Blog

043 – Show amazing grace to your audience

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 20, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

There’s a time to be independent and creative, and there’s a time to serve your audience. Dummer and DJ, Questlove, felt he was at the top of his game when he was asked to perform at Barack Obama’s farewell party. He started his set feeling confident but finished it feeling disappointed, prompting Barack to share a story of his own.

Obama singing Amazing Grace

Podcasts are a great source of stories. That’s why we started Anecdotally Speaking. Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Record is no exception. Shawn found this week’s story listening to episodes 1 and 2 of the podcast. Questlove, drummer, DJ, and member of American hip hop band The Roots, features as a guest in each of the episodes and shares a few personal stories. 

The story Shawn has chosen to retell is from Barack Obama’s final Whitehouse party. The story contains another story which Obama shared with Questlove on the night of the event. It also contains a number of valuable business points, including: be mindful of your audience.

If you’d like to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Record podcast, you can find it here. You can also find episodes 1 and 2 here.  

If you’d like to watch Obama’s Charleston eulogy, you can find it here. 

For your storybank

Tags: audience, engagement, failure, success 

In early 2017, Barack and Michelle Obama hosted a farewell party at the Whitehouse to celebrate the end of Barack’s presidency.

Leading up to the night, Questlove received a phone call from the Whitehouse, inviting him to perform a DJ set at the event.

Questlove quickly accepted the invitation, feeling confident.

“I’ve got this nailed. I’m at the top of my game,” he thought. His recent sets had been very well received.

On the night of the event, Questlove set up his gear and started playing his usual funky, artistic set. He soon realised Barack and Michelle’s guests weren’t engaging with the music.

Before long, Barack approached him and said, “I’m sorry, Questlove, I have to ask. My daughters are sitting over there. They’re not excited. They’re not dancing. Could you change the music? Could you play some Rihanna or Beyonce?”

Questlove cringed but obliged. He stopped his set and started playing pop music. The party soon swung into full gear, complete with singing and dancing.

When Questlove finished his set and started packing up, Barack approached him again.

“Did you have a good time tonight?” Barack asked.

“Yeah.”

“What’s going on? You don’t look happy.”

“I’m okay.”

“No, no. Tell me.”

“Well, that wasn’t my best gig,” Questlove explained.

Barack said, “Let me tell you something that happened to me. It might make you feel a bit better.

“When that terrible shooting happened in Charleston, I knew I would be doing that eulogy. I felt confident. I’ve been delivering speeches for eight years now and I have a great team behind me. When I arrived at that church and started speaking, I could tell I wasn’t engaging the crowd. I then realised I couldn’t use the speech I had prepared. So, I went off script. I found myself repeating the word grace. I said, ‘These people had grace in how they lived, grace in how they saw the world. They had amazing grace.’ I sang Amazing Grace, and the entire congregation stood up and sang with me. The mood in that church completely changed.

“You have to serve your audience. Whatever it takes. That’s what you did for us, and we appreciate it.

“Does that make you feel better?”

“Not really.”

Podcast transcript

Shawn:

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk. So straight into it this week, we have tried this recipe before, no preamble; straight into the story. So, Shawn over to you.

Shawn:

Okay, so I heard this story on Malcom Gladwell’s new podcast called ‘Broken Records’. This is where he is interviewing a whole bunch of musicians so I had a two part episodes interviewing Questlove.

Now Questlove for those of you who don’t know is one of America’s famous drummers. He is leader of the band ‘Roots’, which is essentially the band in Jimmy Fallon’s late night TV show and he’s like a legend.

He’s been the drummer for Bruce Springsteen, his band has played for just about all the great names you can imagine and not only is he a drummer but he does a lot of DJing, and that is what brings us to this story really.

He had just done a great DJ gig if you like where for him to DJ an evening it’s all the funkiest tunes and coolest music you could imagine. He would never play top 40 or anything like that; that would be too uncool to do, and so he has just finished and Bruce Springsteen is looking at him and pointing at him and going, right on Questlove, you’re the man.

That week he gets a phone call from the white House and asked to do a DJ gig up at the White House. It’s essentially the last party they are going to have, farewelling Obama and Michelle and they want Quest Love to DJ.

And he is thinking I’ve got this nailed right, I’ve done such great sets just recently and I’m at the top of my game, so off he goes.

