Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Why reading aloud is back in fashion

reading aloud

There seems to be an epidemic in public at the moment, of people who read from  their notes, never look up, stumble over words, speak in a flat monotone or in a voice that sounds like sandpaper.  I was struck by it recently listening to a major sponsor present the awards at a sporting event. It should have been riveting,  a brilliant moment for his company, the players and the listeners. But it was – well, ordinary. What a wasted opportunity.

There are lots of reasons for this, but one is that people don’t know  how words work when they’re sounded aloud.  They’ve never gained competence in speaking,  listening, and  understanding. So when they need to, they have no tools.

As a speaker coach, I always get trainees to read to me. Reading stories aloud lets you make use of another person’s narrative, and spares you the self-disclosure which inhibits many speakers. It gives you a  feel for the spoken word, it connects you emotionally to your listeners and enables you to share an experience without the anxiety of communicating your own words and feelings. You become used to more formal  grammar and vocabulary, and it gives you a feel for vocal pace, dramatic pause,  and all the dynamic variations we use to make ourselves interesting to listen to. It builds a storehouse of rich language,  vivid expression and ideas to call on when you need them. Finally, it  gives the relevant  body  parts: lips, teeth, tongue and breath, a good workout.

Reading aloud has a noble history. Before the invention of the printing press in the 1430s, oral storytelling was a means of cementing community bonds and passing folk narratives on to the next generation. In medieval times, storytellers were honoured members of royal courts. From 1500 storytelling continued to be popular in an era of widespread illiteracy, when books were still too expensive for the common man…In the 18th and 19th centuries, reading aloud continued to be a form of entertainment. “People didn’t have recorded music or films or television, so books had to be everything; they needed to be dramatic, entertaining, comic and sentimental,” explains Dr Abigail Williams, a lecturer in English at Oxford University.

Reading aloud is more or less gone from the modern school room, and with it went a basic skill that many of us  could really use –  not to mention a very enjoyable experience.  How pleasing then, to read in  the UK  Guardian that reading aloud is back in fashion.

The tradition of reading aloud and sharing stories with each other … has been lost in modern times. In an era of social networking and electronic gadgetry, when friendships are conducted via computer screen and culture is increasingly savoured in isolation through a pair of noise-reducing headphones, we have neglected the pleasures of direct experience. Many of us used to be told stories as children. But as we grow older, we seem to lose the knack. Yet there is undoubtedly an appetite for it: revenue from downloaded audiobooks has risen by 32.7% since last year, while The Reader Organisation, a charity that aims to engage people through the shared reading of great literature, now has 350 weekly shared reading groups across the country.

Give it a go. Pick up your favourite novel and find someone to read a bit of  it to.   You’ll see  instantly what the challenges are, and you and your listener/s will have connected in a new and rewarding way.

My personal favourite read-alouds include anything by Roald Dahl, the Quidditch match from the first Harry Potter novel,  The Great Gatsby, and  The wizard of Oz.

What are yours? Please post  the answer in the comments.

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