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Jan 9, 201911:53 PMOpen Mic

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Making your next presentation music to everyone’s ears

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“What you said is music to my ears!” It’s a wonderful compliment, made even better if it’s ever said about a speech or presentation that you’ve given.

Variations in pace, rhythm, tone, volume, and pitch do make music more interesting than words alone. If we seek to understand those elements and how they work together, we can elevate our public speaking in the same way music elevates us.

Most of the music we like follows recognizable patterns of structure, rhythm, and pitch. We enjoy these patterns because we can identify them and follow along, even when listening to a new song. The Beatles’ “Yesterday” became a hit more than 50 years ago because we can identify with its lyrics. But we also like the song for its pattern of notes. Research has shown that our brains are rewarded for finding and predicting those patterns.

A recent president’s speechwriters stole a page from songwriters and we can, too. Before writing an important part of the president’s speech, they would count out precisely how many beats or syllables they wanted in each sentence. These beats formed unique patterns of rhythm and cadence that became familiar and enjoyable to the audience, making the speech more effective and memorable.

As public speakers, we can learn from Lennon and McCartney, as well as that former president. We can structure our speeches so they provide a recognizable path for our audience. We can emulate their storytelling by building our speeches as stories that grow from one section to the next. If we pay attention to the rhythm of our sentences in key passages, we can increase the appeal and memorability of our speeches.

But there’s more to a great song — and a great speech — than simply creating interesting patterns. Research has shown that music is most appealing when it balances the recognizable with the divergent. The same is true for speeches.

Led Zeppelin abandoned the standard structure of a rock song in “Stairway to Heaven.” With increasing tempo and volume, the 1971 song takes us on a path that changes several times before we end in a place that we never predicted, but understand. It struck a creative balance between the recognizable and the divergent that is unique in all of rock. Even if you don’t like it, you remember it.


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