I've talked before about readings, about getting people to your readings, about drumming up a crowd, but I want to talk now about what to do when you have them, specifically about not punishing the people who were kind enough to show up.
I've been to a lot of readings, a lot a lot of readings and I have seen some spectacular performances but I've also just seen a ridiculous amount of crap. Often, I'm at a reading populated mostly by students who are there for extra credit, and the author or authors reading basically ensure that those students will never go to a lit event again. I've watched those students and other first-timers trying to stay polite. They keep their eyes open, but if you watch closely, you can see their attention just click off.
There are so many kinds of bad readings, some forgivable, and some not.
There are the nervous readers, which is understandable. If you haven't done it much, it is intense to have to tackle both general public speaking fears combined with the anxieties that come with the presentation of your art. Often these readers are too quiet or too fast. They're in a hurry to get it over with without being noticed, which is obviously not the best approach. This kind of reading, while not riveting, is entirely forgivable and audiences tend to be more patient than not, but in terms of earning future readers, this won't get you far. The only way to get over the fear is to do readings a lot, but maybe try to work out your nerves in a more low-stakes setting like an open mic. If you're thinking for example that you might like to be a novelist, for god's sake don't make your debut reading at your book launch. (And actually, if you are a novelist, it is completely okay and often preferable to not read at all. Give a talk or do an in-conversation.)
The less forgivable readings are those in which the writer displays a complete lack of regard for the audience. Sometimes, they do this by picking a passage that is hard to follow or simply dull. Why, dear god, would you want your listeners to think your work is dull?
Sometimes, the readers simply go on too long. There are poets who step up to the stage with a stack of loose pages and I just think, oh fuck. Audiences really don't have the best attention spans and listening takes effort. And the thing is, no one owes you their attention, but people tend to be polite. People tend to sit there and endure it, and writers, so many writers for some reason are okay with being endured.
There is a performance aspect to a really good reading that not everyone can master. But every writer can pick a good passage--not some experimental poetry, or pages and pages of exposition and backstory. Pick something funny, dramatic, sharp. Pick something you're good at reading.
For god's sake, pick something short.