Making a presentation? Here’s what Bruce Springsteen can teach you

Yes, the Boss’s one-man Broadway show was epic entertainment; it was also a case study in effective group communication

Michael Rene Zuzel
Jan 8, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo by EJ Hersom (public domain)

This is not a review. As a live performance and a cultural phenomenon, Springsteen on Broadway has received all the accolades it needs.

The show, a calm and introspective one-man concert residency amid NYC’s boisterous day-glo theatrical spectacle, was an unqualified hit. What was originally slated as a six-week run was extended to more than 14 months, five days a week, 236 performances, before finally closing in December 2018. The show won hugely positive reviews (“There may never have been anything as real — and beautiful — on Broadway,” said The New York Times), grossed more than $100 million, earned Springsteen a Tony Award, and spawned a much-praised Netflix special and a Billboard Top 20 soundtrack album.

Not everyone was impressed, of course. “‘Springsteen on Broadway’ is a dud,” proclaimed “Tedious for all but the true Springsteen fan,” said New York’s Labor Press. This from outlets that might be predisposed to praise a New Jersey-born artist known for celebrating the blue-collar existence.

Yet even those who don’t care for The Boss’s music, or who prefer his rollicking rock stompers with the E Street Band to his sensitive solo acoustic works, ought to take the time to watch the Netflix concert. Particularly compelling are the spoken interludes that he delivers before and after and sometimes even during songs — especially for those of us who want to improve our public speaking and presentation skills.

If you’re in the corporate world, the non-profit realm, or government, that probably means you.

No, it isn’t customary to look to rock stars for pointers on getting our point across. Musicians, like athletes and authors, are generally much better at what they do than talking about what they do. As an arts journalist in the late 1980s, I often found interviewing famous artists to be terribly frustrating; for every Joan Baez or Paul McCartney, whose spoken eloquence matched their musical expressiveness, there were dozens of comparatively inarticulate performers who truly would have been better off letting their music speak for itself.

Springsteen is unusual, if not unique, in his ability to write gripping, cliché-free prose and deliver it with power, humor, and humility. A lifetime of performing for every type of audience, in venues ranging from dive bars to soccer stadiums, has instilled in him a remarkable sense of how to deliver a message, whether or not it’s set to a melody. He uses that talent to full, powerful effect throughout Springsteen on Broadway.

We can learn from that. And we can improve our presentations in the process.

None of us is a Springsteen. And I’m not suggesting that you bring a Takamine 12-string to your next board presentation or community meeting. But if you watch the Netflix concert closely, you might find that Springsteen has some things to teach you — not just about connecting with an audience, but about really touching them in a profound way.

Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg (public domain)

First, be dynamic.

This is basic. The human brain is wired to look for patterns but to seize upon differences. Our synapses are stimulated by variations. In music, we delight in changes to melody, key, color, volume, tempo, intensity. One of the worst things you can say about anything is that it’s “one-note,” because just one of anything, musical or not, is boring. A roller-coaster is fun because it rolls and it coasts; it’s the ups and downs and all arounds that make it exciting and memorable.

Springsteen is a master of dynamics. His live shows have long been adventures in variation, moving slowly but deliberately across an arc from furious intensity to mid-tempo assonance to restrained languorousness and back around again. On Broadway, he takes us on a journey through contrasting landscapes in both the songs and the spoken interstices.

Check out Springsteen’s monologue during the show’s first number, “Growin’ Up” (about 00:4:00 into the Netflix special). He starts by bellowing:

“Now, I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life.”

He continues at a near shout, talking about all the things he has never done — performed hard labor, worked regular hours, seen the inside of a factory — and concludes:

“Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had …”

And then, after a short but dramatic pause, his voice drops to a near whisper:

“… absolutely no personal experience.”

There is nothing inherently funny about that line; in fact, it’s most remarkable for its refreshing honesty, coming as it does from a multi-millionaire. But Springsteen gets a big laugh, because the contrast in his delivery is both unexpected and meaningful. The sudden decibel drop seems to suggest a secret he is sharing with the audience: that he’s ashamed to admit his portraits of working-class life in America are less the product of labor or class, but of imagination.

Note also that the louder part of the “Growin’ Up” soliloquy is mostly delivered off-mic — Springsteen purposely steps away from the microphone to address the audience directly, without amplification. This is brilliant technique. In the 1,000-seat Walter Kerr Theatre, and on video, no one has difficulty actually understanding his words. But his straying from the mic causes immediate anxiety among audience members. It prompts people to lean forward, to listen closely, in case they might miss something.

And when Springsteen returns to the microphone for those last four words, his voice is quieter but the volume is louder than what has come before, again forcing you to pay close attention.

Springsteen employs this approach throughout the show, as he alternately roars like an angry preacher, converses like a dear friend, and whispers like a close confidant. It’s not just the intensity of his presentation but the words themselves: Springsteen’s subjects range from his early years as a musician to his strained relationship with his father, from his love for his wife Patti to his concern about the state of our nation. He is, by turns, serious, funny, angry, sad, forceful, and self-deprecating. And back around again.

