How to Successfully Read at an Open-Mic

Reetu Sinha


Imagine the scenario: you stumble up through domino rows of audience members that can be tipped over in a second, ready to crash on you if you make the wrong move. When you get to the front and situate yourself behind the podium—after much shuffling, because you have to feel the space—there are just a bunch of eyes staring back at you like a mix of terrible clichés. I get it; it’s scary like you wouldn’t believe. Fear not, my beautiful unicorns, because I have a few quick tips to help you mentally prepare yourself for this arduous adventure and share your masterpiece with the world. Or a coffee shop filled with disgruntled hipsters, whatever medium you choose. And if you happen to be one of those magical creatures that are immune to staring-eye syndrome, these tips can help ensure that others are enjoying your performance as much as you are, because even though we’re all about sticking it to the man, we’re not actually trying to torture them. With only limited further ado, here are some tips to surviving open mic.

Step one: Just let go. When you walk into that reading acknowledge that, at some point, you will look stupid. Maybe not today, maybe not even this week, but it will happen. This first step may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t the whole point of this pep talk to make you feel confident? Before you run away to leave your spam comments about how rude I am, hear me out. This, I promise you, is absolutely a scientific fact: everyone will look stupid at least once in their life; if you’re me—none of you are, I checked—you’ll look stupid on a daily basis. The sooner you realize that you can’t be perfect 100 percent of the time, the sooner you can accept it and move on. Because understanding this is actually a wonderful thing; it means that you can breathe a little, and leave room to forgive yourself.

Step B: Fuck the audience. That may be putting it too harshly, but, honestly, these one minute and twenty-two seconds are really all about you and your work. It’s meant to be an experience that furthers your talents as a writer or a performer. Most of the people attending the open mic night are there with the same intentions as you. Unless the shop is selling straight-up hostility in espresso shots, no one at an open mic night is deliberately looking for you to fail. Nobody just walks into a room and decides to plot the ultimate downfall of a complete stranger. If this has been happening to you, however, I really think you have other problems and need to re-evaluate your priorities. Your audience is in the exact same position as you are; most of them are probably scared sockless. To see you fail would be like seeing themselves fail, totally terrifying. Once you realize that, you can all have an abject terror party together and it’ll be really nice.

The third step: Try not to look stupid. I know I just told you that’s it’s okay to make mistakes, and that the audience is there to support you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least attempt to give them a pleasant performance. Make sure you know your venue a little. I don’t care if you’re in the biggest dive bar south of Detroit or the swankiest hotel ballroom book signing, if you’re not sure how to act or what to wear, err on the side of formal. Think of it this way: if you overdress and act just a little bit, people will think you’re super spiffy, but if you under dress and act just a little bit, they’ll assume you’re a hooligan. Go find a mirror and do some deep reflection; do you want to be a hooligan? If you said no, keep reading. Also, keep in mind that controversy is good, controversy is great. I love controversy. But if you’re reading about a controversial topic, try not to be blatantly offensive, please. Don’t demean people, ideas, or religious values if you can avoid it. A poetry reading should be something fun for people to share their work. Don’t make anybody feel personally attacked; that’s a bad experience and do you really want people to feel bad? I thought you were reading this to learn how to successfully attend an open mic.

This is the final and, in my opinion, most important step: Never apologize. This is your work, and these are your views. Don’t feel sorry for them; own them and be proud. It takes a really special kind of person to compose a piece of creative work, so don’t be meek with it. If someone doesn’t like what you have to say, then say it louder (unless you’re actually being disrespectful, as mentioned above). If you stumble or forget a line in whatever you’re reading, don’t apologize. Just take a deep breath, remember that super chill abject terror party you just had with all these people, and keep going. You’re just a human being who makes mistakes—remember how we learned about that before—and you have nothing to be ashamed of. Also, never put down your own work. I know it may seem like you’re being humble, but the world is already going to be mean enough to you, don’t contribute to it.

See how all of these lessons are coming together to make you a super positive, energized leprechaun? Well, now that you have been equipped with all the lucky charms that a beginner, or even just a nervous professional, should keep in mind, are you ready to tackle the many-eyed monster? If yes, then I’m proud of you, and I think you will absolutely rock it. If you’re still feeling a bit hesitant, then I just want to remind you that your mind is a scary place, and it likes to bully you. So, just remember that it will never be as bad as you think it will. Even if you do forget all the words and you fall flat on your face, so what? Experts weren’t made overnight, and it takes practice. It’s not like enough people will attend that you’ll become an internet meme. And, really, that is everyone’s biggest fear, isn’t it? On that note, I say unto you: go forth and prosper, my fairy friends.