Mark:

I’m the coolest, funkiest DJ.

Shawn:

That’s right. So off he goes, he starts his set, he’s got all his gear and got his music worked out and as he’s playing along he can tell the audience is not loving it.

Mark:

‘Cause it wouldn’t be his normal audience, would it?

Shawn:

I think that is part of the problem. It’s a different audience, it’s not the hippiest, funkiest people in the world, and it’s the guys at the White house right; a bunch of politicians.

Mark:

Are you saying the White House isn’t hip and funky?

Shawn:

Well I’m just guessing. So Barack actually comes over to him and says, look I’m sorry to say this to you Questlove but my daughters are just sitting over there, they’re not dancing, and they’re not excited about this whole thing. Can you change the music, do you have some Rhianna, some Beyoncé or something like that.

Mark:

Oh, not top 40.

Shawn:

Yes exactly, he’s essentially asking for top 40 and Quest Love kind of cringes but goes oh well I’ve got to do what I got to do and he starts playing the new music and they are loving it. The party swings into top gear, and lots of dancing, singing and drinking and it’s a great party.

At the end of the night he’s packing up and he’s obviously got a look on his face which is not so happy and Barack comes over and says Questlove, what’s going on, you don’t look like the happiest guy.

He goes well, I’m okay, he’s trying to brush it off a little bit and Barack goes, no, no, tell me what are you feeling? Questlove says it’s not his best gig in the world to do that and Barack turns to him and says well I’ll tell you something that happened to me and maybe this will make you feel a little bit better.

Barack said when that terrible shooting happened in Charlottesville in the church, as soon as that happened I knew I would be doing the eulogy and I thought to myself, I’m at the top of my game, I’ve done eight years of speeches, I know how to deliver a great speech and I’ve got some great speech writers who can help me out as well.

So he goes to the church and the congregation is there.

Mark:

It there would be a big congregation.

Shawn:

It was to the rafters, and he starts his eulogy. About 5 or 10 minutes into the eulogy he knows they are not loving it. He can feel it in the room that they are not loving it. You can go on You Tube and listen to his eulogy. It’s quite complex and it’s not just hitting at the heart. It’s talking about these big ideas and things like that and he realises he has to switch things up.

He’s looking down at his speech writers who are just sitting down in front of him and trying to give them the eyeball that he is going to go off the script and they hate it when he goes off the script. They figure he is not as good when he goes off the script.

Next thing you know he keeps repeating this phrase, he says all these people had enormous grace. They had grace in how they lived, grace in how they saw the world, they had amazing grace. He then starts singing amazing grace and as soon as he starts singing the whole congregation just stands up and they are all singing.

All of a sudden the mood of cause changes radically and he finishes the song and essentially that’s the end of his eulogy, it’s like a drop the mic kind of situation.

And he turns to Questlove and he says,’ you’ve got to serve the audience. You’re there for them. Whatever it takes and you did that tonight for us and we really appreciate it. He looks at him and says does that make you feel better Questlove? Questlove just turns to him and goes, ‘not really’.

Anyway I heard that on Malcom Gladwell’s podcast, told by Questlove so it’s worth listening to; that my rendition if you like, I’m sure there are a few little glitches in there. Tell me what do you think? What strikes you when you hear that? It’s kind of like a story within a story right.

Mark:

Yeah, there are kind of multiple stories there. I was very engaged and firstly I was thinking why does he have the name Questlove? Where does that come from?

Shawn:

I have no idea, but it would be interesting to know.

Mark:

I’m going to find that out.

Shawn:

I think it’s just one of those funky things that DJ’s do.

Mark:

Why is The Edge called The Edge?

Shawn:

Well indeed.

Mark:

Just a bar in Dublin and too many pints of Guinness?

Shawn:

Could easily be that.

Mark:

I would like to know that. So, some reasons why that story really works. I guess a part of that is the surprise factor.

Shawn:

Yeah right.

Mark:

One of the big surprises is Obama starting to sing in a eulogy.

Shawn:

Yes it is remarkable when you see him do it.

Mark:

‘Cause he’s not the world’s best singer.

Shawn:

No but he’s not bad.

Mark:

He’s not awful.

