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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It’s fun. It’s instructive. Just great.
And, by the way, an inspiration for telling some important facts a way everybody listens to (you had that in mind, hadn’t you?).
Thank you very much – I’m glad you enjoyed it! And yes, presenting otherwise bland information in an engaging format was my goal. 🙂
Thanks for reading,
Great post. The only thing I would add is “be topical.” Billy Joel had a bunch of songs that were reflective of what was going on in the world at the moment (We Didn’t Start the Fire, for example).
Great point! He was definitely topical – “Allentown,” “Downeaster Alexa,” and “Leningrad” all come to mind as other topical songs.
Thanks for reading and sharing this post,
I enjoyed this post very much. Nice connections. I have many favorite “life lesson” songs by Mr. Joel, including many “album cuts” like “These Are The Days”
and “Running On Ice” from “The Bridge,” or the song that could have been about me – “James.”
This post reminds me of when I worked some lessons from the philosophies of Howard Jones (esp. “New Song” and “Life In One Day”) and U2 into a commencement speech I was privileged to make in ’89 to the graduating class of my h.s. alma mater while working in radio.
Thanks for your nice words! I once read that Billy Joel really disliked The Bridge, but never understood why. I thought “Big Man on Mulberry Street” was an underrated track, and always liked “This Is The Time” (I like the ones you mentioned, too).
But I have one bone to pick with you. Because of your comment, I’m going to have “Life In One Day” stuck in my head for hours. 🙂
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Oh, you youngster, you. I used to see Billy Joel when he played in the local bars in my hometown of Northport (NY).
Aside from making me feel old, I loved the rest of the post. 😉
As an almost 40-year-old, I love when people call me a youngster! I feel it less and less these days, so I appreciate the reminder. 🙂 It must have been amazing to see him in small bars. I only saw him when shoulder-to-shoulder with 18,000 other people.
Thanks for commenting!
Excellent as always!
Thanks, Kelly! This one was fun to write.
Thanks for stopping by,
This is a rich vein and the weekend is closer here in Britain.
I reckon we should be able to take the oeuvre of any major artist/band and make some some sort of communications-relevant aide memoire out of it.
I have not thought about this too much (no change there) but I will go for the first rock band I listened to – Cream. Watch this space…
I love that. If a speaker is in a “White Room” and is at a “Crossroads,” the audience might look at you with some “Sunshine of Your Love.” Look forward to your piece!
O.K. The Eric Clapton/Jack Bruce/Ginger Baker (a.k.a. Cream) guide to the media.
BADGE – famously Clapton’s scrawled “Bridge” was misread as “Badge” and the name stuck for this 2.44 mins of pop/rock glory (made possible with the assistance of George Harrison). Now as we all know the bridge is vital – Acknowledge the tricky question and bridge to where you really want to be.
TALES OF BRAVE ULYSSES – Don’t be boring if you want to get into the article/broadcast. Anecdotes, insights, things that bring your story to life (very difficult for some of my science and technology clients). N.B. but do not make your tales as long as the Greeks or as abstruse as James Joyce’s Ulysses.
POLITICIAN – [This may be counter-intuitive but none the less memorable for that.] Do not lie or say anything to get out of a tricky situation.
Err, I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead, all the best Philip
As a popular professional speaker (www.WeSocialize.biz), I love your post. Thanks for sharing. Regarding your first point, let’s get Billy Joel to update the song: https://www.facebook.com/BillyJoelUpdateFire #billyjoelfireupdate What new topics/events would you like to see him include?
We used to camp out overnight at the Hecht’s store in Silver Spring. Led Zep, Bowie, McCartney …
Those were the days.
Brad – Great, great angle and Billy is one of my all time favs as well.
I’ll add one more thing.
Billy The Kid has also singlehandedly branded himself as THE New York rock star (NY State of Mind, Miami 2017, etc.) — the way Bruce is to NJ.
Not sure if it was deliberate or not, but it hasn’t hurt the kid from my own “town of Oyster Bay, Long Island”.
Great point! His identity is linked to New York the same way U2’s is to Ireland and The Beatles’s is to Liverpool. I’ll add “Big Shot” to your list, since he name drops the restaurant/bar Elaine’s.
Thanks for commenting,