A Lesson from Lang Lang

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter, Kristen and I had the good fortune to attend a concert by piano virtuoso Lang Lang at Geneva’s Victoria Hall. His performance was terrific. From the light melodies of Bach, to Schubert’s sombre Piano Sonata No. 21, to the moving and energetic Etudes op. 25 by Chopin, he held the audience transfixed for two hours.

There was one moment in particular that caught my attention, and it occurred before Lang Lang had played a single note.

When he first came on stage, Lang Lang was greeted with a big round of applause. After acknowledging the audience, he sat down on the stool and readied himself to play. His hands went up to the piano and lightly settled on the keyboard. And then, he did something unexpected.

As a few people continued to shift in their seats, Lang Lang lowered his hands and placed them in his lap. He then concentrated in silence for almost ten seconds. Once the audience had settled, he raised his hands once again and began to play.

Pausing as he did showed tremendous poise on Lang Lang’s part. He was comfortable enough with himself, his audience and his surroundings to wait silently on the stage until he was ready to begin. As a result, he had our complete attention from the outset.

Public speakers can learn an important lesson from Lang Lang: the value of pausing before beginning a speech or presentation.

The opening chapter of James C. Humes’ book, Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln, is entitled “Power Pause”. In it, Humes writes:

Before you speak, try to lock your eyes on each of your soon-to-be listeners. Force yourself before you begin your presentation to say in your own mind each word of your opening sentence. Every second you wait will strengthen the impact of your opening words. Make your Power Pause your silent preparation before any presentation you make. Stand, stare and command your audience, and they will bend to your will.

In his book, Lessons from the Podium, Steven D. Cohen advocates a similar approach:

[Y]ou should not utter a single word until after you have approached, acknowledged and accepted your audience members. Don’t make the mistake of starting your speech while you are walking to the center of the speaking area. Make your audience members wait until you are ready.

Speakers don’t have a lot of time to make a good first impression. But pausing before you speak, making eye contact with the audience and waiting until you are ready is an excellent way to get the audience’s attention and gain its respect.

It seems only fitting that I let Lang Lang have the final word.  Please enjoy three minutes of a wonderful rendition of Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 1.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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13 Responses to A Lesson from Lang Lang

  1. Joyce Sexton says:

    The right pauses can transform regular text into a memorable experience that will empower and motivate any audience.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Joyce. Indeed, one of the most powerful things that any speaker can learn is when to stay silent. As the great Persian poet Rumi said, “When I am silent, I have thunder inside.”

  2. Hiten says:

    Hi John,

    This is a great tip. I’m going to use it, the next time I’m giving a speech at my public speaking club.

    I’ve just been imagining myself doing this in my own mind, and it seems like a great way to start off, to give a confident and composed speech.

  3. Jon Gleason says:

    Hello, John. I’ll give this tip the ultimate compliment — I’m going to use it. Thank you.

  4. Jean-Maurice Lafond says:

    Speaking of words and phrases, we refer to music and musicians. How true.

    In music, silences are so important we include them in our writing. And they make the difference in the rhythm and tone of our pieces of art. Rests are what they are called … as you know …

    We should do the same in our speaker notes, insert rests.

  5. Jon B. Bosco ACG / ALB says:

    Dear fellow Toastmaster John Zimmer, thank you very much for sharing such “lesson” from this young master musician.

    The learning message is universal and especially, those that have had the opportunity of meeting and / or watching famous artists, speakers and musicians can appreciate the high value of such remarkable presence and performance.

    Thank you again.

    Cordially, Jon B. Bosco ACG / ALB

  6. Gil Peretz says:

    Here is some add value from our book too (OBAMA’S SECRETS – How to Speak and Communicate with Power and a Little Magic).

    Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

    The pause, the temporary halt, the momentary silence works like magic. We say nothing, but as a result, everyone suddenly hears words, as if they were highlighted with a magic marker.

    A Classic Secret

    Frederic Chopin is considered one of the romantic composers of classical music. During the forty years of his life in the first half of the 19th century, he composed over 230 musical compositions.

    Arthur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, was once asked what the difference was between the way he so magically played Chopin’s two concertos for piano, his three sonatas, and 26 preludes and the way other great pianists played them. And he answered, “We all play Chopin’s notes. The difference is in the slight pause, the split second before I touch the piano keys.”

    The right pauses can transform regular text into a memorable experience that will empower and motivate any audience.

    Good Luck,

    Gil Peretz, International speaker and author

    • John Zimmer says:

      Gil, thanks very much for the comment and for the wonderful anecdote about Rubenstein. It fits perfectly with the post. And I love the quote by Mark Twain. In fact, it is Quote No. 7 in my continuing series of quotes for public speakers.



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