Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Be There - Not Just for Warm Bodies Anymore

When you show up for work, are you ready for it? Are you the kind of person that arrives just seconds before your shift starts, punches the clock, and then spends the next 15 minutes getting your coffee ready? Or do you come in ready to tackle what you have in store for you? Well, if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t really like your job, then I can understand why you’d take your time getting started. But what if you forgot all about how much your job sucks and decided, just for one day, to become completely engrossed in it? You might be surprised how much you can actually get out of a job you can’t stand, and even how fulfilling that job can be.

Out of the 4 parts of the Permanent Impact approach, I can’t think of a simpler instruction than Be There. When you break it down, Be There means so much more than just showing up physically. I remember the scene in the movie Clerks where Dante and Randall are talking about whether their jobs are important, and Randall equates their tasks to pushing buttons as though a monkey could be trained to do the same thing. It’s sad to say that yes, monkeys probably could be trained to do some of our jobs better than many humans currently do them. But what sets us apart from our primate counterpoints is the mental capacity to see beyond the task itself and actually engage.

As a DJ, I can’t tell you how important this concept of Be There is to the success of your event. I have heard more horror stories than I should have from people that have hired DJ companies only to have their DJs simply not show up. I can’t understand why anyone would hire a DJ that wouldn’t have a backup plan. I’ve even been called at the last minute to handle a show that someone booked us for because the DJ they’d chosen (a friend of the family, imagine that) suffered a burned-out amplifier the night before and couldn’t do the party. So I got to work a laid-back pool party at someone’s home that included overtime, a tip, and a little extra travel pay simply because one guy couldn’t take the time to practice this concept. By the way, thanks, guy . . . whoever you are.

So here are a few items that fall under the Be There heading that you can take with you.

Obviously, the first part of the Be There concept is to show up. Physically be there. Prepare ahead of time to make sure you’ve got enough time for the commute and for whatever other surprises that might throw you off, including inclement weather, irregular traffic patterns, long lines at the drive-thru, et cetera. This is especially true if you’re volunteering your time or serving at your local church or synagogue. Make the arrangements necessary to be in the place you say you will be when you say you will be there; in other words, honor the commitment you’ve made . . . because someone else is counting on you.

Make the effort to get to your destination BEFORE you’re required to be there. I’ve never known anyone to show up 15 minutes early and have someone respond negatively. Come to think of it, actually, I have run into that, but the person in question is also one of the worst facility managers I’ve ever met. This woman all but yelled at the father of the bride because he showed up early to the reception hall. But I digress . . . when I arrive at a show early, I have the advantage of being able to make last-minutes changes if necessary, double-check my paperwork and music, and perhaps even make an unscheduled stop on the way if I've forgotten something important, like a special CD for background music (happened), or the tie for my tuxedo (happened). Or the tuxedo itself (happened to Bernard). Or the large CD wallet you unknowingly dropped in a shopping center parking lot (again, and unfortunately, me). You have some wiggle room when you plan to arrive early.

One of the things I take with me to every show I do – EVERY SHOW – is a 6-page party planner that I created on a spreadsheet document. This is a quick-reference cheat sheet that I put together several years ago and have been using ever since, continually updating it to allow for new songs that hit big and older songs that lose popularity. You see, I spend a lot of time on the pre-call with my client making sure I have all the important information down, and then I email my client to have them double-check my notes so that I don’t accidentally miss anything. Then I transfer all that information to my party planner. It contains lists of songs that do a great job of getting people on the dance floor more often than most other songs, divided by category: hip-hop/rap/dance, classic rock, modern rock, country, oldies, icebreakers. Slow songs get their own category, regardless of genre. Those categories take up 5 pages, and I enter my client’s music request in with the stock songs I keep in the planner. The 6th page is personal information about my clients, including names of people in the wedding party, parents of the bride and groom, who’s giving the toasts, who’s giving the blessing over the meal, what songs should be played for the formal dances, and any other special requests or family traditions I need to be aware of. When I’ve got all that in one place that I can access at a moment’s notice, it makes those unexpected moments (like the father of the bride in the bathroom when it’s time for the Father-Daughter dance, even though I told him not to go anywhere) seem a lot less threatening.

