THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Ah, Bach: Learn from J.S. for public speaking

When I was married, my husband would take me to concerts– including some that required a specially tuned piano or a specially trained ear. So I was thrilled to hear we were going to a Bach concert. Finally, a composer I had heard of.

What I didn't realize was that it was a lecture. I grumbled, "Who goes to a Bach lecture without getting course credit?" I brought a magazine to the lecture, but after five minutes, I put the magazine away.

The guy who gave the lecture, Robert Kapilow, was amazing. I learned as much about public speaking that night as I did about Bach.

Here are some things Kapilow did that we should all do when we speak:

Know your audience

He said, "I will use Bach as a basis for introducing the fugal procedure."

(This meant nothing to me.)

He said, "How many people have listened to the Art of the Fugue."

(Everyone raised their hands.)

He said, "How many people have studied it?"

(My husband and a couple of others raised their hands.)

Kapilow pitched himself toward the majority.

(Thank God.)

Pick a good support team

The Brentano Quartet played. For those of you who have never heard of them, they are very good. Not your standard quartet. Surely, playing a lecture is a more maddening gig than playing a wedding, and tickets were cheap so the musicians couldn't be getting paid a lot. Kapilow must have worked hard to get these musicians to play, but it was worth his effort. Everything he described was more interesting with the Brentano Quartet as Exhibit A.

Perfect your body movement

Even though the topic was dry, Kapilow moved around the stage like it was a Las Vegas show. When he described the "radiant glorious major version" he reached his arms out. When he said, "Then we go back in minor, and it's dark," his arms tucked up close to his side. He made arcane music look exciting through his gestures, and his excitement was catching.

Be conscious of audience limitations

By the fourth fugue, he said, "Listen for the bing-bing or the down-up. If you're a really good listener, you can listen for all four things, and we'll discuss after this lecture if that is humanly possible."

Then, at one point he decided we needed a confidence boost. He said, "'Stretofugue' is very similar to 'Row, row, row your boat.'"

By the end of the lecture I loved Bach. I even loved the stretofugue. And really, what is the job of a public speaker but to get you to love his topic? Many people give themselves permission to be sub-par speakers because of an unwilling audience or an untenable topic. But Kapilow proves to me that anyone can captivate an audience if they have the right skills.

For those of you who want an opportunity to see Kapilow in action, look for his "What Makes It Great?" series. For those of you who have an opportunity to speak to a group, remember to aim as high as he did.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.