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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Music Lessons. Or, how to not bore your audience

- Elana Duffy


Understanding what makes a band sync well together on stage has nothing to do with the style of music, in the same way that understanding what will best build your teams and put your best story before your customers has nothing to do with what you are building. Good business is an art form, and one that follows the same general rules of consonance and dissonance that make sculpture or novels or a concerto pleasing. Allowing your customers and employees to get lost in your product or service: that is what will bring them back to hear you play again.

While most successful bands have a great live show, sometimes you see a performance which is just not good. That can leave you feeling empty, turning what had been a promising evening into a disappointment. You want to avoid watching and giving those bad performances.

Of course, this isn’t a music review. This is about a learning experience. Even the shortest email to a client or the largest workshop has an element of showmanship involved, and your internal and external efforts have an effect on your bottom line as your customers decide if they want a repeat performance.

So what makes an act, a performance, bad? And what can we learn from it and apply to a business context?

Last night I went to the performance of a rather well-known band that fuses 2 tone ska with 80s pop. They’ve been around since 1978 in some incarnation or another, with this particular setup consisting of the original frontman and the rest of the band being regulars for roughly a decade. Five members, and no member of the band is under 40. The frontman is over 50.

The opener, a local band, was an unknown. They were all in their 20s, playing some sort of ska fused with (my best guess) an influence of musical improv. They consisted of nine members, including one who could at best be considered “extraneous percussion”, spending the majority of the half-hour set shaking an egg maraca and tapping on a set of bongos.

The band of “old men”, which the members of the opener didn’t even seem to stick around for, was amazing. They didn’t move around much for the hour and a half they stayed on stage. They didn’t jump up and down, and you could hardly understand the frontman thanks to his thick British accent. But they conveyed everything that there was to convey about their music and their story through their intensity, their talent, and their engagement.

The “kids”, well, the burrito I had for dinner was more interesting and flavorful. They moved more, but their interactions were largely with each other. They couldn’t figure out how to start or end their songs, and while they were all clearly good if not great musicians, their live show never connected with anyone but their close friends lining the front of the stage.

Two very different bands, two very different experiences. One was great, one was at best mediocre and not someone I’d return to see in the future. But each of them left behind lessons about the showmanship that is a fundamental part of business:

  • Know your audience. The kids were opening to an older crowd and for a band playing since roughly a decade before they were born. Now is not the time to close out your show with an on-stage drum circle. Customers are like that as well. Play to those you want to keep and innovate within the range of their appeal, or you will turn them off. If you change your message or your story you are going to end up alienating them and may risk losing them entirely.

  • Engage. You don’t have to jump up and down or assign crowd parts to your employees or your customers, but you do have to be present and accessible. Keep your posture open when interacting, even if they aren’t understanding you, and keep pressing on. Identify individuals who stand out, and stay consistent with your story and your message as you share it. In communication, only about 7% is what you say, 38% your tone, and many experts say up to 55% is interpreted through body language. We couldn’t understand the lead singer of the older band, but his projection was phenomenal. So we continued to make the effort because his energy with the crowd was contagious. The younger band had members we could hear, but forgot they were on stage for lack of presence.

  • Build cohesion. Your customers can see when there is dissonance among the ranks, when one person is trying to outplay or outsell another, or someone is just off rhythm. Internal competition can be a boost, but overall, studies ( show a cohesive nature and team dynamic will boost not only your employee satisfaction - which leads to lower attrition and other benefits - but also show a better face to the customer.

  • Rehearse. Time in rehearsal, in your internal meetings and training, is the perfect time to identify not only how your teams can work together, but also to identify employees to bring back into the fold or, if need be, find someone who is a better fit. Each person needs to fit to be a part of your story and to tell your message correctly. They learn that message through practicing together.

There are some of us who can get lost in good music. It’s an escape, an interaction, an experience. Something about it draws us in, makes us close our eyes and tune out the rest of the world. And in most cases, nothing beats a live performance, the ability to not only enjoy the music but to do so with others, and maybe even get a surprise great performance from the less refined world of the opening band. Those lesser known and often local bands can be great gems.

Music is a part of each of us, with studies ( showing that the ability to react to consonance in music is prevalent as young as several months, potentially younger. And the same things that make us react to music can make customers and employees react in business.

Every interaction is a show. Act like the headliner.

Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a veteran of the US Army, a masters of engieering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC.

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