Poetry Open-Mic Tips

In recent weeks I’ve done two open-mics – my first two, ever.  Here are my tips:

  • Go to some open-mics as an audience member.  I found this especially helpful to learn how to introduce a poem.
  • Take a selection of poems to read.  One event was extremely busy so open-mic poets were limited to one poem each.  The other event was quieter, with two halves – poets could read one poem in each half. Be prepared!
  • Take different types of poems and, if possible, take at least one poem which might raise a laugh or a small chuckle – just in case.
  • Be prepared to assess the atmosphere and tone of the evening – of the two open-mics I attended, one was more boisterous and jovial (I wish I’d taken a small-chuckle type of poem to this one – unfortunately I’d only packed one poem), the other was more sedate, even though alcohol was involved.. which leads me to..
  • Have a small drink of something once you arrive at the venue (but not too small).  If you don’t know the difference between large and small, stick to cola or orange juice.  If alcohol isn’t your thing, I’d recommend a flower remedy or deep breathing techniques – whatever it takes to keep you calm.  I know that some people avoid alcohol until after they’ve read – only you know how it will affect you!  But before this..
  • Practise reading your poems aloud.  Use a recording device (I’ve started using my phone).
  • Practise what you’ll say to introduce your poem/s.  Keep it short but say something – for instance – how you came to write it, what the poem’s about (without giving everything away), whether it’s in a particular form, etc.
  • Learn your poem off by heart.  You don’t have to read it without your book/pamphlet/sheet of paper, but if you know your poem inside out and back to front, you’ll feel more confident and you’ll be able to look up at the audience from time to time – you’ll know from your research as an audience member that this makes the audience feel more included – you want them on your side.
  • Remember to greet your audience, say hello, hi, good evening, and tell them your name.  Thank them for listening.
  • Stand up straight (unless you’re a stylish sloucher).
  • Wear something comfortable that you don’t have to worry about.
  • Enjoy yourself.

I would LOVE to hear your top tips and experiences at the open-mic – how was it for you?

28 thoughts on “Poetry Open-Mic Tips”

  1. Very sound advice Josephine, particularly the bit about rehearsing intros.
    The only things I would add are 1) don’t start with an apology (people do this and apologise for all sorts of reasons) and 2) try not to read too quickly or lose the endings of words. Personally I found my enjoyment increased with practice and experience. Here is a post on the subject of reading aloud from my blog http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/aloud/.


  2. Congratulations – I bet you were brilliant. You certainly did much more preparation than I did. My first was last year (blogged a ‘before’ and ‘after’ thing, which helped me mark it). Recording yourself is a top tip: I might eventually get used to hearing my own voice as others hear it, and stop cringing.

    I took two or three along on the night, for that exact reason of being able to gauge the mood of the room and try to pick one that fitted in.

    Would love to read the poems you chose, but I guess if they are not yet published we’ll have to wait! Thanks for sharing your experience.


  3. Well done on reading at two open mics! I agree with your tips, though don’t think I could bear to record myself. It’s definitely good advice to check out the events first. And your confidence will grow as you read more. My tips: slow down, and don’t swallow the end of the poem.


  4. I think if I don’t swallow, I’ll choke! I agree that your confidence grows with each one – my first was a disaster! I find that I can hear where I need the pauses and the emphasises when I record myself. Thanks for your support – it was nerve-racking! 🙂


  5. We have a regular open-mic session in Exeter called Uncut poets. I blogged about it a while back. You get 5 mins which is about 3 poems…one of my tips is not to crowd in too much by trying to read 4 or 5! This is a situation where less is more. Great tips from you but I agree that preparation time is worth doing and learning at least some lines helps with confidence and relationship with audience. Well done you….bet you’ll be flying off to slams and performances all over the place soon!


