Open mic poetry with Zoom

My 10 tips for using Zoom to put your open mic event online.

I had to cancel all live events for Poets Out Loud recently, like arts producers everywhere. With no chance of hosting open mic nights I had to figure out a new way to do what we do. I was skeptical that such a personal form of sharing could be translated to a new medium, but wanted to try. Almost immediately, I started to think about moving our open mic events online.

It seemed important to carry on, not just because performing artists needed new opportunities now that the industry had taken a massive blow, but because people need a creative outlet. I needed to find the right online platform for people to share their experiences through poetry.

What I was looking for

To closely replicate the experience of an open mic night, I needed a set-up that would allow:

  • Participation. Open mic is all about giving the stage over to others so they can have their say. I needed a tool that would allow not just broadcasting, but also bringing in participants for a 3-min reading.
  • Interactivity. I also wanted the audience to have the ability to respond to what they heard, even if they didn’t want to be ‘on the mic’ themselves. At a spoken-word night you get instant feedback from the audience and this is a big part of the experience.
  • Easy for users. I knew that if people had to skill-up on using lots of new tech, set up an account, or pay, they would not be so keen to watch or join in.
  • Host controls the broadcast. As MC, I needed to be able to control who was seen and heard so we wouldn’t get background noise from listeners. This would be similar to a live event where the host controls who is ‘on stage’ and where audience focus is.

I settled on Zoom, mostly because a lot of people recommended it. As it turns out, Zoom did everything I was looking for. It had the benefit of feeling quite intimate as it’s designed for meetings, which means you feel like you’re in the room with everyone present. It all went off beautifully although it was the first time I’d used Zoom or anything like it. The comments that flowed into the chat window speak for themselves:

“Sarah – this is SO good seeing artists from all over”.

“As a regional human, I so often miss out on attending anything, so this is perfection. <3”.

“Brilliant night – brilliant initiative – thank you SO much everyone!”

10 Tips

Here are my tips for anyone else planning to run a poetry open mic using Zoom:

  1. Although Zoom is free for meetings up to 40mins, I paid up for a pro account so my events could run for longer. I’m not sure that an audience would stick around if I needed to end the session and start again.
  2. Share the invitation wherever you announce your event. This will allow people to try it out earlier, prompting them to download Zoom if they don’t have it yet. If you have required a password, it seems you need to share the whole invitation, not just the link.
  3. Test, test, test. I did a few trial runs, and the most useful one was getting 4 people on at once. That’s when I really got the hang of what it would look like to host; how the comments appeared; who could speak; and how to control the audience experience.
  4. Mute all. Maybe the most important control for a performance-based event is ‘Mute’. You can select ‘Mute participants on entry’ in the advanced options when you set up the meeting, which will prevent any disruptions to your performers. But keep checking during the session, as people can unmute themselves.
  5. Use comments. The chat window is a great way to share responses to poems, continue discussions privately, or share links to external sites. Poets who have books for sale were able to add these links straight after their reading, so we didn’t need to look them up later.
  6. Find a way to interact. You might do this by unmuting everyone at the end of a performance to let the applause through, but personally I felt that put too much pressure on attendees to respond every time, and not be in the middle of a conversation in their loungeroom. I liked that people could engage in a way that suited them; either watching passively or interacting like we would at a live reading. I encouraged people to use the Auslan clap, as a visual response to the performance, but there are lots of ways you could do this.
  7. Spotlight video. It’s not essential, but you can control who is seen ‘on stage’ by selecting ‘spotlight video’ for the performer. Zoom’s default is to feature the person whose mic is picking up sound, and this is useful in a meeting where people naturally take turns to speak. So if your poet is the only one speaking, they should be the one on screen anyway. Spotlight gives you more control, but remember to disable it after each performance.
  8. Keep it simple for audience. People are now getting used to Zoom as it’s being used more and more to replace in-person gatherings. But initially, there’s only a few things the audience needs to know, such as: Mute your mic. If you want to watch with privacy, turn off your camera. And use ‘speaker view’ to get the most out of performances (Gallery view is like watching the Brady Bunch; but it can be fun to see everyone’s reactions too!).
  9. Running order: shared and flexible. One of the side benefits of meeting virtually to share poems is that we don’t have to disrupt our home routines to do it. If you have small children like me, you can ‘go out’ to a gig while they are in bed, and still be there if they need you. However that also means that while we’re watching poets, we might also be eating dinner, cleaning up, or even choosing our own poems at the last minute. Knowing who is coming up next gives a sense of security, and to do that I posted my running order before the event. Being online though, you can also count on a few people not showing up, and maybe one or two tech fails, so keep it loose and roll with the unexpected.
  10. ‘Rehearsal’ time. When people are new to Zoom, you can ask them to come a little early and do a ‘rehearsal’. Check that their sound is clear, that you can see them, and let them try out any controls they need to use. While this is going on you can enable ‘waiting room’ for others joining the meeting, then invite everyone in when you’re ready.

I have been really pleased with the Zoom experience. The sound quality is always great, which is important for spoken-word of course. There have only been about 3 out of 38 people who weren’t able to connect, most likely because of slow internet speeds. I was happy to be able to provide an accessible, use-friendly, interactive event with this platform.

There are further questions and issues to explore in this new performance space, which I hope to see discussed in the spoken-word community as we evolve online. How do we support artists financially without ticket sales? Will newcomers feel encouraged to read at an online event if they never have before? In what new ways can we connect poets, supporters and audience across geographic boundaries?

For now, a shared love of spoken-word is drawing us together in ways we couldn’t have ever managed in person, and it’s thrilling.

Watch out for my online open mic at Poets Out Loud, plus more from my friend Miriam at Poetica. To see how things play out for poetry slams in the online world, check out The Bunker, Bellingen Poetry Slam and Australian Poetry Slam.

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