3 Essential Public Speaking Lessons I Accidentally Learned While Playing the Violin

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There I sat, fear pulsing through my veins. I had never seen anything like this before. The page had so much black ink it seemed more like a string of 918308_53296922_violin_royalty_free_stock_xchng_300incomprehensible Chinese characters than the opening music to the Overture of My Fair Lady. Mind you, I had dwelled with the elite of the orchestra pit since my freshman days in high school. Nothing scared me. Usually. This thing did.

Bluntly facing me lay four measures of thirty-second notes – a “run” in the vernacular of the musician. I had easily tackled runs of eighth notes and, perhaps with a little more practice, runs of sixteenth notes. I’ve even snuck in a furtive trill of a thirty-second note – but never a four measure run of these speedy bars. I looked at my teacher and agonizingly admitted, “I can’t play these.” What she said next stunned me.

“You don’t have to,” she said with dispassionate off-handedness. “Just make sure you play the first note and the last note – clearly – and when you’re supposed to. As far as everything in between, do your best and keep going in the right direction.”

“But what happens if I make a mistake?” I naively asked.

“Look,” she now said with a bit more sternness, “do you think the audience has the score in front of them? They don’t know which notes you’re supposed to play. What’s more, they don’t care, just as long as it makes sense. Remember, they’re there to relax, maybe experience something new and, above all, not work. For them to judge your perfect accuracy means doing work. And work is the farthest thing on their mind.”

“Oh,” I demurred.

“Furthermore,” she was on a roll and I didn’t interrupt, “if you make a mistake, ignore it and keep going. There are no ‘do-overs’ in the middle of a performance. Keep the music flowing as intended. Besides, if you don’t act like you’ve made a mistake, chances are nobody will think you made a mistake.”

“OK,” I enthusiastically replied, trying to lighten the conversation. It didn’t work.

“Once last thing, Chris,” she had now morphed completely into a lecturer, “you’re a good player, but you’ll never be a great player. Do you know why?”

“Uh, because I don’t practice?” I guessed.

“No!” she shot back. “If anything, you practice too much and in the wrong way. You know, you’re a much better violinist than everybody else in school, but you don’t listen to what you play. You treat your fingers as a mechanical extension. You always make sure they’re correctly spaced apart. Trouble is, if you’re slightly off-tone, you’re off-tone for the whole song. And you’re stiff when you play. If you listen with your ears and play with your whole body – not just your mathematical mind and your robot fingers – you’ll find you’ll play a lot better and give your listeners a much better experience.”

And so I did.

But a freak freshman football injury dislocated two of those mechanized digits, wiping away any chance I ever had to play at Carnegie Hall. Still, that single string lesson taught me (almost) all I needed to know to wow them at the podium. Here are the three essential public speaking pointers I accidentally learned from my violin teacher:

1) People remember the beginning and they remember the end. The middle is all a blur.

My teacher’s advice actually mimicked a concurrent discovery in behavioral psychology – people have better memories of their initial and final experience in any continuous event. What happens in between often falls on the cutting room floor of the listeners mind. Behavioral psychologists call this “primacy” and “recency.” In public speaking we call starting with a big bang (which I once literally did in an astronomy presentation) and ending with a grand finale. More practically, it means a good speaker knows to emphasize his main point in the first paragraph and restate it in the final paragraph. As for everything else in between, well, don’t count on a lot of retention from your audience. In fact, be wary. The middle part of the presentation coincides with the greatest likelihood someone in the audience will start snoring.

2) If you make a mistake, chances are nobody in the audience will ever notice.

No one in my violin concerts ever had the score, just like no one in your speaking audience has your written text (see below) or your notes. Feel free to make a mistake (it just might calm you down), but never let them see you sweat. If you don’t act like a mistake occurred, your audience might never notice. On the other hand, if the mistake can’t be covered up, act like it was in the script. Dick Shawn, a famous stand-up comedian and Buffalo native, died of a heart attack during a performance. His audience didn’t leave even after someone began applying CPR. They all thought it was part of the act. I’m not suggesting to go that far, but the next time a gremlin devours a piece of critical technology, tell the audience the failure is just part of the act and continue with your presentation as if nothing happened.

3) Remember, the audience wants to hear the music from your heart, not the mechanics from your brain.

About those written texts – either memorize them or don’t use them. I never got the hang of memorizing, so I rely mostly on a one-page outline. In fact, the fewer words on an outline (or file card) the better. Powerpoints and prepared speeches often leave today’s audiences stultified (q.v., the snoring allusion above). The people want to see your passion. Yes, a well planned rational argument can serve you well, but if you rely solely on your logic, you’ll leaving them fidgeting in their seats, not listening to your speech. The more animated you are – literally, the more you gesticulate – the more rapt your audience becomes. I don’t know why, maybe they’re watching to see if your wildly waving palms accidentally slap someone in the front row. All I know is it works.

Did I have to play the violin to learn these three essential lessons? Probably not. But, then, I would never have performed in the pit of My Fair Lady and gotten the pleasure of swaying to that swinging tune “I Could Have Danced All Night.” For that matter, everything I know about popular musicals I learned from the pits. But, that’s another story…

Comments

  1. Chris – this is great advice for those of us who “practice too much” and clam up in front of an audience whether for a recital or public speaking, thanks for sharing!

  2. Chris, I really enjoyed reading this article. You are a gifted writer. It’s a good thing you don’t need perfect fingers to write your thoughts.

    Jan

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