Harmonizing audience engagement: 7 Lessons learned from the music world
I’m standing in the middle of a big crowd.
Impatiently, counting the minutes, looking at the stage.
Some people in the crowd are singing, clapping their hands.
I’m still waiting.
And then, finally, there’s a sign from the stage.
The show begins.
I’ve written in the past how I draw inspiration for my work from various fields. So you should know that music has always been a big part of my life.
When I was 6 years old, my parents sent me to a music conservatory in my neighborhood school. By the age of 23, I studied electronic music production and co-dj’ed at a three-women trio, as well as solo djing. Throughout my life, I have gone to so many music shows and performances because it simply makes me happy. I also believe that music connects people on another level.
As an event host, moderator, community builder, and facilitator, I couldn’t think of a better school for facilitation and audience engagement than musicians and performers of live shows. It fascinates me how musicians manage to keep a crowd touched, energized, and entertained. From 20 people sitting around tables in a cozy Jazz club to 50,000 people crowding at a festival. In this blog post, I share some of the similarities between music performers and facilitators, including real examples.
Build a relationship with your audience
How did Florence and the Machine manage to convince 20,000 excited fans attending their show to put their phones away for one song?
Let’s start with what Florence did not do.
She didn’t start performing her music by asking it straightforwardly.
Florence built her relationship with the audience, from the very beginning of her show. She talked to the crowd, asked them questions, and told them how she felt. “I was fragile, I got here and thought: I feel hugged, I’m safe!”, she said. Sharing how vulnerable she is, made the crowd feel closer to her and trust her.
Moreover, asking their fans to stay away from their phones is a ritual in her shows. She explained it to the crowd and asked politely.
The crowd couldn’t say no. By the way, she later asked the crowd to do the opposite exactly – hold their phone up and turn the flashlight on.
Facilitation is a process of building relationships. Great facilitators build their relationships with the audience gradually and with intention. When we’re meeting someone new, it’s easier for us to connect to a person who shares something about themselves honestly. That’s why facilitators must talk to their audience and express what to expect in the gathering.
When it comes to building a relationship with a group and facilitating its learning process, rituals are extremely important. Rituals can be anything from repeated exercises, check-in activities, or embodying physical elements such as bells to mark a session’s beginning or end.
People will follow where you lead
Being raised in classical music, I was always impressed by classical music concerts. Seeing a live philharmonic orchestra with 80 players, or even a “small” orchestra with just 25 players, is magical for me. How is each one contributing? How do they know when to start? Can I distinguish each instrument from the whole composition’s harmony?
The answer, of course, is because someone is leading them. The conductor.
The same goes for bands. Playing in harmony as a band is crucial, but the front singers are those who set the tones.
Facilitators need to know how to lead the process. They design the experience and the outcomes, and practice to deliver it. They give instructions, answer questions, and use tools to achieve the facilitation’s goal successfully.
By the way, it doesn’t mean that you can’t co-lead or co-facilitate. Take for example Young Fathers, who have no less than three frontmen and one frontwoman on stage! And yet, each part of the song is usually led by one of them. Speaking of facilitation, in online meetings, having a co-facilitator or co-pilot helps overcome technical challenges and delivers the session smoothly. And just as musicians ask the audience to join the singing, you can ask your participants to help you as well: writing notes, collecting questions, leading a discussion table, and so on. That’s what a simple engagement is about.
Interact with outstanding visuals
I often see musicians using video art in their shows. Most of them have a unique stage decoration – from their name to elements that are identified with them or with their album decoration.
All the microphone stands of Kevin Morby and his band, for example, were wrapped with real roses. At some point in the show, he even took roses, cut them, and spread them in the audience. So it’s also knowing when to use your tools or materials.
Sometimes performers go one step further and use big balloons, dolls, or other giant physical accessories in their live shows, often thrown at the audience so they can play with them. The indie band The Flaming Lips, is known for performing in giant bubbles on the stage, and walking in the crowd. I believe that Beyoncé would be more than outstanding without changing outfits 9 times or having 13 backup dancers. But all of her show elements and her performance are making her show one of the best live performances.
Whether you are facilitators, event hosts, or the participants themselves, you know that keeping your attendees’ attention in a distracted environment is very hard. Sitting on a chair for an hour or two, just hearing someone speak, is very challenging.
Cards, games, hand-out exercises, polls, and interactive tools such as Mentimeter and Slido are recommended in every facilitation session.
However, sometimes you just need to be yourself.
Take José González, for example. He performed his one-hour live festival show sitting on a chair with only a guitar. In one song he featured a Saxophone player. But other than that there were no pyrotechnics and fireworks. The thing is, it fits his style — instrumental, folk, alternative music. So minimalism fits his style.
The same goes for facilitators. I know a colleague who doesn’t use presentation slides at all . And still, he’s successfully delivering lectures and workshops all over the world.
That’s why it is worth remembering that too many pyrotechnics won’t be valuable to your facilitation either. The balance of speaking, using slides, and applying interactive tools might be difficult, but over time and experience, you’ll reach that.
