I have never been a fan of David Bowie in his lifetime. But I noticed Bowie back in the 1980s when one of my schoolmates wore a denim jacket with his name on it every day.

However, I only consciously listened to his music when Bowie died eight years ago, on January 10, 2016, shortly after his 69th birthday. I still remember “Spiegel Online” publishing a list of Bowie’s songs we should have listened to. Since then, I haven’t listened to any music as frequently as Bowie’s. Today I am a fan of his timeless music.

Stage Performance and Rhetoric

What is the connection to rhetoric? I occasionally watch “David Bowie Live by Request A&E 2002” and other of his concerts on YouTube. I am always amazed at how Bowie not only performed outstanding songs live on stage but also how he was rhetorically brilliant in the short interviews with the host Mark McEwen. His expressiveness, his facial expressions and gestures, and his stage presence are simply impressive.

Thus, the first audience request is followed by a witty and surprising statement, “No Neal Diamond”, which brings the first laughs from the audience. With brief scattered thank-you statements, Bowie expresses respect and appreciation for his band after special musical interludes. As a speaker, you can occasionally add brief individual appreciation in between, especially during a longer performance.

“Let me take one of these request things on the telephone: Hello, is there anybody there?” Bowie gets no answer and repeats the same question with an infectious energy, making his audience and even the caller laugh. Bowie and his band do not simply reel off the songs, but they sing and play with 100 % passion and commitment. In every single song, their performance is bursting full of personal energy. We can expect the same from speakers: that personal connection to both the topic and audience is palpable from start to finish. This adds to an authentic and individual performance and helps to connect with our audience.


Spontaneity in Short Interviews

In the interspersed short interviews with McEwen, Bowie answers the questions, sometimes wittily, sometimes humorously, and, despite the relaxed mood, always very seriously, for example about the production and creation of the songs. His answer “The experience has to run dry. My own experience.” can be easily transferred to the preparation of our presentations. Bowie continues: “Structure, melody, lyrics, what you want to say. That’s the hard thing.” These aspects should be clear to us long before any presentation. Bowie is also asked about his time in Berlin and how the city influenced his sound. He replies: “I kind of gather up the vibrations in the city. And this becomes the basis of a new album.” Transferred to a speech you could arrive early on at the venue, check the room of your talk, and mingle with other participants of the event.

When McEwen gets lost for a moment and asks for “Slow Burn” instead of the announced song “Slip Away”, Bowie’s quick reply is “We play anything that begins with “S”.” and the two laugh heartily. That shows spontaneity and quick-wittedness.

On the next phone request, Bowie asks directly: “How old are you?”. The critical answer follows promptly: “You never ask a woman that.” Instead of being embarrassed, he replies charmingly, “Oh, you sound so young and gorgeous”, before the surprised woman reveals herself to be a 40-year-old Bowie fan.

His next fan shares the anecdote that her brother used to lip-sing his songs. Bowie claims that he “was pretty much asleep in the 1980s” – probably a reference to his drug addiction at the time. It shows how he can also deal with past mistakes and personal weaknesses. He also briefly mentions this story again later.


Role Play and Authenticity

In the next section of the interview, Bowie is asked how he was able to slip into various roles such as Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, and Major Tom. His answer is surprisingly direct and open: “Fright! … I was an incredibly shy kid, you know. One of the ways that really helped me was to get up on stage and perform in a very big way was to adapt to personas.” For those who feel insecure before speeches and presentations, role-playing like in theater or for improv exercises can help. I have not been afraid of presentations for a long time. However, since 2020 I have been taking part in various theater courses and thus expanding my stage repertoire for presentations and training.

Surprisingly for Bowie, the next music request comes directly from the floor. Even if it takes him a moment to identify the speaker, his sharp mind and quick perception are evident. He states “Oh, this is a gag!” and spontaneously asks his fan to come on stage with the cell phone. This is the art of rhetoric, dealing with unexpected turns and interruptions without being thrown off course. It’s also a nice show interlude before Bowie sings my favorite song “Heroes”. I have heard it hundreds of times already, and it still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

The only faux pas he allows himself during his performance is when he calls a young woman from Buenos Aires. Here, Bowie addresses clichés by asking whether she is a soccer fan or dances the tango, and by inserting other unnecessary statements. Instead, she wants to tell him how much she appreciates his music and describes him as a “very interesting person”. In the end, he takes his time, accepts her music request, and thanks her.


Presence From Beginning To End

Bowie recognizes the next caller by his voice – not immediately, but then he describes him: “You sound incredibly tall … You’re a tall person with really long hair.” It is his friend and neighbor Moby who teases him a little with his “I called in with a specific request”. A brief and surprising conversation unfolds about whether Bowie could clean his apartment. Only when the conversation threatens to drag on does Bowie put an end to it: “What’s the song?”

Finally, his youngest fan, five-year-old George, asks for the song “Ashes for Ashes”. Because the music starts early on, a conversation does not take place. Bowie recalls George and later acknowledges him by name in the song.

How was the young Bowie influenced? The questions before the last song relate to his time as a teenager. It was Little Richard and the use of the saxophone. After the last song “Bring me the Disco King”, the performance slowly comes to an end, not without David Bowie giving the audience in the front row a complete high-five. Here, too, a real world-class professional is at work, present from the first to the last second. He says goodbye with the words “Thank you so much!”

Although the recording of this concert from 2002 is of medium quality, I am still captivated by it to this day and always enjoy listening to the music and the interviews in between. Whenever I need a boost of quick-wittedness and spontaneity for my next performance, I am only too happy to let myself be carried away by Bowie.

This post is also available in: German

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