7 Things Billy Joel Teaches You About Public Speaking

This might shock some of the blog’s younger readers, but here goes: In the late 1980s, well before the dawn of the Internet, people had to camp out overnight to buy tickets to popular concerts.

One night, my friends and I camped out at a Ticketmaster location at a suburban Maryland mall to buy Billy Joel concert tickets as soon as they went on sale. We weren’t alone. The parking lot at Montgomery Mall was swarming with teens eager to see his show. (The show was great.)

I’ve been a fan of the Piano Man for many years. So in today’s post, I wanted to have some fun by sharing seven Billy Joel songs – and discussing what they teach you about public speaking.

1. You Can Make Boring Topics Come Alive

In the history of pop music, has an artist ever composed lyrics to a song that included President Eisenhower, Wheel of Fortune, and AIDS? Of course not! That song wouldn’t exactly have the makings of a hit. Except for the fact that Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” mentioned all of those and more, and became a number one hit in 1989.

Next time you hear a speaker complain of having a “boring topic,” remember that they’re probably suffering more from a lack of originality.


2. Underdogs Make For Great Storytelling

Have you ever heard the inspirational story about the rich kid with lousy grades who got into a great college because of his parents’ donations to the school, and who then went on to lead a company, buy a massive estate, and marry a trophy wife?

That story, about the advantages of wealth, doesn’t exactly stir the spirit. But songs (and speeches) about underdogs struggling to succeed often do. Billy Joel is a master of telling the underdog’s story, whether it’s the fisherman in “Downeaster Alexa” or the steelworker in “Allentown.”


3. It’s Important To Have a Theme

After several lawsuits, failed marriages, and broken friendships, it’s no wonder that Billy Joel has trust issues. So it’s little surprise that the theme of “trust” extends throughout many of his songs, including: “A Matter of Trust,” “Honesty,” and “Great Wall of China.”

Similarly, speakers should have an overarching theme to their talks. Speeches with endless bullet points and “important ideas” are quickly forgotten. Presentations centered around a consistent and memorable theme aren’t.


4. Great Speakers Use a Range of Emotions

Billy Joel’s songs use many colors on the emotional palette: he’s bitter in “The Entertainer,” vulnerable in “An Innocent Man,” reflective in “2,000 Years,” comforting in “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel),” and defiant in “Moving Out.”

Great speakers often use a range of emotions during their talks. No, they shouldn’t collapse into a pool of their own tears – but when relaying a story about a person in pain, their tone will be different than when relaying a story about a strong leader.


5. It’s Okay To Borrow From The Greats

There’s a difference between incorporating the best parts of other speakers and outright mimicry. It’s perfectly acceptable to look at what great speakers do and emulate the best parts. If someone is particularly good at interacting with the audience, for example, it’s a good idea to see how they do it in order to pick up a few pointers.

Billy Joel’s inspirations are clear. They include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan – and he’s covered them all. But instead of doing mere imitations, he adds his own spin to those covers, as in this cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love.”


6. You Should Issue a Closing Call To Action

For years, Billy Joel has ended his concerts with a rather blunt call to action: “Don’t take any shit from anybody.”

You probably won’t issue a profane call to action during your next talk, but he has the right idea. Tell the audience what you want them to do, for example: sign a petition, visit a website, or call their member of Congress.


7. Know When To Exit The Stage

Have you ever attended a speech in which the speaker was doing fine, until he or she continued droning on…and on…and on?

I’m generally a fan of talking a little too short rather than too long. In 1993, Billy Joel released his last pop album. The final track on that album, called “Famous Last Words,” contained these lines:

“These are the last words I have to say…there will be other words some other day.”

So next time you wonder how long you should speak, err on the shorter side. Better to leave ‘em wanting more than to wear out your welcome.


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