Ken Burns’ eight-part series Country Music recently debuted on PBS. If you love music or history, it’s a must-see. We were struck by the origins of this American genre, what made it successful, and how those elements apply to speaking.
First is simplicity; the earliest, portable instruments were the banjo and fiddle. This rudimentary accompaniment didn’t compete with the plaintive stories sung by pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter family. Before country music, early radio audiences could only hear Symphony or Opera performances. But that music didn’t speak to poor folks’ dilemmas including lack of work, hunger and feeling like outsiders. Interestingly enough, when Northerners wrote and sang about missing the South; lost love; or happier times—their storytelling also touched a nerve. Performers and audiences connected, and a powerhouse musical form was launched.
When you prep a presentation, carefully consider your audience, their concerns and perspective. Don’t let any accompaniment, like PowerPoint, interfere with your simple, clear message. Show up with commitment and an ownership of your material. Rodgers, a seminal performer in country music, leveraged his background as a railroad worker and became a huge star. When you address the needs and wants of your audiences, you too can be engaging, especially when you sing a clear, uncluttered song.