Shawn:

But he’s not Aretha Franklyn or anything like that. So he’s doing essentially doing it the way a congregation would and of course he picked a song that the whole congregation is going to know and it was a relevant, pertinent song.

Mark:

For the congregation it’s a very remarkable thing. They did not expect Obama, the president to stand up and lead them in a song. And just the ability to recognise that there is a time to follow the script and there’s a time to deviate.

Shawn:

Yes and you’ve got to be mindful of your audience. What I love about this story is that it’s giving you two examples. It’s like here’s the Questlove example; he wasn’t so mindful of the audience but he was forced into a situation and it turned out well for the people that were at the party.

Then you have the Barack story and again he feels it is not going so well so he switches things up and it turns out well for the congregation. It’s almost like the two stories reinforce the point. You could tell just one of those stories to make the point.

Mark:

Indeed. I liked it. There are a number of dimensions that I really liked. One of them was that Obama actually went over and spoke to Questlove and was interested enough to notice that he wasn’t happy.

Shawn:

You get a bit of an insight into the type of person he is.

Mark:

He took the time to explain to Questlove that there’s time to be musically creative and independent and there’s a time to serve your audience. And this is a time to serve your audience situation.

So when we come to the business point that’s probably one of the key business points of this is that there is a time to be independent and creative and run your own race and then there’s a time to serve your audience.

Shawn:

I think that’s one of the key points. Another couple of other key elements in this that we love in stories are people with power. We talk about celebrity power, positional power, could be money power, beauty power but in this case you’ve got celebrity power and positional power. You’ve got a president and this famous drummer DJ and just that draws you into the story.

There will be people when they hear the word Questlove, it will mean so much to them. They know the guy, they know his music and they know what type of drummer he is. Then there will be people who have never heard of him before and if anything about that story you might have to do a little thumb nail sketch about Questlove; I did a little bit.

Mark:

So are there examples? How did Questlove come to be Questlove?

Shawn:

The only insightful thing he told about his career was he was a virtuoso and still is a virtuoso drummer. He can do any sort of drumming you like but he felt he needed something that was his that when people hear it they go that’s a Questlove Drummer.

He developed this style which he kind of called sloppy drumming it’s not quite on the beat and sort of feels the person is a little bit drunk actually. He said the first time he ever tried it out was at this gig for this big soul singer, I wish I remembered the guy’s name but one of those names that everyone knows.

He has the band there and he doesn’t tell anyone he’s going to do his drunk drumming. So the music kicks off and he’s doing it and the bands kind of looking at him like, what the hell are you doing, what’s wrong with you.

Mark:

You’re making us look bad.

Shawn:

Yeah, it’s making it harder for everyone but the soul singer hears this and turns to Questlove and points to him and goes, ‘right on’. He immediately understood that this type of drumming, this sound was perfect for what this singer was about to sing.

Mark:

And the band couldn’t appreciate it?

Shawn:

Not straight away because it was so different but the soul singer knew straight away that this was new and different and it would give a different sound to what he was doing and soon of course he gets the recognition from the singer, the whole band works with it and of course he is now famous for this type of drumming.

Mark:

It’s one of those turning point stories, that one.

Shawn:

It’s just one of those classics. Going back to the two stories that were told there in addition to the fact that you have a celebrity element to it, you also have high stakes eulogies and people dying and this gets people at the heart. There something about singing; it’s emotive, people coming together and singing together.

If you can capture a little bit of that in the story I think people feel uplifted.

Mark:

I’ve seen the video of Obama giving that talk and he started those first couple of strains as you say out of nowhere, he just was saying grace, amazing grace and the pastor standing behind him, his eyes just lit up and he stood up so fast and held his arms out and he saw it happening which was really quite an amazing moment.

Shawn:

It was beautiful. I don’t think I can say too much more about this story but it’s useful to have a think about as to where you would tell this story in a business setting.

Mark:

If we talk about some of the things that would make that story even better, it’s important to recognise the limitations of that story. The reality is if you tell that story in America you are going to polarise your audience.

Shawn:

There will be people that hear the names and are either for or against.

Mark:

But much more likely they will be either for or against Obama.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

And it doesn’t matter how good the story is, the fact that Obama is in it, there will be people who are anti Obama and therefore that story will have low impact. It’s really important that the relevance factor be in your mind when you use that story.

