On rock ‘n roll, public speaking, acting, and the nature of story…

Wow, what a pretentious title for this note. I hope it lives up to its promise.


Last weekend, I saw Signs of Life, the Off-Broadway play about life in Terezin, the model concentration camp the Nazis created to show how well the Jews were being treated. My collaborator Joel Derfner composed the show. The acting and singing was excellent. It was very emotional, and left us in a state of profound … profundity. They announced an after-show talk, and my first thought was, “I hope the cast isn’t there.”

My reaction surprised me. I usually love hanging out with creative types, and really love my actor friends. But in this case, despite the actors’ skill, I wanted to preserve the distance. What was up with that?


I’ve done a lot of public speaking over the years. Whatever “it” is, I have it. Crowds respond to me. Recently, a speaker with a microphone was trying to get the attention of a room. I stood up, looked around, and said “let’s sit down now” in a slightly louder-than-normal voice. Everyone turned around and sat down. At one speech a few years ago, the tapes of my session sold out while the session was still in progress.

Right now, I’m in my first show since forever. I’m an ensemble member with a full five or six speaking lines. Acting someone else’s line and characters is very different from public speaking. We’ll see how it goes.


My friend Jamie Kent is building a career as a musician. He’s done a lot of theater and is now learning to perform as a musician in venues where some people are attentive fans, while others are drunken revelers. He and I spoke for a while today about the nature of being on stage. He’s found that doing theater is very different from performing music live, and life music seems different from public speaking. He’s still going up the learning curve. I’m watching.


Acting, public speaking, and performing music are all ways for one person to engage hundreds or thousands of others. There are critical differences that demand different skills in all three. Yet all three depend on the nature of the relationship between performer and audience.

Stage is story.

One-on-one conversation is easy. We adapt to each other and react to each other’s points. It’s conversation. When one person is engaging an audience, I find it helps me be more powerful to think in terms of story. There’s always a story.

Actors. In acting, there’s a story being told. The actors are the medium. They’re an odd medium, since their skill is in knitting their own authentic emotions into building blocks for characters who they aren’t. The audience’s reaction is to the story, not the actors. The story is made more real through the skill of the actors, but the best actors are the ones who create a character so strong you forget the actor. Sean Penn in MILK was this amazing.

The audience is voyeur, watching the story without being part. Though some stories occasionally break the fourth wall and a character talks directly to the audience, the characters don’t expect an answer, and the audience doesn’t expect to give one. Even the breaking of the fourth wall is, itself, part of the story. (If you’ve seen Avenue Q, you’ll recognize the awkwardness of what happens when the fourth wall breaks. We wonder: are we supposed to participate, or continue our part outside the production?)

For the actor, the challenge is to create a character and story without directing it at the audience. The completeness of the character and the power of the direction is the compelling event that makes the audience want to watch. An actor uses their authenticity to create the character, but their job is to create a fiction with that authenticity.

The actors in Signs of Life did such a good job that I didn’t want to meet them in person. The story was too powerful; I didn’t want to meet them not as their characters.

Public speakers. Public speakers tell the story, and their role is narrator. Since they’re outside the story, the audience can interact with the narrator about the story. The audience is in conversation with the speaker about the story.

For the speaker, the challenge is engaging in a conversation with the entire audience as a whole. The speaker must align themselves with the audience and share the audience’s discovery of the material the speaker is providing. Authenticity works well in public speaking, because people can often pick up when someone’s faking or restraining themselves, and people like to have conversations with people who are interesting and real.

My “it” when public speaking is maybe a mild form of autism spectrum disorder that I’ve managed to turn into a huge asset (joking… I think): like many geeks, I can’t maintain a social facade. What you see is what you get. I suffer from involuntary authenticity.

Leaders. Leaders also tell the story as narrator, but there’s an additional level: there’s the story of what it means to be together, sharing that story. When an audience gathers to be led by Lori Leader, Lori tells stories that bring up emotion in the followers. But the more powerful story is the story of why people are listening to Lori in the first place.

Oprah might tell a story about an abused child. She’s narrator, aligned with the audience to discover truths about abuse. The larger story that many of her followers hold, however, is that by allowing Oprah to be their narrator, they will have richer, more fulfilling lives.

For the leader, the challenge is working both of these messages at once. The leader must have a conversation with the audience about the material, just as a public speaker must. The leader also needs to have a separate conversation, about what that conversation means. “Join me to talk about race relations. [I’ll narrate.] Just by being here, you’re showing your commitment to help change the world. [The conversation about the relationship.]”

Musicians. For musician, the challenge is being both actor and speaker. The songs and what they mean to the audience are what forms the story. People see live music because they want to be in conversation with the musician, yet they want a conversation they know: the music that tells the story the audience wants to experience. Audiences can sometimes even get upset if the musician performs a song differently from how they performed it on their album. The audience wants the story (song) they know, plus the emotional connection they get with a narrator. The musician must create both the narrator relationship and provide the story to engage the audience.

Jamie’s learning curve is likely related to the challenge of the duel relationship of actor and speaker/narrator. His pre-music performing experience was all as actor, and he’s just beginning to wrestle with the need to be with the audience even as he’s acting in the story of the music.


My larger story is that sometimes, my insights can help others get clarity on issues in their life. I’m hoping you find something useful, or at least entertaining, in these ideas. Let me know.

I’m just playing with these ideas, as I delve into performing more than I’ve ever done. I’d be curious to know how you think about being on stage. What stories do you tell? How do you relate to your leaders, actors, teachers, and musicians?

P.S. I’m available as a public speaker and performer, by the way… 🙂

Public Speaking and Performing

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