11 Tips for Spoken Word Beginners Part 2

Perform as much as possible. On a regular basis, sign up to read or perform your poetry at open mics. If you’re first starting out, I don’t recommend signing up for a slam competition until you have a bit of experience because slams can be harrowing for a newcomer to the spoken word scene. But hey, if you think you’ve got the chops and a thick skin, then go for it! The more you perform, the more comfortable you’ll become in front of audiences, and the primary way to hone and grow in your spoken word craft is to perform again and again…and again.

Rehearse. Speaking of performing again and again, rehearsal is fundamental to consistent and successful performances. Find a rehearsal space where you can be uninterrupted and can feel free to experiment with your voice and gestures. Definitely, work on developing your poems—make choices, commit to them, learn them, and do them consistently. When I first started performing, I would rehearse like mad, and that rehearsal paid off when I was in front of audiences. The performance of my poems was second nature to me, and I could focus on enjoying the experience, rather than worrying about my next line or next gesture. But, there’s a balance between knowing your poems and running them into the ground. So, rehearse, but don’t be so compulsive about it that your poem no longer sounds fresh.

Don’t explain, and never apologize or make excuses. If you have to explain what your poem is about, then it’s simply not ready for others to hear it. Also, offering elaborate explanations about your poetry suggests that you don’t really trust the poem to convey what you’re trying to express, which probably means that you’re not ready to share it yet. Plus, long explanations drag down your audience and the vibe of the show. The audience is there to hear spoken word, not explanations about your poetry. Once you’re more experienced, you’ll learn appropriate ways to introduce your poetry. Also, at Cliterati, we came up with one rule: Never apologize. That’s right, never say “I’m sorry” in reference to your poetry or performance when you’re on stage. Also, there are sneaky ways of “kinda, sorta” apologizing by making excuses for your poem: “I just wrote this today.” “It’s not finished.” “I’m not sure if I’ll remember this piece.” You get the picture. If you have to make excuses for a poem, then either it’s not ready to be shared with an audience or you’re not ready to share it. So, unless it’s an event that encourages rough drafts and offers feedback, then save those unfinished poems until you’ve made revisions and feel confident about them. That, or just read your poem without explanations, apologies, or excuses.

LOVE your audience. If I could offer only one tip to a serious spoken word novice, this would be it. It’s a privilege to share your poetry and to be seen and heard by an audience of strangers. The audience is there to hear spoken word, and when you’re on stage, that means you have a unique opportunity to connect with them—to “feel” them and their vibe. When we perform, we want something. Perhaps, we want praise or the validation of applause. Or maybe we want to share our creative gifts, or simply have someone else listen to the poetic passion we’ve wrenched from our lives. Regardless, I believe that every performer has a personal and/or professional agenda when they perform, whether they’re conscious of it or not. But here’s the thing: When you perform, it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. The audience is the most important element of your performance. As I’ve told my students: you are, as a performer, only as good as your audience. And I believe that’s absolutely true. So, have some humility, and always remember that when you’re performing, the main thing you’re doing is sharing and giving to your audience. They are the center of your performance world. Respect and love them by giving them everything you’ve got to give in your performances. And, if your experience is similar to my own, you’ll receive the praise and the applause that you seek; someone will always be listening; and you’ll gain the satisfaction of knowing that you shared your creative gifts and that they were graciously accepted.

Don’t take it too seriously. Finally, spoken word is supposed to be fun and fulfilling. If you’re performing and not loving it, then something is wrong, and if you’re taking it too seriously, then you might need to pull back some and really examine your underlying desires and motivation to perform or slam. Plus, when you’re first starting out, it’s crucial to experiment and play with different choices and styles. That’s one way you’ll grow as a performer and develop your own unique brand of spoken word. So, perform, experiment, play, and let yourself have some fun!

What are your questions about performing spoken word? What tips can you offer beginners?