Blog 63: 5 Nuggets of Advice for New Spoken Word Performers – Jen Hughes

March 13, 2018

I’ve been performing my poems for about three years. I started out performing at open mics in local pubs and as part of women’s poetry group Wummin’s Words, before performing at a festival on the Largs coast and in FreshAyr’s poetry events. Around this time, I found a treasure trove of spoken words events in Glasgow, which I couldn’t go to that regularly until I moved there late last year. In 2018, I made it a new year’s resolution to perform at these events more regularly, and I’m now a regular at a long-running spoken word open mic in Glasgow called Words and Music (or Tinhut Tuesdays, as it’s lovingly nicknamed). So, I thought I would share with you some wisdom that I acquired over the many gigs I’ve performed.

  1. Know your set-list

You don’t need to necessarily learn your work off by heart, plenty of spoken word performers read from sheets, notebooks or even their phones! However, you should be familiar with your existing portfolio of works you can read aloud and know roughly how long they last. Most open mic slots are about 5-10 minutes, and you’d only get longer slots of 20 minutes if you are say performing at an event or are a ‘featured artist’. So one main thing you should consider is what your set-list is. Your set-list is just the selection of pieces you’re going to read, and what order you’re going to read them in. This should be thought out carefully, especially your first and last poems as they are most likely to have a lasting impression. Your time limit of 5-10 minutes will be the sum of your performance, generally my shorter poems last about a minute or so. If your poems are only a few lines, say a haiku for example, in five minutes you could read out at least 8 if you really wanted to.

  1. Practice your delivery beforehand

This took me a while to learn! Even if you’re just reading out, you need to have an idea of where to put emphasis, where to slow down, where your poems oral rhythm is. In my experience, the poems I’ve practiced reading aloud beforehand have had a much better performance at the event itself. It’ll also help you if you need to redraft your poem. There might be some words that don’t fit or words you’ll need to add to keep a rhythm. Or you might have a stonker of a tongue twister or a line that’s pretty difficult to say in your poem. Having that nailed will impress people, especially if you rap. If you’re rapping, you need to practice and learn it. It looks more hip-hop or ‘cool’ that way, at least as far as I’ve seen.

  1. Be aware of your audience

If the night has a certain theme, try and stick to that theme as best as possible. My experience of these is that they are quite loose, so you can interpret the theme how you like but if you go outside that, you are endangering the flow of the night somewhat, especially if you have a longer set.

Different events aim to provide a certain experience. There are some which are cerebral, some which are rowdy and rebellious whilst some feel more of a gathering and are more laidback. A newcomer won’t be able to choose a set-list based on an audience so it may be a good idea to go to a few spoken word open mics to get a flavour of what kind of thing you’d like to read. Some events love hearing poems.

Also keep in mind the demographics of your audience, like age or gender. A poem making a lot of references to modern culture may not be fully understood by an older audience. A story making references to classical literature may not be understood at all in a wee pub’s general open mic night. An erotic poem may not bode well if the audience isn’t prepared to hear erotic literature or poetry.

Learning to read your audience comes with time, and only comes by going in and reading aloud. I have made many mistakes misreading an audience and performing the wrong poem for the wrong audience. As I’ve mentioned before, I read aloud a poem about Black Friday at Christmas, and you can imagine how well a pub full of pie-eyed partygoers appreciated that. It would have worked much better any other time of year, or with a more bohemian or thought-provoking event.

  1. Have a variety of poems under your belt

If you only have one or two poems to your name, that’s absolutely fine! You can still go and read your stuff aloud, but try and write a few more poems if you’re considering reading at events regularly. Having a varied portfolio of works gives you an advantage in choosing for your set-list. If you have a few serious and a few more light-hearted works, it helps to balance out your set-list. Say you have a lot of very serious works, based around topics like heartbreak or loss or current events, and you have read out three of these heavy pieces in your set-list. This is fine, though your audience will need time to digest all of these to truly appreciate them. Sometimes it’s nice to have lighter work in between your heavy stuff, so your heavier works can be as powerful as possible for your audience. It shows that you have range, that you can write about lots of human experiences, especially if people can relate to them.

As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to learn your pieces for things like open mics but for slams, you really should learn your poem off by heart. It gives a certain authority to you as a spoken word performer especially if you write monologues, and frees up your hands. Not all events have music stands, as I have come to learn.

  1. Confidence is key

This is something that comes with time and practice. If you’re worried about your nerves getting the better of you. Start off with a smaller audience, like maybe reading to your family or friends or even try and find a smaller gathering of people sharing poems. Wummin’s Words was really a group for (mostly) middle aged women to share poetry they’ve found and enjoyed over the years, but they welcomed me in and were happy to hear my original poems. It was like having a coven of mad aunts- they were incredibly supportive and encouraging of me.

Even on my bad nights, I can say my confidence developed with each performance. Each misstep was a lesson. Don’t read a poem about two fat children at the deep, cerebral Seeds of Thought.  Don’t read a poem about Black Friday at Christmas in an Ayr pub where people just want to get drunk. And for the love of God don’t read a poem you’ve only just written two minutes ago where you state that vegans are likely to die first in the apocalypse. See? All life lessons. If you’ve got confidence in your work, and you can deliver it with passion, the audience can buy into that.


Have you ever performed on stage, or acted in a show? Have you ever read out your poems or stories to other people? Tell me all about it in the comments!

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