Sadly, too many speeches and presentations I’ve seen — and delivered myself — are nothing like this. They are one-note. The conveyance is flat; there are no turns or elevation changes, much less loop-the-loops. And if the performance isn’t memorable, the message probably isn’t.

It’s important to know your audience, of course. Being overly dramatic is rarely a good call, and neither fire-and-brimstone nor pillow talk is probably an appropriate accompaniment to your PowerPoint in front of the sewer commission.

But don’t confuse monologue with monotone. Making your presentation more dynamic, through deft shifts in content, tempo, timber, and volume, will make a bigger, more long-lasting impression.

Photo by EJ Hersom (public domain)

Second, be personal.

Springsteen on Broadway is based on the artist’s 2016 autobiography, Born to Run. In fact, many of the spoken-word sections of the concert come verbatim from the book. So it’s no surprise that the stage show exposes Springsteen’s life and experiences in a candid, sometimes raw, way.

The emotional centerpiece of the show (Netflix time, about 1:46:00, just before the song “Long Walk Home”) is a description of his reconciliation with his father, from whom he had long been emotionally detached if not actually estranged. Springsteen’s voice drops to a hoarse whisper; he tears up as he describes what was clearly a turning point in his relationship with his dad and in his own understanding of a parent’s role in a child’s life.

It’s a powerful and poetic moment. But most important, it’s personal; it grapples with big, universal issues — love, family, parenthood, childhood, birth, death — in intimate, first-hand terms.

Imagine if Springsteen had skipped the part about coming to terms with his father and had simply gone directly to his thesis statement:

“We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children’s lives. We either lay our mistakes and our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down, and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior.”

The words are no less profound, no less beautiful. But lacking the personal context, they wouldn’t resonate to nearly the same degree.

Again, speakers and presenters need to use personal anecdotes sparingly and appropriately. If, during a discussion with your town council or non-profit board, you weep while describing your own strained family relations, you’ve probably gone too far.

But used sparingly and appropriately, a short personal anecdote can underscore your point in a powerful way.

Photo by @GreatGabbo (license)

Third, tell a story.

Don’t confuse this with using a personal anecdote. The “story” you’re trying to tell is much, much bigger; it should encompass your entire speech or presentation. Every element should advance the tale you are relating and support the message you are sending. And your conclusion should reflect your main point and reinvoke points you’ve made before.

As it progresses, Springsteen’s Broadway show seems to be a collection of disparate tales about his life, his family, his friends, and his music. Only in the final half hour does the tale he is telling come into focus: the story of a guy who, against many odds, dreamed of being a rock star. Who grew up and performed in the boondocks of New Jersey, where the entertainment capital of New York City was as distant as the moon. Who, as a young adult just a few years away from writing “Racing in the Streets,” hadn’t even learned to drive. Who lost friends and musical heroes to war and premature death along the way. Who found personal intimacy difficult.

How did Bruce Springsteen overcome these obstacles to become one of the biggest rock stars of the past 40 years? As he puts it in introducing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (at about 1:24:00 in the show), it’s all magic:

“Now one plus one equals two; that happens every day; that is not magic. That’s the grind. That’s when you get up, one. Go to work, one. Go to bed, two. … But when one plus one equals three, that’s when your life changes, and you see everything new, and these are days when you are visited by visions, when the world around you brings down the spirit and you feel blessed to be alive.

“It is the essential equation of love. There is no love without one plus one equaling three. It’s the essential equation of art. It’s the essential equation of rock ’n’ roll. It’s the reason the universe will never be fully comprehensible. It’s the reason ‘Louie Louie’ will never be fully comprehensible. And it’s the reason true rock ’n’ roll, and true rock ’n’ roll bands, will never die.”

In the concert’s concluding moments, Springsteen again invokes many of the themes and images he had talked about earlier: the disappearance of the beloved tree that had once dominated his childhood neighborhood; his father and other departed friends and family; the “ghosts … (that are) always trying to reach us”; and most of all (at 2:05:00), his lifelong dedication to making music that could help people understand one another and themselves:

“That was my young promise to myself … and this is what I have pursued as my service. I still believe in it as such. This is what I’ve presented to you all these years as my long and noisy prayer. As my magic trick.

In the same way human beings are drawn to patterns and focus on differences, we love stories. From the campfire to the TED Talk, every great speech tells a story, with an arc that includes some or all of the traditional storytelling elements: plot, character, conflict, resolution, theme, all designed to ingrain themselves in our minds and our hearts.

Think of your presentation as a story. Utilize storytelling elements wherever appropriate. That’s how to impress an audience.

Springsteen didn’t invent any of these techniques. Every good public-speaking coach stresses the value of dynamic presentation, of personal anecdote, of motif and its musical cousin, leitmotif. But Springsteen is a master of all these, and he employs them in ways that makes doing so look effortless. Those same coaches might be smart to assign their students an unusual bit homework: watching Springsteen do his thing on Broadway.

With practice, we can all learn to perform the same magic trick he does.

Musician and writer Michael Rene Zuzel is a former speechwriter and communications coordinator for the mayor of Boise, Idaho.

Michael Rene Zuzel

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