    1. Hahaha! I don’t think so, Rebecca! It’s lovely to hear about all these reading series or open-mics happening all around the country. It would be great to do a grand tour and visit as many as possible. Thanks for commenting 🙂


      1. I was looking at the poetry world of the North East ie Sunderland, Newcastle etc those faraway, exotic places on You tube and thought they looked incredibly vibrant and inventive and felt the urge to go there to hear it all ….but not to do open-mic myself…no way….eek


  6. Gary’s Top Tips for Open Mic’ers
    1. Try and visit the event as a spectator only at least once before. Each event has its own character and modus operandi. Your ability to fit / make an impact will be enhanced.
    2. If you nave not visited the event as a spectator before, ask to be placed towards the end so that you can get a feel for proceedings first.
    3. Have a selection of material ready. If you can capture, or challenge, the zeitgeist of the evening, that may help you to prosper – and you can never anticipate what the person before you may just have read.
    4. If you need to wear glasses to read – wear them.
    5. The stage can be dark, large fonts on scripts are good.
    6. Either mark the pages on the book from which you are to read clearly, ideally with protruding coloured adhesive labels, or print off individual numbered sheets, one page per poem. The rising panic in the voice of the poet who gasps, “I know it’s in here somewhere” benefits neither the poet nor the audience.
    7. If you are going to use an e-reader, make sure that you can work it beforehand.
    8. No poem, however good, is any good , if it cannot be heard. Ideally , ask a friend to sit at the back to signal you if you are too quiet (or too loud).
    9. Open mic venues often have irregular seating. Make a point of addressing various parts of the room. If you are not interested in them, do not expect them to be interested in you.
    10. One good poem is enough to be appreciated by the audience, who will anticipate subsequent appearances by you with enthusiasm. Attempting to deliver your collected works in three minutes rarely succeeds.
    11. Decide who you are.
    12. Be nice to the organiser
    Maria Taylor’s Tips
    1. When an organiser says a reader has 3 minutes and isn’t allowed to go over and read more than 2 poems then you must absolutely stick to this, no ifs and buts. This is not the time for your 2,000 line epic on the reformation of the Church of England, written in iambic heptameter. ” It’ll only take 20 minutes, okay 30, no one will mind,” you say. Er, no. You want a few friends in the audience, don’t you?

    2. Have you actually read your work before the event? I mean out loud, even if it’s to a row of teddy bears in your bedroom? Have you figured out where the stresses should be and how your voice could be used effectively?

    2 a) just because something is a ‘page poem’ doesn’t mean you can’t do a lively and stimulating reading, in fact it may work in a much more subtle and effective way. This is better than doing a foghorn impression of what you think is a ‘performance poem.’

    3. Look up now and again at people, don’t just clutch a sheet of paper in front of your face, this works better if you have followed no.2 in this list.

    4. Punctuation – use it! Respect your full stops, pause when necessary, don’t pause when it isn’t required. I recall once losing the thread and staring into space for a second, that killed my ‘flow.’ Dingbat. You live and learn. (4a – you’re only human.)

    5. Can you read your own handwriting?

    6. Don’t overdo the intro, if it takes you 5 minutes to introduce a six line poem then you have to wonder if the poem actually works by itself. Don’t tell the story first, have a bit of mystery, but by all means mention – briefly – what your audience may be interested to hear.

    7. Out of courtesy, if you are going to mention ‘other stuff’ i.e. a fab new comp you’re running, tell the organiser first.

    8. What’s the event? Poetry? Oh so, you’re going to read an extract from your novel instead? Our survey said, ‘I don’t think so.’ At least ask the organiser, some places are more flexible than others.

    9. Don’t offend people please… they don’t like it. I once had to endure something bordering on misogynistic, it was awful. I didn’t clap, not many people did. Avoid arrogance, people don’t like it either. They like confidence though and clear delivery.
    9a. As much as arrogance is a pain, don’t be all coy and apologetic. Avoid saying things like ‘this is a crap poem,’ just read the darn thing.

    10. Enjoy! It’s your space. You can make friends and be part of a supportive crowd. Also, you never know who’s listening…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the tips – but just attending a poetry event last week made me feel I was about to meet my maker – I was that nervous! I would love my work to have an audience – especially as feedback has been that several of my poems would come across well when read aloud….. am contemplating contacting a local drama group to see if anyone wants to be my ‘stand-in’……has this ever been tried by anyone – or am I the most nerve wracked poet in existence ?????


