Most people feel more comfortable performing in front of a lot of people than in front of just a few. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says his ideal audience is at least 500 people. The audience size he hates the most: fifty. A group that size is too big for him to make a connection with each person, but too small for his jokes to go well. He says bigger crowds make everything seem funnier. And eye contact? “I’ve read books that suggest that you find three people and make eye contact with each person,” he says. “I don’t do that. That doesn’t work for me.”
It’s smart to clarify the method that works best for you when trying to connect with your audience. Pink makes eye contact with as many people as possible, and she talks to an audience of 20,000 as if they’re in her living room. When she and I hang out one-on-one, she talks to me the same way.
Entrepreneur and CEO David Kalt sweats when he gets passionate about something. He says the condition was particularly bad when he was holding investor meetings prior to the stock market launch of his company, the Chicago Music Exchange. To stem the tide, he uses eye contact. “If I can make eye contact and play offense, I feel much more comfortable than being on defense,” he says. “That wasn’t very natural to me because I’m more of a laid-back, relaxed kind of guy. I’m not very aggressive. I’m not super-competitive. But in the context of a business meeting, there are two, three, or four people, and you immediately have the opportunity to set the stage and get in a position where you feel strength and confidence. I realized I had to make eye contact and make that visual connection—and then it all just came up from there.”
Kalt goes on to say, “I use my eyes because people have told me in the past that when I get excited, there’s a glitter in my eye. When people tell you that, you’ve got to figure out how to use it. Anybody who is passionate about something has that gleam in their eyes. There’s something about the body that physically changes, and the eyes always sparkle if you’re truly, authentically passionate about something.”
Define Your Relationship
Here are some questions to ask yourself about the audiences you perform for on a regular basis, whether it’s a playing gig, a clinic or other group-teaching situation, or public speaking.
• Do they know me personally?
• Do they have prejudices about me? Do I have prejudices about them?
• What are our similarities and potential shared experiences? What are our differences?
• Are there any barriers in communication for which I can prepare?
• Are they knowledgeable about what I’m doing or saying?
• How much background on me do they need, if any?
• How much can they relate to what I’m doing?
• What can I do to maximize the takeaway value?
Regardless of audience size, I’m happier, more effective, and vastly more generous when I turn my attention away from myself and strive for clarity with the audience.
Integrate, Don’t Isolate
A few years ago I performed at a tribute to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. This was not only a performance for fans; there were also twenty-one of the most accomplished drummers on the planet performing in the same show. I wasn’t overwhelmed with nervousness, but some self-imposed things got in the way of me really enjoying the experience.
After my performance, I was disappointed and embarrassed—I didn’t think I played well. Even after some heartfelt endorsements from friends, my viewpoint remained rigid. And my attitude was not only undermining my ability to enjoy the rest of the show, it was impeding my sense of judgment and sanity. I wasn’t nearly as present and supportive of my peers as I would’ve been with a clear head. And I beat myself up more as the night went on, comparing myself to the other drummers rather than enjoying the event.
I got a chance to play again in the finale, as we all took turns playing solos to Bonham’s classic drum feature, “Moby Dick,” but my thoughts were so distorted by that point that I couldn’t turn things around to feel as though I was playing anywhere near my best.
I lost nearly a full night’s sleep to self-loathing, and that’s not how I usually operate. It wasn’t until my manager, Stephen Stern, sent me a YouTube link and I watched the performance that I realized I’d actually played pretty darned well. The experience galvanized my belief that it’s not about me—it’s about integrating with my audience and having an accurate sense of self rather than a potentially unhealthy fixation on how well I performed.
Make It Feel Like the First Time
I’ve played with the band Foreigner intermittently since 1992, but the most recent tour gave me more joy than just about any other gig. When I was playing with the band around 1994, I had a very different experience.
