There’s only one songwriting team who has written more Number One Billboard hits over more years than Max MartinJohn Lennon and Paul McCartney.  And yet few people outside of the music biz have even heard of Max Martin, a media-shy Swede who divides his time between Stockholm and Los Angeles.

Martin has written and produced number one hits for stars like Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Adele, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Pink, the Backstreet Boys, Robyn, NSYNC, Kelly Clarkson – the list is virtually endless and includes everyone who’s anyone in pop music.

How does he do it?  There are three tricks he’s willing to discuss, and probably a host more that he isn’t.  But the three are telling:  simplicity, repetition, and the hook.  Each one has application to the world of public speaking.

Simplicity.  The challenge of creating a pop hit that sticks with people and compels them to buy, steal or stream the song endlessly is huge.  Out of all the sounds we hear every day, how do you put together a few musical notes, voices, instruments, and a whole lot of production to get one song into people’s heads?

You’ve got to keep it really, really simple.  The same goes for public speaking.  A besetting sin of public speakers – and one I wrestle with when I speak myself – is the tendency to overcomplicate, go too deep, and say too much.  You can hardly help it, right?  You’re passionate about the subject.  My particular weakness comes when someone asks a question. That means they’re interested, right?  So into the weeds I go.  I’m delighted – I’ve found a fellow enthusiast.  Meanwhile, the rest of the audience is wondering if they’ll ever seen daylight again.

The genre of public speaking is a particularly inefficient way to impart information.  We simply don’t remember much of what we hear.  So keep it simple.  A speech should make one main point, and one point only.  It can have supporting points – and should – that undergird the main point, but never make a speech about more than one thing.

Repetition.  One of Max’s innovations is to use the same melody for the verse and chorus.  That breaks a fundamental rule of pop tunes, which is that you give the listener an eight-bar or twelve-bar tune, repeat it, go to a contrasting chorus, then repeat the original tune.  That means you’ve heard the tune at least three times, and it’s got a chance of sticking.  Max gives you at least four repetitions, and thus increases the odds that you’ll remember the tune.  Brilliant.

But what’s really brilliant is that Max still honors the idea of the chorus or bridge by repeating the melody, but with different instrumentation or even just a different vocal approach from the singers.  So, it sounds different and yet the same.  Genius.

Speakers, use repetition in the same way:  don’t just repeat mindlessly, like speakers who give you a summary of what they’ve said at the end of the talk (boring!) but rather find a way to artfully repeat with a difference.

The hook.  The biggest challenge of a pop tune is that it has to catch your ear immediately.  The opening eight bars have to be instantly sticky, like glue, for your ear.  That means a touch of something that no one has heard before, and a touch of something that sounds familiar, and a touch of something with some emotional punch – it’s an enormous challenge.  That’s why there are so few people who can do it repeatedly.

Hooking your audience as a speaker is equally essential and equally difficult.  You’ve got one to three minutes instead of twenty seconds or less, but it’s still incredibly challenging.  You want to begin with the familiar, to ease people into the new idea, but then quickly hook them with something they haven’t heard before.  And most importantly, you need to grab them emotionally.

Almost the only way to do that reliably is to tell a powerful, authentic, emotionally engaging story.  Max has got it tough, trying to write and produce number one hits.  And so do speakers, trying to grab their audiences right from the start with something unique, human and powerful.

Good luck.

We’ll help you find your hook at our Powerful Public Speaking workshop in Boston, March 31st.  It’s not too late – sign up here.


  1. Nick,

    This one is fascinating. As you know I am a mega music fan and channel my obsessive live music experiences to my speaking technique. Understanding how hits are created is another layer on that! Thanks!


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