Prepare the winning setlist
Musicians on a tour are preparing for their shows through a closed list of songs – the setlist. This is the case, especially, when veteran musicians are, sadly, not going to play all of their discography, because of time constraints. The wise ones will open with a strong song that will energize the audience, and close with a hit. Lucky audiences will get encores, which are often in the setlist too. Quiet songs will be tied to more danceable ones, so the crowd won’t be bored. Some musicians even choose whether each song will be played faster or slower than usual. Like Blur.
Facilitators use such setlists in their sessions.
Instead of songs, each session is divided into blocks: The opening, the closure, a learning block, an exercise block, a group discussion block, and so on.
There is a goal behind each block in order to achieve the whole session’s desirable outcomes. For example, if a learning block delivers a theory, an exercise block will give the participants an opportunity to experience the theory and learn by practice.
The blocks don’t stand separately. Tying them together so the participants will understand their connection is a must for every facilitator. A well-designed session helps facilitators reach their goals and get the participants engaged.
Get to know your audience
Have you ever been to a music show in your hometown of a band that came from another country and they spoke some words or jokes in your language?
In many of the live music shows I’ve been to — in Israel, Germany, and Portugal, to name a few — foreign musicians and bands learned how to say at least “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. The crowd cheering always accompanies such gestures. Because we as humans are connecting to a common ground.
Well, if you’re from an English-speaking country, it must be a bit different for you. But even in places like England and Australia, the musicians often refer to something specific that is unique to the audience there.
That’s why as a facilitator I work to get to know my audience before I meet them: Who are they? What interests them? What brings them to your session or gathering?
I also ask questions during the session. In small sessions, it can be simply their names. Some facilitators even illustrate the space in their notebooks with the participants’ names, so they can memorize them.
But you shouldn’t stop there. If I teach a term, I often ask the participants in real-time if anyone knows its meaning before I explain it. I also ask participants to reflect on themselves and share their own experiences and knowledge. Instead of me talking all the time, it brings the focus to them and their learning process.
I also try to pay attention to what they say about themselves. It helps me give examples and case studies that are more related to their field, experience, and challenges.
The show must go on
Many years ago, electrical wiring fell through The Klaxons music show in Berlin. Instead of waiting for the problem to be fixed silently, the band improvised drumming and singing with the crowd. Everyone was happy: the crowd was entertained, and the band looked amused. After a few minutes, the problem was fixed.
The ability to improvise should be a skill of any facilitator. Even though I’m very organized and prepare myself for any facilitation, I have experienced unexpected circumstances, from technical issues to questions that I wasn’t sure how to answer properly.
As facilitators, we should be ready and think in advance. But as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Therefore, my recommendation is to learn from The Klaxons and improvise while you tackle a surprise. You might even enjoy it. The participants might even remember the session as an outstanding one because of your abilities. Years after The Klaxons show, the electrical case is still the most memorable moment from the show and it still makes me smile.
Test new tones and innovate
By this stage of the post, you probably understand that I really like to go to music shows, from all music genres, and from small venues, from bars to big festivals.
Let’s think of a band that plays in its local venue for its home audience.
What happens when this band plays a song for the first time? Usually, they do that to experiment with the audience’s reaction. Did they like it? Is it worth featuring in the next album? What’s the chance for this song to be a hit?
If bands or solo musicians go out of their comfort zone and “test” their music for the first time, facilitators shouldn’t be afraid to do that too.
If you do feel uncomfortable, choose a safe environment and try, for example, a new interactive tool in your next facilitation session! Remember that during Covid most of us did it for the first time. Most of us didn’t know how to use Zoom or Mentimeter, but we had to.
A few months ago, I tried a new online, check-in activity with a group of fellow facilitators. I asked them to support me because it was the first time that I delivered it, to feel less pressured. Despite the stress, it went successfully.
Creative facilitation is not only about new activities or games. You may use a new space, such as musicians who perform live in video games. You may use tools from other fields for your gatherings, if appropriate. I have a colleague who did a brief meditation in the middle of a tech meetup at a coworking space, with 200 people closing their eyes and breathing.
Being in the field of facilitation and audience engagement, music has long been a great source of inspiration for me. From my earliest days tinkering on the keyboard at age six to attending live performances, I’ve taken valuable insights that seamlessly apply to facilitation and community building.
Much like musicians captivate their audiences, event organizers and facilitators can foster engagement by cultivating relationships, taking on leadership roles, leveraging interactive materials, and understanding their audience’s needs and interests well.
Remember, like musicians testing new tunes, we too can experiment, innovate, and elevate our facilitation style to create truly memorable experiences. And don’t forget that what matters is your own unique facilitation style – of a team meeting, a university lecture, a massive summit, or an exclusive workshop.
Whether you’re the center stage or behind the scenes, let music’s lessons guide your journey in audience engagement, creating lasting harmonious connections. Reach out to me if you’re interested in together designing your next gathering or want to learn more about the world of creating content for the community.