I am obsessed with obsessives. These are the individuals – the artists, the craftspeople, the virtuosos, the performers who work so hard to make their artistry look like a breeze.

Glenn Gould was one. Jerry Seinfeld is another.

As performers, public speakers can learn a lot from them. To achieve anything at a high level of accomplishment, you need to be laser focused and relentlessly determined to succeed.

When I videotape or record my clients delivering their talks, I am hitting the record, rewind and replay buttons over and over. We rehearse until we get the emphasis, pacing and pauses just right.

For a rare example of a great artist doing this, check out the recently released Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations – The Complete Unreleased Recording Sessions, June 1955 (Sony Classical). One of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century, Gould was fastidious about every aspect of his musicianship.

He recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Columbia Records 30th Street studio in Manhattan over four days in June 1955. The temperature of the studio had to be precisely regulated. The piano had to be set at a particular height. Sometimes Gould wanted a small rug for his feet underneath the piano. On hand was a generous supply of arrowroot biscuits.

That nut’s a genius,” Leonard Bernstein said.

I’ve probably listened to Gould’s Goldberg Variations a hundred times. His artistry goes beyond technical proficiency. These pieces are beloved for their brisk pace, crystalline clarity and purity of expression.

As Allan Kozinn noted in this week’s Wall Street Journal, the most fascinating moments in the new release are when Gould stops the the recording session to refine his playing.

At time, Gould recorded a variation or a section ten times or more. “Sometimes, he stopped between takes to drill a short passage, playing it over and over until he was satisfied,” Kozinn writes. “Elsewhere he might focus on a bass line without the rest of the counterpoint, altering the articulation until he gets the clarity and phrasing he wants.”

These moments show his determination to get every note just so.

Another obsessive perfectionist and fiercely disciplined performer is Jerry Seinfeld. He goes through a extraordinary process to hone and perfect his material. “He will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, said Jonah Weiner in a New York Times profile.

You can also see his obsessive reworking of his material in his 2002 documentary, The Comedian.

“It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” Seinfeld told Weiner. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the little doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”

But for Seinfeld, “the sake of it” is not an abstraction. His job is to make people laugh. That’s the cricket cage.

Glenn Gould’s genius was reflected in his commitment to the music. That’s the vision he labored over so obsessively.

We can’t all be obsessive. But public speakers can focus on the things that really matter, like timing, phrasing, and tone of voice – and the pacing and pause that get it just right.


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