I learned something about public speaking this week by going to my second favourite blues bar. My first favourite blues bar is in Chicago and I don’t live in Chicago. But I am lucky enough to have a Vancouver blues bar about three blocks from my house.
In between sets, I started talking to a guy beside me at the bar who said he was John Burton and he had played guitar for a band called Doug and the Slugs. The band never really caught on outside of Canada but had several domestic hits including a tune called “Making It Work”.
John has been playing guitar for a long time and he knows a lot about the local music scene. Our conversation came around to an extremely talented, but young, local guitar player.
We agreed that this man is gifted but then John made a comment that I not only agreed with but realized applies to many of the public speakers I’ve heard.
The guitarist we were discussing is technically brilliant but John pointed out that he often loses touch with his audience. His playing stops being entertaining because he pushes himself so far technically that the audience can’t keep up. John told me it’s a common trait among musicians. They sometimes play at such an elite level that only other musicians will appreciate what they’re doing – think 15 minute drum solos.
For many years, I’ve been helping clients become better public speakers and I always advise that they should build their presentations with their audience in mind. Part of the coaching that I do encourages them to make eye contact with the audience to assess how well the speech is being received.
Because most people are fearful of public speaking, they find it hard to connect with an audience. It must be even harder for a musician in a bar where people are not totally focused on the music. So some musicians target the “higher end” of the audience – other musicians who will appreciate their abilities.
While talking to John, I realized that some of the clients that I’ve worked with do this as well. They try to impress their peers rather than presenting their information in a way that will engage most of the audience.
John has played in a lot of bars and he told me that trying to impress with technical brilliance rarely captures a crowd. He says simplicity, honesty and humility are the best ways of “Making it Work”. I think the same thing holds true in public speaking.