Hints and Tips for Literary Programmers

It’s our mission to gather as much information from knowledgeable old hands in Spoken Word as possible. If you have anything to add, just let us know and we’ll include it.

See other people’s shows

Get out into the world and see what’s going on, who’s setting the stage on fire, who’s new and promising, who’s an old hand with new material. You’ll find there are loads of good writers, and they’re all working with enthusiastic and knowledgeable programmers.

Read new writing magazines, journals and books

If you want writers of a certain standard, look at who’s getting published. It’s a no-brainer. Also, read because reading is fun.

See different kinds of shows

Don’t limit yourself to spoken word. Go and see what’s happening in music, comedy and cabaret, too; you might find there are folk who want to try spoken word or a different kind of storytelling, and the richness and diversity they’ll bring to your show because they practice in a different field will be invaluable.


Go out! Support other people’s shows, attend conferences and seminars, go to networking events, go to friends’ parties, get drunk with strangers in pubs. Talk to folk; they might turn out to be useful collaborators or dear pals.

Be lovely to everyone

Don’t be a snob, don’t just make friends with people who you think will be able to do you favours, and don’t underestimate anyone. Just be lovely.

Always try to be better

Raise the bar just a little bit every time you do a show. Ask yourself what the event is for, how it’s helping out the literature scene in general, and whether it is as entertaining as it can be for the audience. Invite people from different backgrounds to have a go, and always, always push at the boundaries of what you, or other people think Spoken Word is.

Help your performers to be organised

Give your performers all the information they need up front. They’ll need venue details, as well as guidelines for timing and content. If you want to be especially hands on, check in with them to make sure they’ve understood everything that’s required of them. It’ll cut a lot of flapping in the long run.

Communicate well with your venue

If you’re working with a venue, you chose it because it complements the kind of show you’re running and you researched it carefully for accessibility, location and various attributes. It’s your responsibility to cultivate the kind of relationship you want from the venue. If you’re nice, practical, and good at communicating with the guys running it, you’ll find they will probably bend over backwards to help you. Be incredibly clear about the kind of show you’re running. This will help them prepare for the unexpected, and make it much more likely the staff will jump in to help in an emergency. Always clean up after the event, and always, always say thank you.

Shy performers

Not all writers are performers, but when running events, there are ways you can support your writer so they’re more relaxed on stage:

  • Run performance workshops

Make it part of your organisation’s practice to offer group or one-to-one sessions on reading with an audience, vocal coaching, or performance tips, and you’ll create a reassuring reputation, one where people are willing to take a risk because they know they’ll be supported in a practical way.

  • Let your writers play with the mike before the show starts

Two minutes with a microphone to explore how to use it, experiment with speaking techniques and test sound levels with the technician can make all the difference to someone’s confidence on stage. This is also a useful opportunity to acquaint oneself with the twists and knobby bits of a microphone stand, so it doesn’t fall down half way through a story.

  • Give everyone time before the show to sit in the performance space

Ask performers to turn up well in advance of the show. Writers can sit with a pint in one hand and their story in the other, and get used to the room. By the time it’s time to get up everyone should feel better, and ready to perform.

  • Make sure the tech works

Leave nothing to chance! Make sure the microphones don’t crackle, there are no odd beeping noises coming from emergency exits, and that all the sound levels are up to scratch. And if you’re lucky enough to be in a venue with it’s very own technician, become good friends with them.

  • Offer your writers an editorial service

If writers want feedback on their story before they perform, it can be very soothing to know they’ve got a sounding board if they need it.

  • Tell your writers they’re wonderful

If you’ve booked a writer, you did that because you think they’re great. Writers have no idea they’re great, and need to be told as often as possible. Be warm and sincere when you tell them you have faith in them. They will not believe you, but in a small way, it’ll help.


Spoken word is generally pretty polite, but every so often someone idiotic spoils the party. Sometimes people heckle when they are drunk, bored, or frustrated in some way by what they’re seeing, but what they all have in common is being idiots with no manners. The following tips are universally useful:

  • Don’t take it personally

It’s not your fault the heckler has no manners, and pure bad luck it happens to be you they chose to target. Keep your cool, don’t let it get to you emotionally, and always, always:

  • Be prepared

Write comebacks to heckles. As you practice the art of performance, you’ll learn there are a range of heckles and complaints, as well as audience annoyances such as mobile phones going off, antisocial farting, etc., and for every bad behaviour, there’s a funny, effective way to respond. Write meticulously, and when and if a heckle occurs, you’ll look like a spontaneous genius.

  • Help the helpless

Programmers – if a writer you booked is on stage and someone heckles and they don’t know what to do, don’t let the situation continue. Quickly and discreetly approach the disruptive person and ask them politely to desist. If they won’t be quiet, ask them to leave. If they won’t leave, find reinforcements to help them out the door. The writer will see the situation is in hand, and feel able to continue confidently.


Stalking can take many forms, can range from threats of real violence to declarations of love in blank verse, and in all cases, there is only one sensible course of action:

  • Call the Police

It’s not OK for someone to intimidate you in this fashion, and it is not your fault. Call the Police, and follow through on having the person concerned dealt with.

Keep your books transparent

Be transparent about how you are going to pay people, from the get go. This includes photographers, technical staff, people who have you flyer, door staff etc. There is a saying that artists, contrary to popular belief, do like to eat – this applies to everyone else who makes your shows happen. It may be an equal door split, it may be previously decided fees, or it may be paid in kind with food and drink. If you are asking people to perform or help make a show happen for free (this can get tiring quite quickly), at least offer to cover travel, and maybe some appropriate refreshment when they are at the venue. Also, be clear about payment terms – how quickly people can expect to be paid.

Free speech

Understand how you feel about someone saying something controversial on stage; this can range from something you personally don’t agree with to something you feel is genuinely hateful. Do you feel that anyone can say anything, or that you have a safer spaces policy in place (in which case make sure your acts are aware of this beforehand)? Freedom of art vs censorship vs someone saying something vile because they know they can get away with it…there are no right answers, but understand how you feel about this beforehand and how you (or the host of the evening) will deal with it WHEN it happens (if you run enough events, it will happen). Do you cut the power to the mic, or do you let them have their say, and then vehemently disagree with it in your stage banter afterwards? Or do you let the audience make up their own minds?

Collaborate – it’s more fun

Find a partner (or partners) to run events with. It can be a stressful, lonely, exciting, thrilling, exhausting, wonderful thing, running events. It’s a lot easier with someone to drink with/weep on/share excited smiles with.

Fund your Show

You might want to put on something massively ambitious, gather international creatives together, or go on tour.

Creative Scotland can provide funding and advice. They run a range of funding opportunities, and, so long as you know which fund you want to go for, can always advise.

Consider asking individuals and business for sponsorship.

Teaming up with well funded institutions to fuse creativity with their objectives for community outreach can also be a great way to make a show.

  • No idea how to write a funding application?

Cultural Enterprise bend over backwards to help individuals develop their skills. They run workshops, offer advice, and are generally all-round nice guys.

Speak to other, more experienced programmers about how they got their show funded. They might be able to share tips or help you out.

Creative Scotland hold open Funding Surgeries from time to time, for organisations with a solid idea of which fund they would like to apply for, and what their project is, to meet with Creative Scotland staff for advice. It can be a very useful way to work out exactly what they might be looking for when you apply for the fund.

Do you have any sage wisdom to impart to fellow programmers? Get in touch!


This article was written in 2014 by Ariadne Cass-Maran, with contributions from Barbara Melville and Rachel McCrum.