I know it’s easy to space off from time to time, but it’s important to remain in the moment whenever you’re working with other people. As a DJ, this means I need to be aware not only of what’s happening now, but what will be happening in the next 15-20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll do a wedding reception where the cake cutting, toasts, formal dances, and bouquet & garter tosses will all happen one right after the other, so I need to always keep an eye on what’s next. During open dancing, I’ll make a note of the song that’s playing and whether people are dancing to it, but I’ll also think about the songs I just played prior (were they of the same genre?) as well as the songs I’m about to play (are any of the client’s requests in there?) and how much time I have left in the evening (can I fit in “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Shout”, and “Yeah!” before the facility cuts the power?). If I’m not paying attention to the clock, or to my requests, then I can really lose where I am in the scope of the evening.

Sometimes I’ll be so organized that I won’t want to be flexible, but remaining engaged with the people at my party helps me to not only observe them, but to work with them, to play with them. If I see that a particular song that I’m unsure about floods the dance floor, I might alter the next few songs to follow it up with another of the same genre. I remember the first time I played John Denver’s live version of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, I was amazed at the response I got from the crowd, so I decided to change my next couple songs to cater to the crowd’s apparent appreciation for classic country. Had I not been paying attention, I could have missed a great opportunity. It also helps me when I get out on the dance floor with people, call them out if they’re busting some great moves, encourage people to form lines for The Stroll, or really anything that they can respond to. If they know that I’m willing to put myself out there with them, then they’ll go right along with whatever I’m trying to do.

This goes beyond simply being engaged by letting people know they can come up to you. One thing I do at every event is go table to table during dinner and take requests for dancing. I let people know I’m specifically looking for dance songs, so if they ask if I can play “Paradise City” by Guns n’ Roses, I very tactfully tell them no unless they can get 9 other people to dance to it with them. If they balk, I’ll tell them again that I’m looking for songs people can dance to, and if they can’t think of anything then and there, they can come up to my table anytime during the evening and let me know. I also tell my clients when I’m on the pre-call with them that if anything isn’t going the way they’d like, I won’t be offended if they come up to me and tell me so. My job is to serve them and help the whole group have fun, but if something I’m doing is making them feel uncomfortable, I’d rather they let me know so I can change course. Once they know that I’m approachable, they usually feel very comfortable.

Sometimes that idea that comes into the back of your head, the one that you know the people you’re working with will love, can get eaten up by the monster that reminds you that you might embarrass yourself. Fight the monster. If you’ve been organized, focused, engaged, and available, then spontaneity can be your best friend. You’ve already established a foundation for your work, so now you can relax and have a little fun with it. When I'm fully there, I can dance with the grandmother or the six-year old niece of the groom. I'll invite one of the guests to come behind the table and be the Guest DJ for a song. I'll hand the mic to someone during a boisterous sing-along and watch what happens (hint: this works best if it sounds like the person can actually sing). Sometimes the best moments happen with no forethought or pre-planning . . . sometimes they just happen.

When it comes down to it, the Be There concept doesn’t work unless you’re there in every capacity – physically, mentally, emotionally. Invest yourself in your work, and you’ll see some amazing returns. And good news for 2010 . . . these kind of returns can’t be taxed.

There Is No Box.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Choose Your Attitude - It Starts Before the Start

Last week I posted a blog entry wherein I talked about my church's worship team's performance and how our approach to our service that day was set by our choosing to come in ready to work, ready to be in a good mood, and able to push through any issues we might have. Then today and yesterday, I saw two more examples of that in motion.

The first was on Saturday, when I woke up at 6:10 a.m. to prepare to work at a Bridal Show for my DJ job. I was assigned the task of picking up the sound system from the office, which meant I had to leave by 6:45 in order to get to the office, load the system in my car, and make it to the bridal show in enough time to set up before the show started. I hadn't had the need to wake up at 6 a.m. for ANY job in over 10 years, so it wasn't my first choice of things to be doing. But during the 40-minute drive to the Complete Music office, I thought about the wedding show I'd worked the week before on a Thursday night. I'd had to leave my full-time job early in order to get to the Bridal Show, and I wasn't happy about that, plus I hadn't gotten a ton of sleep the night before, I'd worked all day, and I was hungry. So while I was working the wedding show, I was doing my best to put on a happy, professional face in an attempt to push through the mental shallowness in which I was wallowing. But instead, I felt sluggish, slightly unprepared, and even shown up a bit because Joe Fingerhut, one of my colleagues working the show with me, was being his normal, energetic, fun-loving self. I couldn't get over the fact that we BOTH should have been on point that whole time, but I just wasn't there.

