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Rehearse Like a Rock Star: Excerpt from CLSF

  • March 31, 2016
  • Mark Schulman

Fred Gretsch started by setting a goal—to buy and revive his great-great-grandfather’s bankrupt company. It took him 17 years to accomplish, but he did it by using a philosophy that hits the very foundation of capability: “All achievement rests on the mastery of fundamental skills.” Fred is now the president of U.S. musical instrument maker The Gretsch Company.

I’ve always loved Gretsch drums, but in the late 1980s, the company had very little market share, inconsistent product quality and an atrophying image. The successful turnaround began with Fred’s purchase and continued with new branding concepts, modernized and expanded product design, progressive marketing and revamped distribution.

Fred doesn’t actually play any of the instruments that his company makes, though, and has had an interesting time communicating with an industry of drummers, guitar players and music business people. Fred says musicians always ask him what instruments he plays. Drummers assume he beats; guitar players assume he riffs.

And he still feels intimidated by the musical banter and his responsibility to communicate effectively as the president of a major musical brand, especially since he has “a bashful side.”

His answer: A little pad and pen. He’s always jotting down notes, especially before a speech. “I have the highest regard for the professional performers who make it look easy. I’ve done my homework. When I introduce a well-known musician or player, I know who the star is.

“I write my remarks down whenever I possibly can. I rewrite them, and then I practice, practice, practice. I begin with a quote that I’m comfortable with that has a lot of deep meaning. I pick my words carefully. I begin with a blast of high energy—as much as I can muster, and I work to keep the energy high during my remarks.”

Fred uses music as a metaphor, since that’s his business. He rewrites those notes to the point where he feels they’re not a script—they’re music. “The words that come out of a page are the music of my voice. The presentation I do is representing the Gretsch legacy in history on behalf of six generations. To me, the words and music are closely related.”

Former Yahoo! executive Tim Sanders is a musician, too. We’ve actually played together, and I helped put together some gear for his home recording studio. Tim understands the performance metaphor.

“You might be saying, I’m not a performer, so I don’t need to rehearse,” Tim says. “This isn’t the way to prepare yourself for success. Your life is a series of performances with an audience, in the context of circumstances. Conversations, presentations, meetings, sales pitches, writing and skilled tasks all occur, at some point, in a make-or-break, live situation.”

Those of you who’ve created a set list know the importance of starting with just the right song to get the audience engaged, warm up the performers and set the tone for the performance. Different performers have different approaches.

P!NK starts physically training months in advance of each tour, and that’s not counting the five to six weeks of full-production rehearsals we do to integrate the music into the stage show.

When we returned to Europe for the stadium tour in 2010, we traveled with a crane. At the beginning of the show, the crane would bring a 12-foot-square box over the audience to a satellite stage that extended 50 feet from of the main stage. The band played an intro that would build as the box moved into position. We worked the music into a frenzy until the bottom of the box dropped out and P!NK plunged straight down about eight stories on a single wire, with wings on her back until she stopped, suspended right above the stage. Alecia’s biggest fear is sudden drops, and she wanted to push her comfort zone and present something extraordinary to her audience

That’s a different approach than that of Tony Hsieh, ZDogg or Fred Gretsch, who use well-rehearsed and simple go-to stories, quotes or jokes to ease them into a presentation. Alecia does the scariest thing she can think of to make the rest of her performance seem easy.

More recently, Alecia trained for a month to shoot the video “Try.” It’s a combination of modern dance, prop smashing and stunt choreography. It’s magnificent and unique. The whole time, Alecia is singing live.

She shocked and inspired the music industry when she recreated that music video for the 2012 American Music Awards. She told Billboard magazine: “Making this video was the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire career. I never wanted it to end. It’s my favorite video ever.”

She’s willing to go to any length to bring her presentation to the highest level and surpass her previous efforts. And she knows it requires rehearsal to take a presentation from good to great. It’s the act of actually practicing the presentation. You’ll also want one or several dress rehearsals during which you run your presentation in complete form, employing every component including content, movement, clothing, media, audience and worst-case scenarios.

Your preparation is the foundation. Begin with a mission statement. Then create an outline. A buddy of mine, Barry Jones, an agent with the London Speakers Bureau, told me that when he’s selling a speaker, he’s actually selling a solution. When you’re performing, presenting, communicating or pitching, you’re providing a solution for your audience. Your mission statement is that solution. Your outline dictates the step-by-step process you’ll go through to get that solution to your audience. Every piece of your outline should directly reflect your mission statement. As Tim Sanders puts it, “Think of the outline as the first rehearsal prior to the creation of the product you’ll present.”

Being prepared isn’t necessarily about being comfortable. Actor Jeremy Piven likes it that way, and he puts himself in game-time situations. He finds someone who intimidates him to run lines with and chooses practice partners who make him feel awkward. It’s harder to practice in front of three people than it is to perform in front of thousands. When you put yourself in tough situations beforehand, you prepare your body and mind for “the show.”

To be a better speaker, I studied with acting coach Mark Travis, because I wanted to learn how to effectively entertain an audience, paying attention to the details of my vocal inflection, body movement and facial expressions. Knowing that my favorite speakers are master storytellers, I also took lessons with a professional storyteller to get her perspective on how to give my stories more effective timing, drama, arc, release and resolve.

