How To Tame an Open Mic

What is an Open Mic?

An Open Mic is an invitation to artists to share their work. Open Mics may follow a reading or musical performance, when the floor is opened to the audience.

An Open Mic can be good or it can be cringe-worthy. For a politician or public figure, an open mic can be a “gotcha!” moment when their raw, honest whisperings are inadvertently captured by a live microphone. For a police station dispatcher, “Open mic!” is what patrol officers yell into their own mics when the dispatcher forgets to key off before discussing her love life with whoever is nearby.

For an author, an Open Mic is a chance to share work with a receptive audience. There are different types of Open Mic opportunities:

~ Performance Poetry: The term “performance” is relative here. Performing may mean a simple reading. It may mean the poet acts out the piece with accents or gestures. It may mean the poet engages an audience member to participate.

~ Slam: A slam is a poetry recitation that is performed, but as a competition. Judges may be a single person hired to choose a winner; a panel of volunteers; or the audience, who “choose” with applause. A Poetry Slam can be formal or freewheeling.

~ Audience Invitational: An invitational reading happens when the audience is  invited to share their own work after a featured performer.

This post will focus on participating in an audience invitational type of Open Mic.

Here’s a scenario. You are planning to attend a reading by an author whose work you admire. The flyer states an Open Mic will follow the reading. Hurrah! Not only do you get to spend an evening with the author and fellow admirers, you get to share your work, too.

But reading before an audience can be scary, and even the casual atmosphere of literary reading has rules. Below are some thoughts on how to prepare for an Open Mic performance:

~ Respect the stated reading time. An Open Mic announcement will usually give a time limit: “Readings of two (or three, four, five) minutes can be shared after the Featured Reading.”  Most people read one minute per manuscript page, a manuscript page being the industry standard of ~250 words/page.

~ Choose a selection of your work that is both appropriate in subject and length. If the reading is a celebration of autumn and all its wonders, do you share a prose poem about angels?

~ Practice! Read your piece several times at home. Become comfortable with the rhythm of the words. Practice inflection and pauses. If saying a particular word or phrase trips you up every time, consider rewriting it. If it’s difficult to say, it may be difficult to hear. Practice until you can read it smoothly, or until you are sick to death of the sound of your own voice reading this piece, whichever comes first.

~ Print your selection using a larger than usual type font. Sometimes Open Mics are in venues with not-great lighting. You don’t want to be struggling or squinting instead of giving a fluid reading.

~ Accept that you will need to use the mic, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Some readers try to speak off mic because the mic itself makes them nervous. This may be better for you, but is it better for the audience? What’s the point of reading if you refuse to use the microphone and the audience can’t hear you?

~ Be a polite and responsive listener. While awaiting your turn to read, or after you perform, enjoy the work of the other performers. Nod, laugh, clap. Be encouraging. Don’t sit and practice your piece to yourself while other people perform. How would you like it if, while you are reading, all you see are the tops of people’s heads because they’re all reviewing their own work instead of listening to yours?

~ Be gracious in all areas. This is an opportunity, but it’s an opportunity for all, not just for you. Choose an appropriate piece, keep to the time limit, practice, be considerate of the audience’s needs, and pay attention when your fellow readers read.

An Open Mic is an individual performance, but it is a collective experience. The people attending are doing so knowing they may be hearing raw work by a readers with a range of experience. Embrace that reception. All it takes is a piece of writing and a little bravery to sign up and share it.

Is there an Open Mic opportunity near you? When’s the next time you will go forth and perform?


3 thoughts on “How To Tame an Open Mic

  1. Around here the entertainment of choice is rodeos and pool (don’t mean the wet kind unless you count thrown beer). However, there is one coffee house that attempts to have live-music open mic nights. You’ve got me thinking — maybe they’d be interested in readings just for a change. Thanks!


  2. Our local writers’ group does open mic evenings at local bookstores about once a quarter. We have a theme but its pretty broad and our members read short stories, humor pieces, poetry, etc. We had one a couple weeks ago. I really enjoy doing them.

    One other tip – I usually drop most dialogue tags and use different character voices for the reading. More fun that way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s