Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Bobby McFerrin Plan for Creating a Remarkable Business

image of Bobby McFerrin

I just returned from a Bobby McFerrin concert, and now I know how to run my new business. No, this post isn't about "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Bobby McFerrin is much more than that.

You see, I'm a little nervous. For 23 years, I've made my income the same way — in a service business, as a graphic designer. A client comes to me for design work. I create something for them, and bill for my time. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat for 23 years, and you have a career as a successful designer.

But that's all about to change.

I'm venturing into new territory. I've started a blog, I'm putting together a course, I'm interacting with my readers. I'm supposed to let them guide me, respond to their needs, offer what they're looking for, and everything is going to work out fine.

Except I'm just a little terrified. How exactly is this supposed to work? Who are these people I am serving, and how do I know it's all going to come together?

And that's where Bobby comes in

The first thing you notice when you file into the theater at a Bobby McFerrin concert is that the stage is almost bare. It's dark, and a spotlight shines on a single chair in the middle of the stage with a microphone sitting on it. A water bottle is on the floor beside the chair. Nothing more.

You wonder if he's going to sing by himself, or if he'll have back up singers. You wonder if he'll play an instrument. The answer is yes: he does all of these things, but not in the traditional way at all.

He steps into the spotlight

Bobby comes out, sits down, takes a sip of water, and brings the microphone to his mouth. He starts to sing, softly at first, then louder. He begins to hit his chest with his right hand, creating a percussive effect that beats in time to the music. He's a full-bodied instrument, who makes music with his mouth, hands and feet. He has a four-octave range, and incredible vocal mastery. He's an American treasure.

Then he turns that spotlight around

The first inkling that this isn't your everyday concert comes when he asks the audience to participate in a call and response song. He assigns half the room a few notes, and the other half different notes. He does this mid-song, without stopping. We all willingly sing along.

Then he asks if we know "Ave Maria." We all laugh, and I think this request is going to fall flat. He says "if you know it, sing it out. The people who know it can be the section leaders."

He begins to sing an accompanying melody, and guess what? The hall fills with the sound of the audience singing "Ave Maria." It's beautiful. How did he do that?

The audience volunteers

Bobby pulls his chair over to the edge of the spotlight. He says, "the last time I was in your city was 22 years ago. I want to ask if there are any dancers in the audience. If you'd like to come up and share the stage with me, we'll improvise together. It might be another 22 years before you get this chance again, so come on up."

Four people make their way to the stage. Each one takes a turn dancing in the middle of the spotlight, while Bobby, off to one side, improvises music that they respond to with their bodies. It is amazing to watch: each dancer responds in a unique way, but they are all good.

Then he asks if anyone wants to sing with him. No hesitation this time: people are up out of their seats, hustling to the stage. Every singer asks to sing a different song. Bobby's accompaniment honors their song selection and makes it a work of art. You watch as each singer experiences a moment they'll always remember.

Give, honor, create together

Tonight was like no other concert I've attended. It wasn't really a concert: it was an experience.

McFerrin wasn't up on stage to receive our accolades. He was up there to entertain us, but he wanted our voices, our bodies and our talents to shine, too. He wanted us to feel like we had created tonight's concert together.

That's when I knew that I needed to follow the Bobby McFerrin business model.

His concerts are all improvisation. He doesn't plan his songs, or even his key changes. He just lets them come to him, based on the audience, his voice, and our response.

What he does plan, I believe, is interaction

He wants to create something with us, not just for us. He listens, responds, adjusts and creates.

That's what I want to do. It's my ticket to stop worrying, and my technique for being happy on the vague, uncertain road ahead. Give to my audience, honor their contributions, create something much greater than the sum of all parts. Like Bobby.

How do you involve your audience in your business? Any advice for people who are making the transition from a different business model? Tell us in the comments.

About the author: Pamela Wilson is a music lover who runs Big Brand System, a site devoted to helping small businesses grow with great design and marketing.

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