In my rock & roll days I had the opportunity to open the show for some exceptional artists, usually with my six-piece rock band. It often happened at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut, which was once my hometown. (Acts such as the Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen have performed at Toad’s over the last four decades.) One night there, many years ago, I had the dubious fortune to play second bill to Tower of Power, the hottest funk band in the country. I say “dubious” because I made the mistake of playing solo—which was not a smart move back to back with a 9-piece musical juggernaut.
But like I always say, “Good people make bad decisions—and bad decisions make good stories.” And, as ever, there are lessons to learn.
I knew I was in trouble the second I walked out on stage in front of 800 fans hollering for the headliner. It was just me and my acoustic guitar. (I usually played piano, but there was no room for the grand piano on stage.) I played a couple of tunes, but it quickly become obvious I wasn’t going to convince anyone that this young cracker was a funk virtuoso.
So right off the bat I had to scrap my game plan. My set list—and my whole approach—was not going to work for this occasion, which was spiraling out of control. I had to try something else.
First I had to create a connection with some listeners in the room. I didn’t recognize a soul in the audience but I knew the bartenders in the back and I introduced them to the crowd. This got the attention off me for a moment and bought me some time to get my bearings. Then, realizing that I wasn’t going to win over the audience with my musical prowess, I figured I could at least entertain them. I had dealt with hecklers for years so I was actually more comfortable bantering with an unruly crowd than singing for one. The back-and-forth repartee seemed to bring some laughs, and every time someone jeered, I simply responded, “Oh, thank you SO much…you make me feel so special.”
I eventually played two more songs—ending my set with a rousing “Beat Your Head Against the Wall,” a song I wrote about performing for tough audiences—for which I finally received decent applause. I enthusiastically thanked the crowd for being the best audience ever (delivered with good-natured irony) and disappeared into the night.
Tower of Power came on 15 minutes later and did a dazzling set, showcasing their brilliant horn section with hits like “So Very Hard to Go,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “What Is Hip?” I’m sure the crowd completely forgot about the scrawny wiseguy who opened the show. But it could have been far worse, and I lived to sing another day. (In subsequent years I was invited back to open shows there for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Bo Diddley.)
If you’ve ever given a business presentation or a sales pitch to a stony-faced (or openly hostile) audience that just wasn’t buying your message, you might be able to identify with these circumstances. Here are some lessons you can apply to turn the situation around—or at least not burn a bridge.
1. Be willing to rip up the outline if your presentation is going down the tubes. Can the plan! Try something else. Improvise.
2. Establish relationship with your audience, starting with anyone, so you’re in actual conversation with human beings. That can accomplish two things: getting you “out of your head” into present time and getting your listeners to relate to you. A presentation, performance, or sales pitch is first and foremost a conversation with your audience.
3. Get back on firmer ground, at least temporarily, by playing to your strong suit, your expertise, your core competence. Talk about something you know—or know how to do.
4. Use some humor. Tell one on yourself. Lighten the room. Humor can release tension and make you more human.
5. End with a flourish. Give it your best shot and let the chips fall.
If none of these things work, bring on the horn section.