Shawn:

It’s so true, sad but true.

Mark:

It’s just a reality of using stories.

Shawn:

Whereas Obama stories in Australia, he’s regarded as one of the top leaders.

Mark:

You’re on safe ground. In fact you are probably on safe ground anywhere outside America.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

It’s simply that it is a polarising issue in America and you need to recognise that, so that is a limitation of that story.

Shawn:

Yeah you are right.

Mark:

And if you told that story within the US no matter how good it is, you are going to have half the people not like it. Of course then there’s Questlove, there’ll be people who do or don’t like Quest Love. There’ll be people like me who don’t have any idea who Questlove is.

Shawn:

My job is to introduce these new musical artists to you Mark.

Mark:

It’s part of your job, yes.

Shawn:

I would say the point I’d be trying to make with telling this story, either with both or one of these stories is the idea you’ve got to be mindful about your audience and you’ve got to be ready to switch it up.

We see this in our own work, running workshops. There will be times where we are running a workshop and we can tell it’s not landing. More often than not we know it’s about actually doing more activities. As soon as you get them doing more activities it’s shifted the whole feeling of the situation.

Mark:

No matter how important you feel the point you are trying to make is, it’s much more important to engage the audience.

Shawn:

Exactly, so I think that’s the key point that you would make there.

Mark:

So it’s one of those, got to know ‘when to hold them, know when to fold them’, stories. So there’s times when you need to use your artistic integrity and stick by that 100%.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

But there’s other times where you need to understand it’s about the audience and so if Questlove’s playing in a club in New York and it’s cool and hip and funky and trendy, that’s when he’s going, here is my individual stamp, it’s not what happens in the White House because that’s a completely different audience.

Shawn:

Now that you have said that, I was listening again to that broken record podcast and I
was trying to remember who was on there but they were just talking to a couple of other musicians and the musicians when they are writing their songs, they don’t think about their audience at all. At least these guys weren’t, they write for themselves and what they think is a good thing and maybe someone will like it.

I was watching a documentary about Abba and Beni was saying people look at our songs and they think we are master singers and writers and storytellers and that we’ve worked out the magic of doing all this and he said ‘no no that’s not how it is at all. It just happens that a lot of people like the same music we like’.

Anyway that’s a sidebar if you like but the many point out of these stories is care about your audience.

Okay let’s give a rating Mark, lay it on me.

Mark:

Even though I like this story I’m going to give it a 6 simply because I would find difficulty using it because I would need to understand more about Questlove and his music. Even though I really enjoyed the story I’m only giving the story a 6 because of utility.

I know you’re going to point to the times I’ve given low scores and people have said I love this story but for me, I love the story but I’m having difficulty imagining how I would use it.

Shawn:

It may not have that strong point type use but it would be a good rapport building one.

Mark:

It is a totally entertaining story. That’s a very good point.

Shawn:

If you’re chatting to someone and next thing you find out they like this sort of music, you could spark a whole bunch of other conversations just by telling this story.

Mark:

In fact, if you knew someone was interested in music that would be a great rapport building story. So, in terms of how might this story be used—building rapport with somebody who’s into music—that would be a great story to use.

Shawn:

I’d probably give it a 7 & ½, o.k. 8.

Mark:

It’s only because that’s the first time you got to sing on the podcast.

Shawn:

I know. You could tell I was full voice there. It’s a good story, one I enjoy telling. I’ve told it a few times now. It comes out easily; it’s a comfortable story to tell. Fantastic, well I think that’s where we’ll finish things up.

Mark:

Just a reminder about our public workshops; on our events page you can see a list of our public workshops. One of the things we love about our work is we get to travel all across the world and meet interesting people.

It’s one of the things when we first formed the company back in 2004, we talked about some of the things we should do, and meeting interesting people and having interesting conversations is one of our objectives so if you’re in one of the locations where we’re running a public workshop we’d love to hear from you. So please get in touch; maybe there’s an opportunity for us to catch up.

Shawn:

The other things is too if people think it would be a great idea for us to run a public workshop. If they think they can get a good group of people together we’d be more than happy to run one. We’re zipping around all sorts of places so adding another one to the schedule is not that difficult.

Thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next time for another episode on how to put your stories to work. Bye for now.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

Leave a Reply

*

code

Send this to a friend

down
up