Written by Ami Mattison
Think you’ve got the chops to bring it and deliver a feature performance at a spoken word event?
Well, before you pitch yourself to an open mic host or run off to star at that invited gig, stop and ask yourself a few questions: Am I really ready? Do I know how to be professional? Will I truly entertain the crowd or will I just embarrass myself?
I know, that last question is maybe a little harsh. But hey, stage performance of any kind can be harsh. It’s live, so mistakes burn themselves into history; you never know what kind of audience might show up (or if anyone will show up at all); and you really don’t know if you’re going to be a hit or not.
If you’re a serious spoken word performer, then you’ll need to know how to develop poems for spoken word performance as well as the ins and outs of basic performance skills. But on top of that, you’ll need to focus on how to give professional performances on a consistent basis.
10 Tips for a Professional Performance
During the eight years that I’ve performed professionally, I’ve learned there are two fundamentals to becoming a well-regarded spoken word performer: Offering polished and consistently good performances and acting in a professional manner.
If you want to rock the mic AND develop a good reputation among audiences and venue hosts, then try out these tips I use to do just that.
Rehearse. Make sure you’ve prepared enough strong material to fill your time slot. Audiences can tell when you trot out a weak poem or one you haven’t fully developed. And if you really want to spit some spoken word fire, then you need to perform only those pieces that you’ve fully rehearsed. Even if you want to present a new poem you haven’t memorized, don’t think you’ll wing a reading of it. Instead, be sure to practice even those pieces you plan to read.
Prepare a set list in advance. Unless you’re a veteran performer, then you need to know which poems you’re performing BEFORE you step on stage. Fumbling around with papers or standing up there wasting time as you think about what to do next not only looks bad but it drags down the vibe of your performance. And unless you have a long set and the crowd is full of fans, then avoid asking the audience what they want to hear. By doing so, you’re setting yourself up to get absolutely no response to this question, which again looks bad.
Be prompt. If you really want to irk a venue host, then show up late for the show. But if you want to earn a good reputation, be at the venue when you’ve been asked to be there. Being prompt is about being courteous to the host and to your audience. Plus, you’ll do yourself a favor by not being discombobulated for your performance because you’re running late and in a rush. And hey, you’re not Whitney Houston. Don’t ever make your audience wait for you.
Prepare strong intros and interesting segues. If you have time, present more than simply your poems. Your audience wants to feel as if they know you. But make those intros and segues short, sweet, and sparse. Not every poem needs an intro, and you’ll burn up your time by talking a lot in-between pieces. Whatever you do, don’t explain what your piece is about. Audiences want to hear your poetry, not explanations about it.
Stay within time limits. It’s discourteous to the host and to other performers when you go over the time you’ve been allotted. So, make sure you time poems in advance. Also, time your intros and segues and include them in your set length. And unless you’re going to keep your set really, really tight, then give yourself at least 3-5 minutes of leeway for your performance.
Love and respect your audience. As a performer, you’re nothing without an audience. While every performer has a personal and/or professional agenda, when you perform it’s not about you. It’s about your audience. They’re the center of your performance world. They have the power to make or break your performance. So, treat them with respect and love, and in my experience, you’ll receive respect and love back.
Project confidence, but be humble. There’s a difference between being confident and being cocky. If you’re truly confident in your skills, then you really don’t need to be egotistical. And there’s a difference between being humble and being self-deprecating. If you’re truly humble, then you won’t apologize or put yourself down on stage. Instead, you’ll project both humility and confidence.
Let yourself be nervous. Being nervous is a sign that you’re taking a risk and that what you’re doing is important. So, go ahead and let yourself be a little nervous. No, you don’t want to be immobilized by anxiety, but be assured that nerves are normal. So, embrace them and let them be what they are: positive energy that you can use on stage.
Respect other performers. I can’t tell you how many feature performers blow in for their performance and then leave before the event is over. This looks bad, really bad. And it’s just plain discourteous. Be sure to be there early for other performances or to stick around after your performance and participate in the poetic camaraderie of the scene. And yes, this means you’ll sit through the open mics or the slams, and it means you’ll pay attention and provide support to other performers. You can always learn from others, even newbies. And connecting with other performers is precisely how you’ll get more gigs.
Have fun. Don’t take yourself or your performance so seriously that you forget to have fun! Take some positive energy with you on stage and spread it around when you’re done. Be friendly, be open to others, and remember to laugh a lot.
- Sell merch. If you don’t already have professional merchandise to sell, then create a chapbook or a demo CD or DVD and sell the hell out of it. Remember to mention your merchandise during your performance, and ask the venue host to push sales as well. By selling merchandise, you’ll give your audience another opportunity to support you. And hey, who doesn’t need a little extra cash?
If you don’t have enough material to fill at minimum a 15-20 minute performance slot or if you haven’t yet mastered presenting consistently good performances, then you’re simply not ready to feature. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you think you’re not ready, check out these performance tips for newbies and polish your poems and performance skills. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself on stage and rocking out with a kick-ass feature performance.