(First published on ThanetWriters.com on 2017/03/23 by Connor Sansby)
The biggest problem many performing poets and writers face is a lack of confidence on the stage. It’s really easy to think that you don’t deserve your time on stage, that you’ll bore the audience or that someone else could fill your time much better than you.
This is totally natural, it just means you respect the art form and the people who take the stage with you. This can be harnessed and help you get better.
What’s worse is the people who come in believing they truly belong on the stage, who think their words are more important than anything else. These people are the ones who leave after they read, who talk during the other acts or who offer unsolicited critiques of other people’s work.
For those who’ve stood behind the microphone a few times, arrogance can crop up as a natural symptom of acclimatising. So how do you balance anxiety with confidence?
1. Accept you’re not perfect
I think the first step is to realise there is no such thing as a complete performer. Everyone who gets up behind the microphone can get better. Whether that means learning new forms, like the sonnet, which can provide comfort to those listeners who are new to spoken word, or refining your performance. Even if you’re “the best poet in your area” this means nothing; there’s still an infinite number of lessons for you to pick up.
2. Acknowledge you can do better
Now, that doesn’t mean give up because you’ll never be up to scratch, it means always be prepared to analyse your work and performances properly. Don’t protect yourself, be blunt and always edit, because if you don’t, you’re letting yourself down and stopping yourself being better.
3. Don’t forget your place
Let’s say you really are the best performer in your group or area. You might be getting a few opportunities here and there and you may always have praise heaped upon you after you perform. That’s wonderful but it doesn’t give you the right to brush people off because they’re not on the level you want praise to be coming from and it doesn’t mean you should drop the names of those you have worked with. This is basic manners but I’ve seen it before, a poet gets too big for themselves and starts thinking they’re headline ready just because they’ve been given encouragement from a hero. Fortunately, these people tend not to make it.
4. Turn up and listen
We’re talking about basic manners. The performer you’re ignoring so you can chat with your friend might just be starting out; your rudeness might be the reason they give up. Conversely, they might use that incident to get better and years down the line, you may find yourself denied the chance to work with them because they kept at it, stayed humble and worked hard, while you were a loudmouthed jerk that no one wanted to take a chance on.
For yourself, it’s important to listen to other poets to find out what works and what doesn’t. Just like the best way to become a better writer or poet is to read, I think the easiest way to get better at performing is to watch and hear others. If they suck, why do they suck? What can you avoid? Is there anything they do that you can see in your own writing? What did they do really well? Were they more earnest? Did they have a great use of rhyme or rhythm or words or pacing? Learn from everyone.
5. Take responsibility and move on
If you have an off-night, accept it, pick yourself up and be better next time. We all have one here and there but the arrogant performer will blame the people outside, the sound technician, the lighting. They’re excuses and none of them hold water, you just weren’t good enough at that time. The best poets I’ve seen still trip up once in a while but they can laugh it off. Just because something didn’t go right in one instance, doesn’t take away from your abilities, it just means you have to practice. Getting better is always possible.
6. Don’t offer advice unless it’s been asked for
If you’re in a discussion setting with other poets who’re trying to bring out the best in their work, there is a wealth of difference between “can you do that line with this tweak?” and “change that line.”
There’s nothing worse than stepping off stage and knowing you did better than before, when someone who believes they know everything steps up and proceeds to shit on your performance. This kind of attitude projects the notion they know everything, when we all know that’s not true.
If someone asks you for feedback, try to focus on positives—the compliment sandwich exists for a reason. If you have to criticise a performance, at least have the decency to do it in private and be helpful with your feedback, don’t just punch them in the gut and run off.
No one wants to work with the arrogant guy, in life and especially in art, but equally if you’re being offered gigs and opportunities, self-deprecation will not endear you to colleagues. So how do you project confidence without appearing arrogant?
1. Accept compliments
If someone has taken the time to acknowledge your work, they could have done anything else but at that time, they wanted to reach out to another person and connect. An arrogant person will reject that compliment with false modesty. Imagine if someone offered you a present, most of us (adults) wouldn’t dream of saying no, because that’s bad manners. The same applies to a compliment, thank the person offering it and return with one of your own if appropriate. If it’s a stranger, they don’t want to get into an analysis of your neuroses and compare notes on your performance: just say “thank you.”
2. Don’t demand attention
So you didn’t get told you did great? This does not end the world. If you get it, that’s nice but don’t expect it. Do not scream into the void trying to get yourself noticed, just be happy with what happens. Learn the difference between marketing and dominating a conversation.
3. Listen to people’s feedback
Don’t brush it off or make excuses about it; take it and build on it. As a performer, your job isn’t to get the attention of poets or writers, it’s to speak to everyone. The more you take on board, the more people will identify with you. Don’t lose yourself but don’t be afraid of taking pointers from people.
4. Don’t focus on the negative
Sometimes, people don’t have good things to say. Some people are terrible people and sometimes we have off days. Don’t linger on those experiences, they will only hold you down. When you get better, take joy in that instead of thinking about how much farther you have to go. You will never be perfect, but that just provides opportunities for growth.