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4 Musical Principles That Can Make You A Better Speaker

Speaking is more like music than you might imagine. For your next presentation, think Pavarotti, not PowerPoint.

4 Musical Principles That Can Make You A Better Speaker
[Photo: Baltazar Hertel/Suspekt/Frederik Magle]

The last time you went to a see a musical performance, how did you feel–connected, engrossed, totally there? Now think of the last speaking engagement you attended. Chances are it wasn’t nearly as engaging. But forms of performance, speech, and music exist on a kind of continuum. And there are features and techniques from music that you can exploit as a speaker to keep your listeners captivated. Here are a few.

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1. Patterns

In music, patterns–in the forms of melodies and harmonies–are fundamental. The songs that get stuck in our heads usually have an especially strong central melody. These patterns have to be woven throughout the song in order for us to perceive their continuity.

Same goes for speaking. Think of the “melody” of your speech as the central idea or core message you want to get across. And just as a great song melody gets stuck in your head, you want your core message to lodge in your listeners’ minds. That big idea should be woven throughout your entire talk.

What’s more, you have to make sure each point you make harmonizes with that predominating melody. By establishing a consistent pattern, you’ll make your remarks easier for your audience to comprehend and remember later.

2. Rhythm

Rhythm is obviously an essential building block in music. Interestingly, popular music today tends to have stronger drum beats than it did in decades past. If you listen to the most popular American songs from the ’60s and then listen to today’s top 40, you’ll hear the difference. If you want a pop hit in 2016, you’ll need a prominent drum beat.

In speaking, too, rhythm is a critical tool for keeping people engaged. And just like with music, the need for speakers to keep a strong “beat” is arguably greater than ever before, because today’s always-on digital world tends to make us more distractible than ever. To cut through these distractions, make sure you repeat your core message regularly, and include frequent rhythmic builds.

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3. Familiarity

Success in pop music tends to rest at least in part on familiarity. Doing something really avant-garde might win you critical acclaim, but by and large, it typically limits your audience. In fact, when radio DJs debut new songs on their stations, they typically sandwich them between two already popular songs.

As a speaker, you also need to make sure your audience is familiar with what you’re saying. It can be difficult to communicate complex topics, so try to explain them in terms most people can identify with. Using imagery is a great way to do this. For example, you could describe an exciting but complex project by saying, “It’s like a great salad. There are many different components that wouldn’t make a great meal on their own, but it’s delicious when they all come together.”

Using imagery is especially important when you’re communicating change. By connecting an unfamiliar concept to a familiar image or idea that your audience can already relate to, you’ll help make your message resonate.

4. Originality

Music thrives on a wide range of sounds, including vocal styles. Genre distinctions aside, think of the difference between Missy Elliot‘s voice and Adele‘s, or Tom Waits‘s and Tom Joneses‘. To be a great musician, you need to have a distinct, signature sound that is authentic to who you are.

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In speaking, there’s also no single way to be great. Embrace your own style and sound. People often ask me what speaking style, sound, or tone of voice to adopt in order to have the greatest impact. The answer may seem like a dodge, but it’s absolutely true: There is no one “best” speaking style. You should speak in your own authentic, natural voice–the one that reflects the spontaneity, energy, and connection you bring to the way you communicate.

The truth is that speaking is more like music than you might imagine, so for your next presentation, think Pavarotti, not PowerPoint. Think about structure and patterns. Think about rhythm and repetition. Speak with your true voice, your own personal signature. Your performance (and it is a performance) will be much more dynamic that way–more like a concert than a lecture.

About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power. Executive Speaking offers both one-on-one private coaching and group Leadership Speaking Bootcamp 360 programs.

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