Rhetorical punctuation and the spoken word

Earlier this week my friend Nina, who studies English Language at Glasgow University, introduced me to the concept of different types of punctuation: rhetorical and grammatical. It was rather an aha! moment for me.

About a year ago I did a performance and presentation course with Alex Gillon. I learned a lot that day, but at times I got confused. Alex would suggest removing or adding commas, not where they should be to separate clauses or lists, but where whoever was reading paused, or breathed. All of my commas were grammatical and changing them to fit the way I spoke felt odd.  Saying that, I did start to punctuate text aimed for reading differently. Yup. I made rhetorical punctuation my friend.

This Sunday, I’m reading the story I practiced with Alex at Illicit Ink Underground. It’s called Mouth, but needs a better title. Face, maybe. It is the first piece I’ve punctuated specifically to help me perform it. Fingers crossed, it’ll help me get the story across.

(Of course, I’ll also be standing well anchored, breath deeply, talk slowly – but clearly – and exaggerate certain words. And make eye contact with the audience at the beginning and end. Just as Alex told me.)

Reading out loud and meaning every word of it

On May 5th, I’ll be reading at Illicit Ink. The theme is sleep and although I haven’t yet written the story (there’s plenty of time) I have started thinking about the presentation.

In November last year I attended a workshop on performance and presentation, presented by the amazing Alex Gillon and arranged by the Scottish Book Trust. There were eight writers working in a variety of disciplines, from playwrights through novelists and short story writers to poets. All of us need to stand up and present our work  with confidence. As Alex pointed out, every time we read our own work, we’re selling it and we want the audience to go away impressed enough to buy a book.

The workshop was very well timed for me: two weeks later I had two readings same week and it gave me the tools I needed to present with confidence.

It annoys me that I need the help – I used to be a tour guide, I used to do training. I have years of experience of standing up in front of an audience and talking to them. But I haven’t done much of that in the last ten years, and now I work on my own, from home. I’ve forgotten the mechanics of projecting, speaking slowly and anchoring myself to stop my knees from knocking. I used to enjoy the performance aspect of public speaking but I’ve even forgotten the feeling of “yay, everyone’s looking at me!” that was the childish foundation of that enjoyment.

So, I needed the training and I looked forward to it. I had heard a lot about Alex. She trains the Story Shop writers, among others. Alex has a beautiful, schooled voice and doesn’t pull her punches. She tells you what you’re doing wrong until you get it and start doing it right. She breaks you down and gives you the tools to build yourself up. Daunting, yes, she it can be, but I rather liked her technique. In a group, you have a lot of opportunity to learn from other people’s example. The first person to read for Alex gave me a long list of things to think about. I was second. Unsurprisingly, my performance raised new issues for us to think about. The main things I took away were:

  1. Remember to breathe.
  2. Look at your audience. Especially, memorise the first and last lines so the audience can see your face when you read them.
  3. Practice makes perfect. Read out loud whenever you have an opportunity. When you can confidently read someone else’s writing on the first go, you’ll have more space to work on how to your perform your own writing.
  4. Commit to the performance. Go for it. Don’t be afraid. Believe in the words and your ability to deliver them.

I’ll keep Alex’s advice in mind as I first write and then practice my story for May 5th.


(Read an account of the workshop by Andrea Mullaney’s.)