Every presentation is a performance, and Benjamin Zander knows a thing or two about the art of performance. As Dan Pink and I were riding the train back to central Osaka a couple of weeks ago he tipped me off to Ben Zander. There are a lot of good presenters, Dan said, but Ben Zander is one of those gifted few who is in another league. I just finished reading The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander and his wife Roz Zander and I’m inspired. The suggestion to checkout Ben Zander was the best tip I have received in a very long time. There are too many good lessons in this book to go through all of them here, but allow me to focus on just a few as they relate to presentations, leadership, and communication in general.
You have to take a risk
In most cultures — and certainly here in Japan — making a mistake is the worst thing you can do. Zander says that it’s dangerous for musicians, for example, to be so concerned with competition and measuring themselves against others because this makes it “difficult to take the necessary risk with themselves to be come great performers.” However, only through mistakes can we see where we’re lacking, where we need to work. But we hate mistakes so we play it safe. Yet long term nothing could be more dangerous if our goal is to be insanely great at what we do. Zander suggests that instead of getting so dejected by mistakes, we instead exclaim loudly (or to ourselves) “How fascinating!” every time we make a mistake. This little gem alone was worth the price of the book. Think about that. Another mistake? How fascinating! Another opportunity to learn something just presented itself. Another unlucky break? No worries! Move forward.
It’s not (always) about success/failure, it’s about contribution
Rather than asking questions such as “Will I be appreciated?” or “Will I win them over?” and so on, ask “How can I make a contribution?” Below is an excerpt from this video clip (3:45 mark) where Zander is coaching a student on his “presentation” (in this case a musical performance):
“We are about contribution, that’s what our job is … everyone was clear you contributed passion to the people in this room. Did you do it better than the next violinist, or did he do better than a pianist? I don’t care, because in contribution, there is no better!”
Rather than getting bogged down in a sea of measurement where you compare yourself to others and worry about whether you are worthy to be making the presentation or whether someone else could be doing it better, instead realize that at this moment in time — right here right now — you are the gift and your message is the contribution. There is no "better," there is only now.
The real power is in making others powerful
Vanity and tyrannical management styles are not uncommon among conductors even today, Zander says, which is perhaps one reason why in at least one survey orchestral players rank only slightly above prison guards in job satisfaction. The truly great conductors, says Zander, are like any other great leader, they understand that their true power “derives from [their] ability to make others powerful.” The question to ask, then, is not “How good am I?” but “What makes [this] group lively and engaged?” It is not about gaining sway over your group (or audience or class) so that they will play it the way you envision — or see things your way — but rather the question now becomes how best to enable them to play it beautifully the way they are capable. In presenting — and certainly in teaching — we need to make certain that the audience is engaged so that they may, with our help, find for themselves what is there to be discovered, including the discovery of the possibilities that may be within them.
Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously!
“Lighten up,” Says Zander, “and you lighten up those around you.” This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t take your work seriously (you should), or even that you shouldn’t take yourself seriously (that may depend on time and place), but for absolute certainty we must all get over ourselves. There is perhaps no better way to “get over ourselves” than the use of humor. From birth we are concerned about measurement and worried about perceived scarcity of love, attention, food, etc. that seems to be the way of the world. Zander calls this the "calculating self," and in this environment of scarcity, competition, and comparison “the self needs to be taken very seriously indeed.” No matter how successful and confident we may become as adults, our “calculating self” (concerned with measurement and worried about scarcity) is weak and sees itself at risk of losing everything. No wonder the calculating self is concerned with “looking out for number one” and takes itself so g—damn seriously.
The goal, then, is to move away from the calculating self, the self that lives in a world of scarcity, exaggerated threats, and deficiencies, and move toward a healthier attitude of sufficiency, wholeness, and possibilities. Getting over ourselves — and humor is a great vehicle for this — allows us to see the “creative nature of the world and ourselves.” When we understand what an infant can’t — that we can not control the world, that we can not impose our will on people’s hearts — we begin to get over ourselves. When we learn to lighten up we see ourselves as permeable not vulnerable, says Zander, and we stay open to the unknown and to new influences, new ideas. Rather than trying to resist and fight the river of life we move with a harmonious fluidity and grace, learning to join rather than resist the flow. Humor is a wonderful way to remind everyone around us — no matter how hard the work gets — that our true self is not obsessed with childish demands, entitlements, and calculations but is instead supportive, confident, helpful, and even inspiring. A presentation is as good a time as any to let people see that side of you. (Certainly Dan Pink showed that in his presentation, as did my friend Daniel Rodriguez in his talk last month in Osaka.)
Give way to your passion (playing on one buttock)
It is not enough to know a piece of music intellectually or to play it without any mistakes, you have to convey the true language of the music emotionally, says Zander. When musicians truly get into the music and play it with such heart and emotion that audiences are moved beyond words, Zander noticed that the music was flowing through the musicians, taking control of their bodies as they swayed from side to side. Zander, then, urges musicians to become “one-buttock players,” that is to let the music flow through their bodies, causing them to lean and to move from one buttock to the other. If you’re a musician, or making a performance of virtually any kind, and you are totally in the moment and connecting with the language of the music and the audience, there is no way you can be a “two-buttock player.” You’ve got to move, you’ve got to connect, and you must not hold back your passion but instead let the audience have a taste of the commitment, energy, and passion you have for the music (or the topic, the ideas, etc.). This quote below from Martha Graham captures the essence of the idea of giving way to passion (from page 116 of The Art of Possibility). I think you can apply these words to the art of performance or presentation, and frankly to life in general including leadership, entrepreneurship, etc.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
— Martha Graham
You decide. You can hold back, aim not to make an error and play it perfectly “on two-buttocks,” or you can say “Screw it!—I’ll take a risk” and dare to lean into the music with intensity, color, humanity, and passion and quite possibly, in your own small way (and on only one buttock), change the world. Play it with total sincerity and with your entire body — heart and soul — and you will make a connection and change things. As Ben Zander said while encouraging one of his talented students to play it in the “one-buttock” style:
“If you play that way, they won’t be able to resist you. You will be a compelling force behind which everyone will be inspired to play their best.”
— Ben Zander
• Watch video of Zander on the Big Speak page (upper right column).