We’d been on the road for nearly eighteen months, and I was burned out. One night after a show, I realized that I’d (ironically) played “Feels Like the First Time” more than three hundred times, and I just wasn’t feeling all that excited about it. And that was really selfish. The show wasn’t for me. It was for the audience.
I had a moment of clarity that night. I needed to focus on those screaming, happy fans and their joy and excitement. I started thinking about my first rock concerts (Peter Frampton, Boston, Foreigner…) when something really weird happened—I got a hint of butterflies in my stomach.
The next day I went onstage before the show and drew a big, ridiculous, happy face with large teeth on my snare head as a reminder to be audience-centric and selfless onstage. And every night for the rest of the tour, I got on stage, grinned at that face (which I drew again every time we changed the head), and focused on connecting with the audience.
Celebrity chef Guy Fieri once asked orator Zig Ziglar how to get rid of the butterflies. His answer? “The day that that happens will be the day you don’t do as well.” You need a little bit of fear to remind you to respect those moments and the consequences, or you start getting sloppy.
Selfishness can exaggerate stage fright as well. So when I start to get too nervous, I think, You selfish bastard…it’s not about you! This makes me laugh and squelches the nerves.
Carve Your Own Path to Clarity
There are differences in what propels people to higher states of confidence. Some people do better with a smooth, well-planned presentation, and some thrive on spontaneous challenges from the audience. You need to figure out which approach is best for you.
Some of my best (and worst) moments have occurred because of technical blunders with equipment during presentations. I often purposefully incorporate some snafu into my presentation, only to resolve it and let the audience witness the process. How you deal with mistakes—the way you compensate, utilize, and invite adversity—can set you free from any fears you may have of the unplanned.
Saxophonist Dave Koz once analyzed how viewers responded to entertainers while he was in the audience. He came to some distinct conclusions: “You have to be sensitive. People who are great in real life—not just in music—are sensitive to their surroundings. They can read a room. They don’t barge in and say, ‘I’m here now and whatever is important to me is going to be.’ The great ones scan the room to get a feel for the vibe, and then they tinker with their message to deliver it in the most effective way based on whatever they’re receiving. They deliver a message that can be heard.”
Being altruistic not only connects you with your audience but also with your fellow performers. Actor Jeremy Piven’s mother, Joyce Piven, a noted director, actress, and theater instructor, tells her students to focus on their fellow actors (or the audience) rather than on themselves. “The anxiety subsides once you put the focus on the other players and not yourself,” Piven says. “Then you’re on to something.”
I have a ritual that I do before performances. I close my eyes and focus my energy on inspiration, freedom, release, and being in sync with other people. I put it out into the universe that some extraordinary, spontaneous, and unexpected things will happen to enhance my performance, and that the lives of everyone in the room will be forever enhanced as a result.
Prodigal Sunn of the Wu-Tang Clan focuses on the audience, too. “I make everybody feel at home—the bartender, the bouncer, the security, the sound man, whoever’s in the house,” he says. “They all get love. You might even catch me in the crowd. You might catch me hanging out front.”
Sunn recognizes people as people. You build up fear because you’re worried about people’s opinions, and that stops you from performing at your best. Prodigal goes all out for his audience, sometimes above and beyond what other members of his band want to do. “Wu-Tang was invited to do a concert in Miami, and some of the group didn’t want to participate,” he recalls. “But I went out there and did the show myself, even though the crowd wanted to see the group. I was confident enough in myself to know that I could hold it down. When I was out there, I got the respect of being the guy who showed up. The crowd met me halfway. That takes the fear away.” Sunn could have worried about what the crowd was expecting, but instead he made it his goal to give the crowd the best experience possible.
In closing, I’d like to ask you to think about a past performance or presentation that made you anxious. Was your attention focused on your anxiety or on your audience? Relive that event, but focus your attention completely on your audience. How does the experience change?
Mark Schulman is a first-call drummer who’s played for Pink, Foreigner, Cher, Billy Idol, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Nicks. For more information, go to markschulman.com.