Reading an excerpt from a book or poem out loud allows a speaker to make that excerpt as dramatic or banal as he or she chooses. The excerpt can take on new life depending on how the speaker interprets its meaning, nuances, and vocal patterns. Such a reading — and the process of assigning one's own vocal performance to the excerpt — is called oral interpretation.
An oral interpretation can apply to any type of writing, from poetry to prose, from fiction to non-fiction, from humorous to dramatic. The performer will interpret the lines of text to deduce what key emotion they want to convey, and they will give their vocal delivery based on that emotion. The idea comes from the desire to give texts more character and emotion beyond a dry, flat, or monotone delivery.
The style depends less on the actual text and more on the reader's performance, which allows the reader to transform the words into any mood that he or she wishes to achieve. It is not unheard of for a reader to take a dramatic excerpt and read it in a humorous manner in order to play up the subtle melodrama in the subtext, or vice versa. While the actual text of the excerpt certainly does matter, the manner in which the performer delivers the text can enhance or detract from what's written by stressing ideas or emotions of the reader's choosing, rather than those of the author.
Oral interpretation differs significantly from the general category of acting in a few ways. While both forms stress vocal delivery, acting relies more heavily on movement and visual presentation. For example, actors often wear costumes and make-up, and make full use of a large stage or setting. Oral interpretation performers, however, do not employ the use of props, make-up or costumes, relying instead on vocal delivery and subtle movement to bring their excerpt to life. In fact, props and costumes are generally banned from performances and competitions.
Beyond simple performance value, this type of reading can be useful in deciphering particularly difficult texts. Reading a passage out loud often allows the listener to hear ideas or concepts that were lost, and assigning emotion to words often allows readers to hear the passage in a different way. This can be particularly advantageous to high school and college classrooms in which the idea of interpretation and discussion is vital.