12 Things 1980s Music Can Teach Public Speakers

I enjoy little in life more than bad 80s music. And by bad, I mean awesome.

So I wanted to marry my personal guilty pleasure with my professional blog by offering public speakers  12 things they can learn from 1980’s music.

To make this even more of a time waster, I’ve inserted the videos for each of these 12 songs. I certainly hope you enjoy them more than Ms. Media Training does my collection of Cyndi Lauper and Bon Jovi 45s.

Finally, for the record, no. I can’t offer any advice for public speakers based on George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” or Poison’s “Talk Dirty To Me.” You’re on your own there.

Okay, here we go!

#12: Be Good To Yourself, 1986: As Journey said in their top ten single, be good to yourself. That means getting a good night’s sleep before your speech, hydrating with plenty of room temperature water, and eating a meal intended to satiate your hunger, not stuff you. (If you look closely in the below video, you’ll see American Idol’s Randy Jackson on bass.)

#11: Self Control, 1984: In her top five smash, Laura Branigan lamented the loss of her self control, a feeling all too familiar to public speakers when nervousness saps them of their self control. Breathing exercises can help. Before going on stage, take a long, deep breath. Hold it as long as you can. Release the air slowly. Repeat ten times.

#10: You’re Only Human, 1985: Billy Joel’s top ten hit reminded listeners, “you’re only human, you’re supposed to make mistakes.” It’s good advice, so remember that the audience won’t judge you based on a scale of perfection. It doesn’t matter if you flub a line, forget a word, or make a minor gaffe – if you’re passionate and care about the topic, the audience will probably like you. And if you do make a big mistake? Stay in the moment. Beat yourself up afterwards if you must, but never do it while you’re still on stage.

#9: Hello, 1984: Lionel Richie’s number one song said the word “hello” three times – and many speakers follow suit by beginning their talk with some combination of “hello,” “thank you,” and “nice to be here.” Kill that introduction, which offers no value to the audience, and instead begin with something that captures their attention immediately – such as a startling statistic, a surprising fact, or an audience survey.

#8: I’m So Excited, 1984: The Pointer Sisters’ top ten smash offered the catchy hook, “I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it.” Great speakers take that notion seriously, hooking their audiences with contagious energy. That doesn’t mean speakers have to act flamboyantly to capture the audience’s attention – but it does mean they have to exude genuine excitement to be there.

#7: Don’t Rush Me, 1989: Taylor Dayne’s number two hit offered a plea: “don’t rush me, I’ve made that mistake before.” If you’ve been told you’re a fast talker, force yourself to take a breath after every sentence and offer a brief pause between important points. Those silences – something I call “verbal white space” – give you a chance to catch your breath and control your pace – and your audience an opportunity to absorb your information.

#6: Physical, 1981: In Olivia Newton-John’s massive smash (and dreadful video), she cooed, “let’s get physical, let me hear your body talk.” One seminal study found that more than half of your communications occurs through your “body language” – so bring the full measure of your enthusiasm and natural, open gestures to help ensure that your body “talks.”

#5: Stand, 1989: REM’s top ten hit instructed listeners to “stand in the place where you work.” Okay, most speakers already stand when they deliver a speech, but too many stand in the wrong place. Except for the most formal speeches, don’t stand behind a lectern – stand in the front of the stage instead. You can rest your notes on a small table just off to the side.

#4 Roam, 1989: This number three hit from the B-52’s encouraged listeners to “roam if you want to, roam around the world.” Since you now know better than to stand behind a lectern, don’t just stand placidly on the stage. It’s okay to roam around the stage –  just make your movements purposeful. When you finish making an important point, for example, walk to the opposite side of the stage to make your next point.


#3: When I See You Smile, 1989: This number one hit from Bad English said, “when I see you smile, I see a ray of light.” No wonder. The emerging science of mirror neurons (more here) suggests that the audience subconsciously returns the speaker’s smile, likely due to some type of innate modeling behavior. Social science also shows the audience is more receptive to your ideas when you smile. So smile, and they’ll be wrapped around your finger.

#2: Danger Zone, 1986: Kenny Loggins scored a number two hit with his testosterone-filled Top Gun song that bragged about riding the “highway to the danger zone.” For speakers, the danger zone is when the audience starts to lose interest. Shake it up. You can regain interest during those moments by engaging directly with the audience – ask a question, ask for a show of hands, or solicit comments –anything that breaks the monotony of your delivery and gets the audience back in your corner.

#1: Don’t You Forget About Me, 1985: This Breakfast Club classic was a number one smash for the band Simple Minds. Too often, speakers end their presentations by meekly saying something like, “that’s all I have to say, thank you very much.” Instead, end your speeches with a call-to-action (you might not want to do that by shouting, “Hey, hey, hey, hey!”). Invite attendees to visit your website, sample a product, sign a petition, or read a book to learn more. That closing call-to-action helps ensure your audience doesn’t forget about you the moment you end your talk.

Did I omit an 80’s great? Hit me with your best shot and leave a comment below. Fire away!

You Might Also Enjoy:

The Ten Worst Video Disasters of 2010 

The 21 Most Essential Media Training Links