everything

Because a poetry reading is a performance, you must take stock in a variety of things you typically don’t care about in a teleconferenced work meeting.

For instance, I usually don’t appear at all in my meetings, or if I do, I’m in casual attire and wear minimal makeup. This is because that’s how my peers know me, and their expectations for me (and each other, really) are not going to be the same. Get in, do your thing, get out.

But for a poetry reading, the audience doesn’t know you, and they have different expectations.

Light and sound

Because light is low right now (western wildfires here!), I didn’t take advantage of natural light (because there wasn’t any!). Instead, I used multiple lights during my reading, including a bright desk one that has an omnidirectional, adjustable neck. While not a Ring, it has multiple natural light settings and does a pretty good job toward the same outcome.

I recommend a pre-reading setup using your laptop video tool to adjust your room light accordingly. Some laptop cameras have adjustments and filters you can use to find the most flattering light for your facial structure.

Sound is something I had to play around with. First, I shut the barn doors to my office. I also sent my husband away for the entirety of the reading. (I do voiceover work and know that, as hard as he might try, he’ll still make noise.) Fortunately, he has a TV and plenty of other things to occupy him in his loft.

And I thanked my lucky stars that the construction workers across the street didn’t work late that night, otherwise there would have been plenty of hammering and other mechanical sound effects to deal with.

If you live in a noisy space, be vigilant. You want your audience to hear you, not your home! You can find different ways to soundproof your space which can remove enough noise—if not all of it—to be of some benefit.

Makeup and clothing

First impressions matter in online poetry readings, just like they do in real life. But what to do when you haven’t needed to make a visual impression in a long, long time?

I have worn makeup precisely once since we started our self-isolation on March 3, 2020. It was for the meeting at the title company when we closed on our house. Even then, I only did eye makeup because MASKS.

So it was weird actually putting makeup on again. I can’t say that I miss it. In fact, my eyes are really bothered my mascara these days (even before the pandemic, this was a thing).

And I feel like I generally look younger without makeup, which is no small thing if you’re a woman staring down your 55th birthday in less than two weeks.

But the camera is a harsh judge, and the difference in my appearance when I slap on a bunch of makeup is startling. Makeup in AV situations is your friend. It absorbs or reflects light, evens skin tone, and gives you a warm glow.

I have also learned a few things about stage makeup from a daughter who has danced and performed on large and unforgiving stages, so I employed those few things.

For instance, contouring matters, on cheeks and jawlines. If your neckline shows, you need to extend your makeup below the chin in a way that transitions naturally. And light and bright is better than dark and muddy.

As for clothing, I kept in mind the colors in my office in the lighting I expected to use. Why? The camera interprets color by what it’s given by way of the light. If the space is bright and cool in tone, then that will affect how it interprets the colors I wear. If it’s dark and warm, things will look totally different. Experiment before you settle on a final choice.

I’m very cognizant of color, generally speaking. With an olive tone to my skin, I know that too much of the wrong kind of green or blue can make me look sickly, and too much pastel or white washes me out.

But I don’t want to look like I’m going to a funeral! It’s my poetry reading, after all! So I wore a warm teal top, with some earrings and a necklace. It was far more appealing than my usual t-shirt and shorts, for sure!

Related to lighting: Posture

I noticed that my sitting arrangement had me either looking up at my top-deck monitor (I have two computer monitors, my laptop one and a larger one stacked above it) or down at my screen. Selfie pros will tell you that the best images are as much about the angles as they are the light.

My posture at that moment made for unflattering views that accentuated my postmenopause chin! With my laptop at desktop level, strange shadows I couldn’t eliminate with lighting also pooled around my neck and chest.

What did I do instead? I elevated my laptop by about 5 inches and adjusted the angle of my laptop screen.

This cropped out some of the weird shadows falling below my neckline. It also allowed me to simply sit upright, comfortably, before my screen in a way that looked natural. And while the reality of the postmenopausal chin is there, it wasn’t a highlight.

Other visual aids: backdrops, props, and gestures

It’s important to give people things to look at while they watch you read. These include a backdrop, handheld props, and body language.

If you’ve been watching livestream TV at all, or reality programming like American Idol, where the judges and contestants are broadcasting from their homes, you are undoubtedly aware of those surroundings.

Which is kind of fun: you get to see what Kevin Hart and his wife have in their house while watching them pull off another Celebrity Game Face.

But then you realize, that’s going to be me, tonight, at 6pm. And when I pulled up my video, I saw that my own backdrop, up until about 3pm that afternoon, was really dull. I mean, really dull.

I moved here last December and still haven’t finished decorating my office. But I had several of the items from my previous office walls nearby.

I finally put them into action, creating a colorful niche behind me so that, when I read, there were items of visual interest around me that (I hope) gave my performance some dimension.

I also made sure to turn my laptop to an angle that framed me within this backdrop in a way that was, with any luck, flattering.

I love that corner of my office now.

For my reading, I chose two works: So, Dear Writer (which contains an essay of mine) and from my brand-new, in-production collection, Intention Tremor.

I made sure to hold up the first book with its cover in full display whenever appropriate. I also printed a comp of my not-yet-printed cover of the new collection and held that up when I read (off my Word doc).

I also made use of certain gestures appropriate to the works I was reading to add visual energy.

And, to make sure people understood visually when I was reading from a work versus simply speaking, I did this: I sat up straight in my chair during the readings, gave generous pauses before and after the readings, and leaned back in a more relaxed posture in my chair when I was just chatting.

About that eye contact

I think I do a reasonably good job of reading before a live audience. The Columbia College Story Workshop method (RIP John Schultz) trains you on ways to engage your audience, and reading out loud is something you work on in every single class.

But being able to look into a room full of people, directly into their eyes in some cases, is just not going to happen in an online reading.

If you want your audience to feel like you are reading to them, you need to read to the camera.

Yep, that teeny tiny little hole at the top of your laptop screen.

This is much harder to do than you think. You want to focus on reading the actual work (I’m no whiz, I do not memorize my work, especially long prose). You also want to be able to quickly look up and into the eyes of a listener.

I literally struggled to do this while practicing. That tiny little laptop eye is really hard to find! So I surrounded my laptop camera with Post-its marked with arrows pointing to it. Seriously. Then I practiced and practiced, taking screenshots of myself to ensure I was “hitting the mark” with my eyes.

Did all this effort work?

Beats me. When the video of the actual event gets posted to YouTube, I’ll post a link, and then you can decide. But for now, I have to think this extra attention to a few AV details made a measurable difference. So that’s my story for now, and I’m sticking with it!

Have you performed a live online reading since the pandemic started? What are your performance tips for making the most of your event for yourself and your audience?

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