Playing punk rock in venues around the world teaches you things. It teaches you that you have never sweat at any gym as much as you will sweat in a non air conditioned space with no windows in a basement packed with hundreds more people than should legally fit. It teaches you that you sleep in places where you wouldn’t let your enemies even stand. And it teaches you that it doesnt matter how many people show up at a show, because if the message in sincere, and the listening is sincere, then one person could be there and it would be more than okay. (That actually happened once: Trial played a full set to one just woman in the midwest…a woman we had invited to the show. Another story for another time…)
I got the call from a corporate client to do a keynote for a high performance leadership team of just 23 people in Honolulu Hawaii. They wanted a presentation on finding your voice and utilizing it….a presentation which was edgy and had some guts to it, and they had selected me because my website wasn’t filled with cheesy bullshit. My simmering hatred recently for cheesy bullshit is increasing like a kettle about to boil. The world is filled with empty smiles and spectacle. I am sick of the spectacle. Lets have substance rule.
So I flew to Hawaii for a handful of days to meet these people and connect. And they were total connectors. Its far more difficult to keep the attention of an audience of 23 for ninety minutes than it is to keep the attention of an audience of say two thousand for the same amount of time. The audience of thousands laugh as one, they react as one, and they essential each lose their individuality to the whole. This isn’t a terrible situation for the speaker as it makes my job easier to have one mass of humanity responding as if they were one person. In those cases I just need to hit the core of the issue to which we all relate and then have a conversation with that one collective mass of people. I try to never forget that its individuals, but the individuals react as a unit. Its a social thing. Ask a sociologist sometime about it.
23 people though react differently. They keep their individuality intact, their thinking minds. They don’t fall prey to the group and to mass hysteria or hysterics. And as a result, in terms of speaking to a group that size, because it will be twenty-three individuals in the room all with their own minds intact and working, there are two things you can do before you speak. 1. Run in terror right before you’re introduced and hide for the duration of the keynote and ruin everything. 2. Remember that you’re in conversation and throw your insecurities out the window because you’re stronger than that. You dont have to succumb to the “EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT ME” voice. Of course they are. You got hired to speak. You walk out in front of them, the same way you would do at a punk rock show, and you just say hi. But this time the hi lasts ninety minutes. And you will succeed.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to speak to a small group, don’t let their eyes fool you. They are as nervous and excited as you are. They are as curious as to how its going to go as you are. They are as willing to connect and communicate as you are. If there is one person there, then you face that challenge, get intimate and real, and just talk to them. If there are 23, the same rules apply. Just be present, don’t bullshit the audience, be yourself, and be authentic. There doesn’t need to be an ego fulfilling sea of people in front of you. If your ego is in balance, it will be satisfied with the connection itself, regardless of how many people are in the room. In the book The Art of Intimacy, the authors explore how the act of connection itself - which they refer to as intimacy - brings us into being in the world. We exist as ourselves because of our connections not because of how safe we keep ourselves and closed off out of protection from those with whom we might connect.
In any situation, regardless of the size of the audience, the way through to real impact is to just breathe into it and be present in the moment. And that’s not new age silliness. Its real. Stand in front of them and be with them. Be present in that space in the same way you would with a group of trusted friends who you genuinely care about. And connect with them as if its the biggest crowd - if size matters to you - that you’ve ever spoken to before. Its all about connection, regardless of the number of people in the room.
Lessons from punk rock, #12943 or so, Honolulu Hawaii edition.