So while I was thinking about the previous bridal show, I decided that I was going to make a decision to be in a good mood (partially because the other 2 people I was working with aren't known for having the reputation of being the fun-loving, energetic, outgoing personalities that I am). So I set my mind towards being on my best presentation and turned up the my music on my mp3 player, and when I got to the banquet center to unload, I was charged and ready to go. I felt like there was nothing I couldn't tackle, and I was ready to take on any challenge that would come my way.

And you know what? It made a world of difference from my mere existence at the previous bridal show. I joked with possible clients, I asked question after question of them to get them to tell me what they wanted instead of merely telling them what we could do for them, I even used a fake magic trick (fake because it's not magic, but it'll make you laugh) with some clients. I helped lead some of the guests in rounds of our Happy People, Cupid Shuffle, and Remedial Disco icebreakers. But I think the best part came when I broke convention and decided to use the Dance Craze icebreaker, where I asked for 3 volunteers to make up brand new dance moves that the rest of the crowd around our table then voted for. We gave a gift coupon to the winner, and everyone that was watching had a great time watching it happen.

And oh, yeah, out of our goal of 6 bookings to generate that day, 3 people booked with me. I just had plain old fun while I was working. And it all started with a decision . . .

Fast forward to this morning. It was apparent that the rest of the band members had taken the time to listen to the live recording of last Sunday's worship service and it seemed all of them came in with a renewed attitude of "whatever it takes to make this work". Everyone was prepared, everyone was feeling great, and everyone seemed to be more flexible than they usually were, including myself. We also had a dramatic sketch that was going to take place near the end of the message, so we were really pumped about the possibility that someone might take something solid away from that. All over the place, our service team members were energized (BTW, I'd had NO CAFFEINE either today or yesterday). And again, it all started with a decision . . .

I'm talking about the decision where you CHOOSE YOUR ATTITUDE.

One of the four points of the Fish/CM Smile/Permanent Impact approach, Choosing Your Attitude is the starting point to having a great day. It's no mistake that in the last 2 days, I witnessed deliberate actions designed to prep for greatness, both on my own part and on the parts of the people around me. And it felt so great to be involved in both a bridal show and a church service -- two completely separate events in idea and scope -- that ended up being successful because I and others had decided, before we'd even arrived onsite, to be positive. Positive in our thinking, positive in our approach to our work, positive in regards to the challenges ahead of us, and positive in what we expected the outcome to be. We chose to have a positive attitude long before we were in the moment.

I think that's the key that many people miss out on. Many times we go through our regular lives, our boring work day, when we realize in the middle of it all that we're not doing as well as we know we can, and we change mid-stream. While that can be effective, we can be MORE effective by making the decision to be in that sweet spot, that positive place the moment we wake up, get in the shower, eat our breakfast, jump in the car, or punch the clock. When you walk into a situation prepared, you'll spend less time backtracking to try and regain your bearings, and you'll be a more effective person in EVERYTHING you do.

So tomorrow, try this. Make the decision before you walk out the door in the morning, not just to DO something positive, but to BE something positive. Start before the start, and you'll see your whole day falling in line.

I triple dog dare ya.

There Is No Box.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Assigned Intimacy

I don't make a habit of airing dirty laundry, mine or anyone else's, in a blog. But recently, I was given a recording of our worship team's Sunday morning set in order for us in the band to critique ourselves.

My immediate reaction to hearing the recording was to sit down and list off every single thing I heard that was wrong and share it with our team coordinator. That was the arrogant, perfectionist side of me that wants to encourage everyone to hold to the same standards that I hold myself. But when I sat down to write the email, I somehow couldn't bring myself to put on he headphones and do the critique. Instead, God gave me a bit of a revelation, or at least a cerebral smack upside the head. Some of the text of that email follows . . .

"Personally, and unrelated to Sunday, I feel as though I haven't been pulling the amount of weight I've needed to in order to give my best performance every week. You may think otherwise based on what comes out, but I know exactly how much preparation time I put in throughout the week, and it's not enough. Not for me, anyway (yesterday notwithstanding - I really had to concentrate because my voice was only about 64.3% capacity . . . I measured it). So I'm going to do everything I can to step things up. This Sunday will be hard, for instance, because I'm working a bridal show on Saturday, but I'm going to have to do what I can to prepare my voice and make it work.

But that's me. The phrase goes that we're our own worst critics, but I have a feeling no one else ever wants a guy like me to be a critic of their work. I say that because listening to those recordings were both exciting and depressing -- I was excited for what I heard that clicked, but depressed for the glaring things that just sounded . . . well, just really damn bad . . . stuff that, if we could erase from the recording as though they'd never existed, we would.

