Freddie Mercury was the heart, the soul, the essence of showmanship. The lead vocalist and lyricist of Queen had one of the most incredible unique singing voices ever. And his singing talent was matched, step for step, by his onstage charisma.
Over the years and across different musical styles, some singers have managed to achieve a magical blend of voice and onstage presence that places them in the pantheon of music. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Luciano Pavarotti, Michael Jackson and Madonna come to mind. There are others, and Freddie Mercury has his place among them.
Have a look at this terrific six-minute clip from Queen’s epic 1986 concert at Wembley Stadium. This version of Under Pressure is my all-time favourite. And the two-minute set-up by Freddie? Pure Mercury magic from start to finish.
Here are six public speaking lessons that we can glean from his performance:
1. Stay hydrated
Freddie always had plenty of water on hand. Should you, because you never know when dry mouth will strike.
Be sure that the water is flat. The bubbles in fizzy water have a nasty habit of coming back up at inopportune times. Also be sure that the water is room temperature; cold water constricts the vocal chords—ask any singer. (Oh, and if you decide to throw water at your audience like Freddie did, be sure that the people will enjoy it.)
2. Engage your audience
Mercury’s two-minute riff with the audience at the start of the clip was incredible. He had over 70,000 people hanging (and singing) on his every word.
Interacting with your audience is a great way to keep their attention and stimulate their interest. Audience engagement is a subject that merits its own post at some point in the future. In the meantime, here are six quick ideas for interacting with your audience:
- Ask a question.
- Invite them to ask questions of you during the presentation. Alternatively, let them know that there will be a Q&A session. But not at the end of your presentation!
- Have them discuss an issue in groups of two to four people and then have them report back to entire group.
- Give them a writing exercise—whether to share or not—based on the subject that you just covered.
- Lead a group activity.
- Have them participate in an exercise or demonstration.
WARNING: If, like Mercury, you decide to tell your audience to fuck off, be very VERY sure that you know what you are doing.
3. Use vocal variety
Freddie Mercury had an incredible four-octave musical range. And he knew how to use it. He could sing high, he could sing low and he could sing all points in between.
You certainly don’t have to stretch your voice to the extent that Freddie did (and most of us can’t). However, if you speak in a monotone, your speech—and the audience—will suffer. So vary the volume of your voice; raise and lower the tone at appropriate moments; speed up or slow down to emphasize a point; and pause at key moments to let your audience absorb what you have said.
4. Use the stage
Freddie had a big stage and he used it to maximum effect. Left, right, front and back, he was all over the place.
When a speaker steps out from behind a lectern, she shrinks the distance between her and her audience. But the movement has to be purposeful and it has to be balanced with an appropriate amount of standing still. A good rule of thumb is to stand still while making a point, move a few steps during a transition, then “plant yourself” and make another good point. For other ideas on using the stage, check out these tips from my friend, Douglas Kruger.
5. Turn up the energy
When Freddie Mercury was on stage, his energy was palpable and it was infectious. To get 70,000+ people singing and dancing, you have to give it everything you have.
Now, you will not likely want the same level of energy at your next presentation, but you will have to turn it up a notch or two if you want to captivate your audience. Because here’s a hard truth of public speaking: If you are not into it, the audience won’t be into it. If you do not come across like you are interested, why should the audience be interested?
Spend some time thinking about why your presentation is important for the audience and then put some heart into conveying your message. You should not try and be anybody other than yourself, but when you are in front of an audience, even a small one, you have to be a bit bigger, a bit more energetic, a bit more enthusiastic than usual.
6. Have fun
Freddie had fun. It showed and the audience had fun as well. It’s exactly the same with public speaking. And public speaking should be fun. It’s the payoff moment when you get to share your message with a room full of people. It’s a privilege to be able to do so and you should enjoy it. Just like Freddie.
NB: Apparently, the video might be blocked in the United States. If you are in the US and cannot see the video, click this link; you will be taken to a YouTube search page where other versions of the performance exist. I hope that one of them works for you.