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What we can learn about public speaking from Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’

Ginger Leadership Communications

Hey yo, I’m just like my country

I’m young, scrappy and hungry

And I’m not throwing away my shot

– “My Shot” from Hamilton

Telling a story with words is fun, but being able to tell a story with hip hop can be even more challenging, imaginative, and entertaining for an audience. As evidenced by the (11 Tonys and 1 Grammy and 1 Pulitzer Prize) Award winning musical Hamilton.  It’s a phenomenon for sure, capturing the hearts of the world with this non-traditional story done in a shockingly cool way.

Hamilton, a hip-hop musical on Broadway, (if you haven’t heard of it yet) is all about Alexander Hamilton’s life. The musical follows the first Secretary of the Treasury from the time he sets foot in America to his death, and everything his wife did in his memory.

Why is this enigma of a musical important to public speaking? Besides the fact that it’s coming to the UK in 2017, it has tons of great lessons that we can apply to ourselves. Not only that but… Rap is spoken word poetry set to music. Spoken word poetry is public speaking. Therefore when we speak to an audience, you are, in theory, a rap star. (See what I did there?) Seriously though, there are a variety of ways we can learn about public speaking from this stunning foray into history.

Emotional connections matter more than anything else. The people starring in Hamilton aren’t paintings in a museum – they’re real, vital, messy, flesh-and-blood PEOPLE who experience lust, ambition, envy, joy, devastation, frustration, and resentment.  In the song “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton and Aaron Burr (rivals and enemies) share a promise for the future to their newborns. This captures the vulnerability of these two revolutionary men – a touching bit of humanity that unites them with each other and the audience.

As speakers, we can take this lesson quite far. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being perfectly you, with all your perceived flaws and foibles. THAT is what endears you to an audience, letting your authenticity shine through. Your authenticity connects to your audience’s humanity and allows them to also be authentic. This is the quality that transforms public speaking from “technically very good” to “WOW”. It’s all about sharing YOU… on stage.

Take the mold… and break it. Society has historically had a bias against hip-hop and rap, it’s been considered “distasteful”.  Broadway has always been the pinnacle of artistic culture in music. So putting these two things together is a wondrous way to showcase the brilliant poetry of rap. Hamilton broke the mold and the world loved it.

Why not take a risk with your speaking? A hip-hop musical about the revolutionary war is so far outside the box that it was dubbed a flop before it even got started. Boy were they wrong. Do the same with your speech – if it’s genuine and authentic, it’s a win.

There are no boring topics. Honestly, if a Broadway musical on American History can people this excited, then you have NO excuse to think your speech topic is boring. Your responsibility when speaking to an audience is to discover what makes each subject inherently interesting. To turn an audience on, you must first become completely invested in the subject.

Stand for what you believe. When Hamilton met Aaron Burr, his over-the-top introduction caused Burr to advise Hamilton, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for,” after which Hamilton responded with “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

Remember – if you are passionate and authentic your audience will feel connected to you. What will serve them in this moment is not for you to meekly say “Umm… please consider this” and shrink into the stage. Ask for what you want. Specifically. Powerfully. This is closing the ‘sale’. This is the ‘bungee jump’ moment where people have the most fear.

To grow as a storyteller, grow everywhere else. If Miranda hadn’t decided to read a book on his vacation, Hamilton wouldn’t exist. Outside interests add depth and layers to your content and separate you from other speakers.

When you’re telling your story, try not to speak from OUTSIDE the experience using memorized words. Speak from within the experience, using personal perspective to help the audience feel, see, and hear what YOU feel about your topic.There’s a very big difference (and the audience can always tell) from reliving your experience and reading from a script. Sharing your story from a multi-dimensional angle means that as you tell it… you can go into any little side detail at any given moment. The audience can see think and feel what you’re feeling because it’s YOUR story, your perception, your senses that are being shared.

I am not throwin’ away my shot!

I am not throwin’ away my shot! I am not throwin’ away my shot! I am Alexander Hamilton! I am not throwin’ away my shot!

Even with many highs in Hamilton’s life, there were also lows. Alexander wasn’t liked much because of his boisterous and outspoken personality. He was unfaithful to his wife, and was kicked out of his influential government position as a result. Through all the twists and turns of his life, he never “gave up his shot” and persisted through the tough times with resilience.

Part of the joy of public speaking is that anything can happen, yet nothing tweaks at our public speaking nerves more than the unexpected. Surprises are a way of life in the speaking world, because you have to factor in the audience – with a mind and will of their own. Anything can happen – questions that you didn’t bank on, difficult audience members, a different room layout than you’re used to, having (or not having) use of electronic visual aids (think PowerPoint). Instead of fighting a losing battle to control the uncontrollable, build your own resilience by putting your faith in yourself.

Learn to switch: “I’ll be ok so long as...” into simply “I’ll be ok whatever happens.”

He’s just non-stop

Why do you fight like you’re running out of time? Why do you fight like History has its eyes on you…

Non-stop! Non-stop! Non-stop! Non-stop! History has its eyes on you…

Hamilton was relentless. He was incessant in his need for learning and education. The Founding Father of the U.S. Treasury and supporter of the American Constitution was referred to as “writing like [he] was out of time.” Hamilton fought his way to America by learning economics and law as a young man in the Caribbean. He refused to sit still, always struggling to overcome obstacles.  Lin-Manuel Miranda was the same. Writing, writing, and then writing some more.

Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics, which earned the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2016Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. Miranda received the 2016 Drama League Distinguished Performance Award for his work in the role. Hamilton was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony Awards, of which it won 11, including Best Musical. Miranda also won the Tony Award for Best Original Score and Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Hamilton and earned a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

As a speaker you HAVE to believe in yourself. Collect and internalize all the data that supports your ability to do a good job on your speech, no matter what happens. For example:

  • Your experience on the subject matter, matters most. What is it that YOU have inside that will not disappear, no matter what happens during your speech?
  • Your ability to succeed. Remind yourself of all the times you’ve been successful, be it public speaking or a success in another area that involves communication. Remember that even when things did go wrong i the past, at the very center of your being is someone who can – and does – succeed.
  • Remember that you DO shine. Think of when you’re most comfortable. When you’re around friends think of how fun, engaging, interesting, and entertaining you are (otherwise they wouldn’t be your friends right? Right. ).This is who you are, at your very core, no matter how well your talk does or doesn’t go.

Just like Hamilton wasn’t a sure thing that turned out to be a huge hit and musical phenomenon  – you’ll never know how great a speaker you can be if you never try. If you believe in the message you’ve created in your public speech, then perhaps (more often than not) it will hold value for an audience. What’s the worst that could happen? You’re no worse off than you were before and just maybe you’ll have touched someone in a real authentic way. It matters not the topic, what does matter is your belief in the topic. Don’t stop and don’t EVER throw away your shot!

Ginger Leadership Communications

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