Why great public speakers resemble great singers
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Why great public speakers resemble great singers

When we think of public speaking, we often conjure an image of a suit-clad professional, poised behind a podium, eloquently navigating the arcs and troughs of their speech. Yet, this conceptualisation may be misguided. The most riveting public speakers bear a closer resemblance to impassioned singers than they do to competent individuals merely reading those very same words. 

(No, this is not a post about crafting successful presentations. I’ve written about that here, and also here)

I would argue, indeed, that effective public speaking as a discipline is far closer to singing than it is to speaking. Intrigued? Read on.

The similarity between the craft of a vocalist and a master orator is profound, with each leaning on a shared foundation of authenticity, emotion, and practice.

At the very core of music, there’s emotion. Singers have this uncanny ability to evoke the deepest sentiments with just the modulation of their voice. Think of Adele, whose soulful melodies induce nostalgia and longing, or Freddie Mercury, whose vocal pyrotechnics inspire awe and elation. A singer doesn’t just pronounce lyrics; they feel them, exude them, and wrap them in layers of personal experiences and emotions.

Similarly, the crux of an impactful presentation isn’t the words but the emotional journey on which you, the speaker, ask the audience to come along. Just as you wouldn’t be moved by a singer who seemed emotionally disengaged from their song, an audience will not be persuaded or inspired by a speaker who delivers their speech perfectly competently but without emotional investment.

Authenticity: The notes behind the words

There’s an authenticity in the best of singers that transcends technique. Take Bob Dylan, for instance. His voice, if we were to apply traditional standards, isn’t, well, ‘perfect’. Yet, it’s real, raw, and hauntingly authentic, making songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” timeless anthems. It’s that authenticity, that unvarnished truth, that resonates.

Public speakers stand at a similar crossroads. One can either recite a well-rehearsed speech with precision or one can speak from the heart, connecting with their audience through authenticity. Much like a singer, an effective orator understands that it’s not about hitting every note perfectly—it’s about making the audience feel something genuine.

The Crafting Process: from first draft to the final note

Songwriting isn’t just about penning down lyrics to a predictable rhythm and rhyme. It’s a meticulous process of revisiting, revising, and rehearsing. I’m not personally a great fan of Ed Sheeran, one of the most prolific songwriters of our generation, but what he said about songwriting resonates – it is like “turning on a tap”; the first water to come out might be dirty and unusable, but eventually, it’ll run clear. This metaphor speaks to the iterative nature of creation, be it in songwriting or speech crafting.

Lisa Gerrard, the great Australian singer best known as one half of the duo Dead Can Dance, of whom I am most certainly a fan, talked about “the wound opening” so as the music could come out. 

Similarly, an effective public speaker doesn’t just draft a speech and consider it ready for delivery. The initial draft undergoes multiple revisions, feedback sessions, and rehearsals. Just as a singer tweaks a lyric or melody line to evoke the desired emotion, a speaker refines their rhetoric, pacing, and tone to optimally convey their message.

Rehearsal: Where magic meets mastery

A singer’s rehearsal isn’t just about memorizing lyrics; it’s about understanding the emotion behind each word, the crescendos, and the pauses. It’s where they experiment, fail, learn, and refine. It’s in these rehearsal rooms that icons like Beyoncé transform from artists to legends, crafting performances that remain etched in the annals of music history.

Similarly, the best public speakers understand that rehearsal is where their speech truly takes shape. It’s the space where you can stumble over words without judgment, refine your timing, and work on your body language, which is as important as the words that come out of your mouth. (Some would say even more important…) By the time you step onto the stage, the speech has become an extension of you, much like a song becomes an extension of a singer. It is authentic, impactful, and conveys precisely the message that it needs to convey. What the audience sees and hears, therefore is “You. Just more so.” 

Performance: Interplay of words and emotion

In the end, both singing and public speaking are visceral forms of expression. Just as you wouldn’t be moved by a singer mechanically belting out notes, you wouldn’t be inspired by a speaker who seems detached from their own message. Both crafts demand an delicate balance of technique and emotion, and a masterful dance of preparation and spontaneity, mastery and vulnerability.

So, the next time you’re preparing for a presentation, don’t just ask yourself how it reads; ask yourself how it sings. For in the realm of impactful communication, the heart must lead the way.