But then there's the in-between bits, the parts between the standards of excellence being reached and the depths of despair being visited, those places that fall somewhere around Good, or Could Be Better, or Almost There, or Let's Rearrange This Part. I don't know that we're ever going to give a flawless performance, but these in-between parts give me hope that we can improve. The just plain bad stuff, I think, really shines as an example of what should be just plain unacceptable, but the other stuff we can work on, and the thought of working on it as a band gives me some hope. And maybe we do a perfect job during soundcheck and have a couple brain farts during service -- I'm okay with that if it means we're consistently getting better. What I'm not okay with is us -- any of us -- phoning it in, doing a half-assed job, refusing to change our practice methods in order to improve, or thinking we can nail something we haven't even spent time with. I don't know, it's almost like there needs to be an intimacy between song and musician, especially with worship songs. Just like in the way we spend time with God to know Him better, or the way I spend time with my wife so that we can be more in sync with each other, it's imperative that a musician has some sort of communion with the song they play.

I hope and pray that our current musicians, at both campuses, grab onto this concept and begin taking it to heart, because if we don't, we're always going to be a church where the music is good and the worship just kind of happens, instead of a church where the music is always excellent and the conception of worship begins with each individual's personal practice time. In other words, Sunday morning worship starts on Sunday evening.

When I first thought to write you this email, it was to share with you the thoughts that I had about the recordings from yesterday. But in truth, my only hope is that the other band members download and listen to the tracks, and that you and I aren't the only ones that can hear what's wrong and identify what needs fixing. If that doesn't happen, my head might pop off (not verbally, just in my head), and if it does, I'll need your help to put it back on."

Now, you wouldn't know it from that email, but Sunday's service at our O'Fallon Campus was outstanding. We had a great time of worship that actually began as people were arriving to set up (our O'Fallon Campus is in a temporary location, so it's a church-in-the-box setup), and I think that mindset early on was what helped people to understand why we were there. All the musicians seemed to be in a good mood, the video screens were actually completely up by the time I'd arrived (something I usually help out with), and every service team member was clicking on all cylinders. We were able to get sound check going a few minutes early, and the musicians jammed for about 5 minutes before we checked levels and began our pre-service rehearsal. Then once we started, we were all in a great mood -- we laughed, we made jokes, and we worked through the problem areas we had quickly and with a good deal of focus. It was, by far, the most fun I've ever had during soundcheck.

And when service began and we started to worship, you could just feel the atmosphere in the whole place rise. It was as if we expected the Holy Spirit to be there, and every person that walked through the doors knew and expected the same thing. Sometimes you have days like that, and I know for a fact it began well before anyone arrived to begin setting up.

That's where my frustration came in. Even though there were some errors in our performance, there were some remarkably solid spots, areas where we were as tight as we've ever been, and those great points made the errors look that much more glaring. It's true that people don't get motivated to change anything unless they get frustrated, and I've been in a cyclical state of frustration ever since coming on staff at this church over 3 years ago.

And once again, I equate the necessary tools to what our church has dubbed the Permanent Impact approach:
- Be There
- Choose Your Attitude
- Make Their Day
- Play
I might go into these four concepts at a later time, but for right now, the concept that was brought to my attention through my email rambling was this:

Assigned Intimacy.

One of my above paragraphs said it succinctly:

"I don't know, it's almost like there needs to be an intimacy between song and musician, especially with worship songs. Just like in the way we spend time with God to know Him better, or the way I spend time with my wife so that we can be more in sync with each other, it's imperative that a musician has some sort of communion with the song they play."
Of course, I'm speaking of musicians, but this concept could apply to anyone with a job that needs to be done. The more closely associated you are with the task you've been given, the better your productivity will be. It's one of those natural laws -- if you want to learn to be a stock broker, you study the stock market and hang out with other brokers. If you want to excel in a sport, you practice that sport as much as you can, and you work with other athletes that challenge you in your sport. In whatever we do, if we don't spend ample time with the task we've been given, and if we don't seek to find others in the same field that can inspire and challenge us to constantly reach for excellence, we'll never reach our full potential. Even worse, we'll become stagnant. That's a recipe for calamity.

Assigned Intimacy. It's where you focus your energy into the area of your gift instead of just walking in it blindly. It's where we all need to be.

There Is No Box.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Make it Fun?

The following is a blog entry I recently posted for the DJ company I work for, Complete Music and Video. Since the bridal show season is underway, I thought it would be good to post it here, too.