    1. I think the nerves ease a little with each reading but the adrenaline probably helps with the focus so you don’t want to become too relaxed. Mmmm, not sure about the amdram idea – could turn into unintentional comedy – I’d stick with the person who knows your work best – YOU!


  8. Gary’s inclusion of Maria Taylor’s are pretty comprehensive. My top three tips are:
    1. Don’t exceed your allotted time at the mic; aim to leave the audience wanting to hear more.
    2. Avoid lengthy introductions; let your poem stand up for itself.
    3. Be prepared, but be prepared to be spontaneous.
    4. Read well: you owe it to your poem as well as your audience.
    Oops! That’s four 🙂


  9. I find open mic reading and slam reading sooooo hard. As soon as I know I’m going up my heart pounds stupidly fast and my voice wobbles like I’m going to cry, and my hands shake something chronic. I keep on doing them in the hope I can get this under control, I’m told nerves can be a good thing! I will definitely be taking on board some of the tips in the post and the comments 🙂


    1. I’ve only heard you read once, Jay, at Swindon Open Mic (that was my first time ever) and I thought your reading was stunning. I think it benefits a poem some of the reader’s emotion is present – it certainly added to your poem, that night. Thanks for commenting. I hope I’ll be able to hear more of your work in the future.


  10. Ah, great tips! And other commenters have already eagerly added to the list, so clearly a popular subject! I think I’d probably sum it up by saying just put yourself in the shoes of the audience, respect them and respect your fellow readers. I’m particularly irritated by readers who stumble over their poems, or shuffle them endlessly while deciding what to read, because it sounds like they’re unprepared. Or who go over their time limit (selfish to other readers), or don’t ever look up or give eye contact. Having said that I know I have my own weaknesses – reading too fast at times, trying too hard to give ‘cute’ introductions, etc, which I’m sure triggers other people’s irritation radar!


    1. Thanks for this, Robin. I think it is helpful to be a self-conscious of yourself as an audience member and use that when you’re reading. I’m disappointed I’ll miss you reading in Swindon because I’ll be in France on holiday – but there will be another time.


  11. PS and I meant to say also that quite a few of your tips made me think – for example how important it is to bring a variety of poems so you’re able to make the final choice based on the mood of the room …


  12. Lots of good tips… The one I found most useful was being told, by no less a person than Patience Agbabi (on an Arvon course) to record myself reading and play it back. Ugh, but I got used to it. Also – to add to your own tip on this – stand up while you’re recording. That makes it feel more realistic and slows things down. And time yourself while doing it.

    One more tip – have a friend in the audience to give feedback – not just on whether they can hear you, but on speed, tone, intros, contact with the audience etc.


    1. I hadn’t thought of standing up while recording myself! That will make a difference. I like the idea of a friend in the audience, too. I think you’re going to read at Words and Ears in Bradford on Avon, soon, Fiona? I’m looking forward to hearing you – I love your pamphlet.


      1. Thanks Josephine. Yes, I’m reading at ‘Words & Ears’ on Thurs 26 September… so glad you’ll be there, it will be good to meet you – and hear you, I hope!


  13. When I first started reading in public I suffered from all the usual nervous afflictions – dry mouth, trembling knees etc. Someone told me to picture an intimidating audience in the worst pyjamas/underpants imaginable.. my thanks to Tigger,Garfield and Superman for splendid some visions!


  14. My big tip – Rescue Remedy. I can never thank Roselle Angwin enough for kindly introducing me to R.R at Totleigh Barton…..I would never have survived the ‘reading out of our work’ nightmare on the Arvon course I enrolled on as a very new writer 8 years ago on without it ….I had thought it was poetry for beginners and it was anything but !

    (Btw you are right – best to ditch the ‘stand-in’ am-dram idea …I may have to go for a body double instead….)


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