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.

Lang Lang

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.

Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum

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13 Replies to “A Lesson from Lang Lang”

  1. 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

    1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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

    1. 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.”

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International