So here's the deal. If you want people to remember your event, it needs to be fun. Otherwise, why else would people decide to attend? But many times throughout the year, I hear this statement from a client:

"I don't want anything cheesy at my wedding."

I've discovered that the word "cheesy" is an extremely subjective term; it can mean different things to different people. Often, this comment is made by brides or grooms that have been to their fair share of weddings between the time they got engaged and their own wedding date, and they've probably seen a lot of sub-standard DJs doing a lot of the same things, either with a complete lack of creativity, or perhaps in an unprofessional manner. Naturally, that kind of approach can make anything look cheesy. But one other thing I've found remains true:

People like cheese.

As much as I hate to admit it -- as an artist and an entertainer -- a little bit of cheese can help in certain situations. How many wedding receptions have you been to where the DJ played the Cha-Cha Slide and no one danced because it was "too cheesy"? I'm gonna save you the effort of thinking of a time and just let you know right now, the answer is none. If anything, when a substandard DJ plays an audience participation or icebreaker song, it gets MORE people on the dance floor than were there before. That's the power of that kind of song; it makes even the most inept DJ look like he knows what he's doing.

Given that, the term "cheesy" actually means "overdone with inexperience".

One dance I use religiously at my shows is called the Snowball Dance. The premise is this: I start with a group of people (i.e., the wedding party, table captains, etc.) on the dance floor, and I explain to them that I'm going to play a song they can start dancing to. At any time during the song, when I get on the microphone and say the word "snowball", everyone on the dance floor has to run out, grab someone that's not dancing, and bring them back to the dance floor with them. I do this 2 or 3 times during the first song.

Now on paper, yeah, this does sound kind of cheesy. On the other hand, look at the dance floor 3 minutes and 30 seconds into the song. It's packed. And I don't just mean there are 20 people on the floor, I mean PACKED. Honestly, everytime I do this, 80%-90% of the crowd has made their way to the dance floor, even if only for that one song. And I'm not lying when I say that nearly 100% of the time, the Snowball Dance works flawlessly. The opening of the dance floor (once all the formalities are done, that is) is traditionally the most difficult time to get people up and dancing because no one wants to be the first person out there. The Snowball Dance takes the pressure off of your guests and makes it EASY for them to get up and dance. And once they're out on the dance floor, it's much easier for them to stay out there. Those that don't want to dance usually end up going to sit down, grab a drink, or whatever once that first song is over. Either way, there's no pressure; your DJ is EmCee-ing the action. That's what he's supposed to do.

The Snowball Dance starts the open dancing portion on a high note, bringing people into the "fun" aspect of the evening in a big way. Regardless of how cheesy it sounds when I explain it, once you see it in motion there's no denying its ability to transform a formal event into an event full of life, energy, and fun in less than 4 minutes.

And then there are the people that won't dance. One thing I've learned in my experience both as a DJ and a professional improv comedian is that even if people don't want to participate, they still like to be entertained. So I'll bring out little games and dance contests throughout the evening that will use a very small number of volunteers, but they create a spectacle for the rest of the crowd to enjoy. Nothing swings the energy up in a room like getting a crowd to laugh and cheer along with everyone else, so I'll make it easy for everyone to have some fun, evening if dancing isn't on their agenda.

Two of my friends from church recently hired Complete Music for their wedding reception in October, and they told me up front that they wanted me for their DJ. From what he tells me, the conversation went like this:

"Do you know who would be a great DJ but a little expensive?"
"And do you know who would be cheaper, but wouldn't be that great?"
"Yeah, I don't want him. Let's get Zach."

I'm not making this up. They'd heard so many good things about me as a DJ that they knew they wanted someone that could make their reception fun. (And to be fair, they found that Complete Music was actually more reasonably priced than they'd first thought, especially when they compared CM with other St. Louis area DJ companies.) And in an area like the Metro East, where there are literally hundreds of fly-by-night, single-system, independently owned DJ companies that charge a fraction of what Complete Music charges, they still decided their money was better spent making sure they got the kind of DJ that would make their event memorable and fun for everyone who attended. And you know what the sad thing is? Dozens of other people in the church have opted NOT to hire me and Complete Music in the past because they were worried that it would be too expensive. In fact, one of my other friends said they wished they had hired me after their son's wedding reception.

So while my two friends may be the first people from my area of Alton, IL to hire Complete Music, I guarantee that after their reception, they won't be the last.

There Is No Box.