The Three Rules of Great Public Speaking
Leonard Cohen has had an illustrious career. He has taken us on a long journey of introspection and poetic musings like no other.
Watch and listen to his acceptance speech at The Prince of Asturias Awards and then dive in and unravel my critique below.
Cohen has been a performer for many years and knows how, in his Montrealish savvy way, to have us eating out of his hands. If we watch and listen closely we can hone in on what it takes to bring an audience from not knowing to thinking “what if?”.
Pacing and Cadence
Cohen begins very slowly, his word per minute (wpm) rate is about 85. This is very, very, slow – Martin Luther’s “I Had a Dream” speech and most of Obama’s oratory clocks in at around 95 – 100.
The upside of oratory at slow wpm rates is that it gives the audience time to digest the speaker’s words. The downside is that you can alienate some of your audience whose preference is rapid fire speech patterns and will become impatient with slow ramblings.
Cohen began differently than most speaker’s “Start Off With a Bang” opening. His velvety smooth words delivered at a slow cadence seduce you into his story. He enchants you with his choice of words and lets you savour them.
He draws out the words excellency and majesty to communicate their importance to that auspicious day. Cohen also articulates his words clearly. Are there any words that you can not catch his meaning of? I can’t.
At 1:20m he speaks about scribbling a few words – slow and drawn out. Then at 1:30m he picks up the pace – with a confident flick he tells us (because this is his story), “I don’t think I need to refer to them”.
Listen for silences. Those carefully positioned pauses that have you reflecting. The chosen sentences where Cohen wants you to understand what is important. A fine example at 2:18m, “In other words if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often”. Then a lovely pause to let us know that that statement was important.
What would pacing be without a story?
Cohen begins by telling you the story of preparing to travel to receive his award in Spain. He describes his guitar so well that you can see and smell it. His guitar speaks to him, “You have not given thanks”. Then he transitions into doing so.
How he found his voice and gave himself permission to do so.
He tells us what 1960 looked like while hanging around the tennis court in Montreal with his mother’s house within eyesight. And how, as would be perfectly normal for the times, a young man playing a flamenco guitar holds court and tempts Cohen to become a better musician.
He desired to play with the passion that the flamenco guitar did. (Can you even imagine Cohen not knowing how to play?) His kind and gentle teacher shows him how to play some chords (pause). Six chords…improving and by the third day he had the chords down pat.
But on the forth day his teacher did not come. He had committed suicide. I knew nothing of this man who shaped my life he tells us.
Then Cohen puts the hook in deeply by disclosing that the guitar pattern that this complicated man from Spain had taught him is the basis of all of his songs. “My work comes from this place”, he says.
Imagine, all of his body of work, all of those beautiful songs and poetry from six simple chords. From a man who shared a gift but did not think that his gift was enough.
As many good stories do, Cohen’s story circles back to the people of Spain who he thanked at the beginning of his speech and now he has let them know how his work would not have been possible without them.
He humbly moves the spot light off of himself receiving The Prince of Asturias award by giving thanks to the members of the audience and hosts. So much so that he has made them feel the pride of being citizens of Spain.
- “Poetry comes from a place that no one commands, that no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often.” He has gone their many times but humbly tells us that if he were truly a great man he would have done more.
- When he speaks of the man who taught him the six chord he tells us that he knew nothing of this man and you can feel his resolve that it is all right that he did not know.
- “My work is your work. You have allowed me to affix my signature to the bottom of the page.” Cohen tells his audience I am simply a guest who has been inspired by you. It is you who have helped create me and I am humbled by you recognizing me.
As the minutes go by and the camera pans to the audience you can see that they become more and more entranced with Cohen’s words.
Cohen has charmed them through his thought provoking and thoughtful story. He has paced it so that his audience came along on the journey with him. And he has told it as the humble man he is.
To Your Voice,