Making your next presentation music to everyone’s ears

“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.



We should try to strike a similar balance in our public speaking. On Oct. 18, 2013, high school football coach Joe Headen began his pregame speech like every other coach would: respect is earned, do the little things right, give 100 percent. But it quickly turned to the climbing rope that his assistants had taken from the gym and what coach Headen knew the team must overcome: a lack of teamwork.

Coach Headen asked the team to pick up the rope. They were going up a mountain, he said, and they must lift their teammates as they climbed. The other team would try to knock them off the rope, but they must hold the rope for each other. The rope, he said as he watched his team hold it above their helmets, is a sign of hope — keep together, play for each other, hold the rope, hold the rope, hold the rope.

And they did. Coach Headen’s team won 54–38. We all can’t pull off speeches like coach Headen’s. But we can use a powerful metaphor like the rope as the thread through a speech. We can issue a call to action that’s clear and disruptive enough to change behavior. We can ask our audience to pay tribute to an inspiring figure in history by honoring his or her example.

Like great songwriters and inspiring speakers, we can all work to strike the right balance between the recognizable and the divergent. When we do, we might be creating a classic.

Rod Hise is president of Rod Hise & Co. Ltd., a strategic communications consultancy.

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