When I practice for a speaking gig in front of a mirror, I’m my worst (or maybe best) critic. I assess every detail of my presentation, and most importantly, make immediate improvements. I allot plenty of time for the process so I can make all the adjustments necessary to create the most effective presentation. It also makes me aware of what I don’t know. (There’s clarity again.)

Tim Sanders also rehearses in front of a mirror. “When you make eye contact with yourself as you verbalize your message, you become comfortable with facing one of your greatest critics—you. Later, you can easily make the same eye lock-in with others and produce a powerful gaze that exudes confidence. The result is often a more receptive audience that is willing to go along with you because they feel as if you are connecting with them. Each time I have a speaking engagement, I employ this technique in my hotel room on the day of the event. I get up early enough to allow for a verbalization of my entire speech.

“The other benefit of the mirror technique is improved adaptability. Since I’ve activated my subconscious mind, it can take over during the actual performance, freeing up part of my conscious mind to observe my audience’s reactions and adjust the talk on the fly as needed in response to those reactions. Because I’ve rehearsed well, I don’t need to think to remember the next point or how I should phrase something.”

Don’t forget the way you look either. Mark Papia of Connexity talks about the value of dressing for success. “Fashion is also an important part of feeling secure so that you can properly convey messaging during a speech, an interview or even a meeting with a handful of folks. I happen to like the way I look in blue jackets and white shirts. If you put me in a brown sport coat and a tan shirt and said, ‘Go, get on that stage and before you go up on the stage, look at yourself in this mirror,’ I would not have the same level of intensity that I’d have if I got on stage in a blue blazer and a white shirt.”

I learned a painful lesson about preparation back in 2004, as I was entering the realm of corporate public speaking. I got a great gig. It was the type of gig I had been wanting since I entered the market the year before—a high-energy keynote performance on a big stage for an IBM conference in Las Vegas. A member of my team was running my new Dell computer, feeding the audio and video to the show director.

I was playing drums to a video montage/audio medley of songs I had put together representing the artists I’d worked with throughout my career. It’s a signature performance for me; I create new montages periodically to update my presentation. It’s high energy, exciting and is usually a crowd pleaser. I rehearsed the program many times and felt confident with the performance aspect. What I hadn’t done was research the details of my new computer.

This particular PC had a default setting that caused it to do a virus check at 24-hour intervals. I didn’t know this. At the climax of my video montage, the computer went into a virus check, which taxed the processor. The AV stopped dead.

The show must go on, so I kept playing with a big smile on my face while quickly considering my options.

I stood up behind my drum set and lifted my arms high while clicking my sticks to get the audience clapping. As they joined, the AV kicked back in, so I slid back into the performance thinking the glitch had passed. Then, it stopped again, and started, alternating in a very unmusical and un-amusing fashion. I kept on playing, breaking into an impromptu drum solo, and then ended it quickly. This was definitely not the audience or demographic for an extended drum solo.

My tech stopped the machine and restarted the computer. I jumped off the kit a bit frazzled, my adrenaline a bit pumped, and started into my verbal presentation. Later on, I seized the opportunity to weave the AV failure into my speech as an example of how we meet with unexpected circumstances or challenges and need to own them and improvise to keep our audience engaged.

The client was not happy, and it reflected back on the meeting planner who hired me. Needless to say, I now pay meticulous attention to my media and the rehearsal necessary to employ it successfully, and I work in a contingency program if things fail.

I remember when I rehearsed my first corporate speech in front of my girlfriend and her best friend at my recording studio. My friend, Jeff, operated my visual media, and I used another friend’s $10,000 projector (this was before the cheap portable projectors that are available today).

I was playing drums as part of my presentation, using an oversized video screen, so I got dressed in show clothes, put on my actual wireless microphone and did a full dress. It was uncomfortable, even though they watched me with support and love. I got a wonderfully accurate barometer of what content needed changing, what media needed tweaking, what points made me the most self-conscious, how to adjust my microphone and mic pack to be comfortable, where to walk at what points, how to position myself relative to the drums and the video screen, when I became the sweatiest and where to place my towel and water. The experience was more than valuable; it was necessary to give me accurate feedback.

In his book Today We Are Rich, Tim Sanders talks about the value of doing a dress rehearsal, which he calls “staging a simulation.”

“The most effective type of rehearsal is a simulation in which you perform in circumstances nearly identical to those of the live event. This starts with some research on your part. For any presentation, first gather information on the room, the lighting and AV and seating plan. Arrange to rehearse in the actual room you’ll later use. Use your visual aids, just as you will live. Recruit a few volunteers to be your audience. Bring a clock so you also rehearse your timing.

“For a conversation or informal meeting, ask a co-worker to role-play with you. Brief the person on who she’s playing, including her character’s personality traits and what emotions she might be feeling. If your partner is willing and time permits, reverse roles so you can experience the other side of the conversation.”

When I was on the Cher tours, director Doriana Sanchez had all of the dancers watch each night’s performance video on the bus ride afterward. The refinement and education you get from watching your presentation is invaluable. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million. Reviewing your performance gives you clarity about what capabilities you need to examine and refine.

Billy Hayes says firefighters often go back to the scene to critique their efforts. And the stage is always a lot smaller than it seemed the day before. Your perception of venue, audience and presentation will always be different in hindsight, but the more you assess, the more accurate you’ll be the day of. Review your presentations whenever possible to gain clarity for future performances.

Copyright 2014
Mark Schulman

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