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4 Public Speaking Tips I Learned from Music

Posted by Steve Haase

Sep 24, 2013, 10:00 AM

Steve Haase Trumpet

Photo by Tara Jones Photography

I started playing piano at age 5 and first picked up the trumpet at age 10. I fell in love with the instrument, pursued it, and eventually played professionally for about a decade

Being a musician has informed my public speaking in many ways. The four most powerful public speaking lessons I learned from making music are:

  • Have something to say
  • Use space to your advantage
  • Develop and leverage your technique
  • Practice. Practice. Practice.

Let's unpack them:

1. Have something to say

Public speaking and music both happen in the moment, live, between you and audience. Even when it's recorded, a performance or a speech is being experienced by the listener in real time.

Therefore, your job as a speaker, just like being a musician, is to move the audience. Make them laugh, make them think, get them riled up! Whatever you're doing, you must connect with your listener and have an impact. 

Think of your favorite performer and how they own the stage. Whether it's an outrageous rock and roller or a poised classical musician, a great performer exudes confidence and charisma. And guess what, that might not be how they feel inside! Stage fright and nerves happen to everyone. However, if you have something to say that you are passionate about, that will carry you through any patches of dread you may experience.

And there's nothing more compelling and attractive than seeing someone put their whole selves into what they're doing. You will take the audience on a journey if you're simply speaking about what you care about.

2. Use space to your advantage

One of my favorite musicians is Miles Davis, who was a master of space—listening to one of his solos is a study in exactly why "less is more." Music happens between the notes, and speaking happens between the words. If you don't pause to breathe, you will overwhelm your audience and eventually lose them. 

You will also miss out on one of your most powerful tools for making a point go deeper: the pause.

Try it sometime and you'll see, pausing at the right moment transmits confidence and presence. Besides, the stage is yours while you are on it, so you might as well experiment with strategic silence. 

3. Develop and leverage your technique

The more technical prowess you possess, the more impact your message will have (provided you follow steps 1 and 2 above). The three techniques that apply equally to speaking and music are repetition, dynamics, and metaphor. 

Repetition – Repeating something makes it stand out in your listener's mind. Repeating something lets people know that what you just said is important. Repeating something also gives you a place to start if you're not totally sure what to say next, and often results in a brilliant and possibly unexpected flourish. 

Dynamics – Just like speaking without pausing is hard on the ears, speaking or playing at only one volume makes for a dull listening experience. Let your intended emotional impact lead your choice of dynamics. If you want to convey anger or surprise, raise your voice. When letting people in on a secret, make them lean in for it and listen closely. 

Metaphor – When it comes to effective speaking tools and techniques, metaphor is your 800-pound gorilla. Analyzing the greatest speeches in history you will find metaphor used throughout. In music, an equivalent to metaphor is the quote, when you use something your audience already knows (a familiar melody, beat pattern, harmonic progression, etc) to connect what you're saying to the pre-existing meaning from the quote. The effect of this kind of cross-polination is similar in music and speaking: you bypass people's defenses by appealing to something they already know, making it more likely that you will move them.

4. Practice. Practice. Practice. 

One of my musical heroes was Adolph "Bud" Herseth, principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony for over 50 years. I was fortunate enough to have had several lessons with him when I was in high school, and after the first one I asked him to autograph my part to Mahler's 5th symphony (it has a very prominent role for the trumpet, and his recordings of this piece were the gold standard). He graciously obliged and added the advice I offer you here, "Practice practice practice." If you want to be great, you must try, and fail, and learn, and refine, and grow, and do it some more. Being a great musician or a great public speaker both require time, dedication, imagination, and creativity. And the results are worth every bit of effort you put in.

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