“What do we have to do to make sure our message gets through?”
When it comes to leadership acoustics, there are three key things to be aware of if we want others to hear what we are trying to say. Last week I visited the world-famous Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver, Colorado – it’s the perfect place to talk about what those three things are, and how to be sure our message is getting across.
But as good as this place is, there is also a surprising down-side to playing there that we ignore at our own risk. Sound interesting? Let’s get started.
[Watch the video above or read the transcript below]
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Hi, I’m Ken from RapidStart Leadership where our goal is to help you learn leadership skills, build influence, and achieve positive results through people.
The beautiful and iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater is nestled the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just outside Denver, Colorado. It has hosted just about every famous musical act you can think of, from the Beatles and U2 to Radio Head and the Grateful Dead. It’s practically a musical right of passage; if you haven’t played here, you haven’t “made it” yet.
This place is so highly regarded that Concert Trade Magazine Pollstar awarded this place it’s Best Small Outdoor Venue award eleven years in a row. They ended up re-naming it the Red Rocks Award and removing Red Rocks from the competition just so that other places would have a chance to win.
All of which makes it the perfect place to talk about communications, and what it takes to communicate effectively as a leader.
To do that, we can start by asking: “What is it that makes this such a great performance venue?” and then, “What can we learn from that to improve the power of our own communication?”
I’m not an acoustics expert, but Michelle Vigeant, assistant professor of acoustics and engineering at Pennsylvania State University knows a thing or two. When she evaluates a venue for the quality of its sound, she looks at three things.
The first is clarity. You know when you hit the fast-food drive-through and you can’t understand what the cashier is trying to tell you through that speaker? Well it’s the opposite of that!
At the arena in Red Rocks, it’s easy to get a clear sound from the source on stage directly to the listener out in the audience. The steep 30 degree rise of the seats mean that every single person here has direct line-of-site to the stage. The sound doesn’t get interrupted, muffled or distorted on its way from drum-set to ear drum.
For our leadership messages, we want clarity, too. I think that starts with thinking clearly about what it is we are trying to say. As we describe our team’s vision, articulate the strategic change we are trying to implement, or reinforce our team’s cornerstone values, how we talk about them matters. The simpler and clearer we can make it, the better chance it has of reaching our listener’s ears.
Clarity also comes from reaching the listener directly. Just as at Red Rocks, the strongest messages are those delivered personally.
Another way to achieve clarity of signal is to make sure there is no gap between the words we say and the things we do. Any distance between the two is sure to cause confusion, and distort the message.
The second thing that Professor Vigeant looks at is reverberance which is the opposite of clarity – it’s how sound lingers in a space. The problem with reverberance is over time as the sound bounces around the room, it loses clarity, so you end up with a muted, muddy echoing effect.
In a crowded room, there is a lot to distort the sound and create that sense of background noise that can ultimately interfere with the clarity we seek.
At Red Rocks there is very little to get in the way of the sound waves. They either hit your ears or they pass on by out into space. There is no ceiling or back wall to send them bouncing back to you.
In leadership communication I see reverberance as things like speculation and the rumor mill. When leaders stop transmitting, all that remains to be heard is the reverberance – the muddied echo of what was said. And like playing the telephone game, that message will mutate and take on a life of its own. Eventually it can distort or overshadow the original message.
To fight this, as leaders we have to be continually sending new and clear signals. Once is not enough; instead we have to repeat the message frequently to ensure it is heard and not overpowered by inaccurate reverberance.
The third way Professor Vigeant looks at acoustics in a venue is in terms of envelopment, the sense of being surrounded by the sound in all directions. Enveloping sounds come from the early reflections of sound off of just one or two nearby surfaces.
In her research she found that the very best venues were those that had a good combination of both direct sound and enveloping sound. Further, she found that the most powerful enveloping sounds were those perceived to be coming from our sides – not from behind or above, but from left and right.
Red Rocks is perfectly situated to do this well, with the iconic red sandstone Creation Rock to the north, and Ship Rock to the south. Both taller than Niagara Falls, they serve to bounce the sound directly into our ears and envelop us with it. They also serve to help prevent outside sounds from getting in and interfering with the experience
As leaders, envelopment means reinforcing the message so that it comes to our listeners in a variety of ways. It’s not just giving the same speech over and over. It’s using different channels like printed media, letters, signs, social media, images and video. And we can talk about it to large groups or bring it up in personal conversations.
When we reinforce that clear message and envelop our listeners from all sides and in multiple ways, we make that message all the stronger.
Leadership Acoustics – The Takeaway
The way Red Rocks is set up, it does everything right to help get the message across, and we would do well to do the same:
To achieve clarity we need to keep the message simple, send it as directly as possible, and ensure there is consistency between what we say and what we do.
To combat reverberation, we have to understand that saying something once is not enough; we have to repeat that clear message regularly so that we don’t allow a sound vacuum to form that becomes filled with the muddy echoes of people’s impressions of what they thought they heard.
And we have to envelop our listeners so that they get that message strongly and consistently from a variety of sources. And not just top-down, but on their level, and from the sides all of which reinforce each other.
But even with all its advantages, there’s a big, surprising downside to performing at Red Rocks, and the best artists work overtime to compensate for it.
The problem is that with the sound getting out there so clearly and directly, very little bounces back to them. They have a hard time hearing themselves, and without that feedback, they don’t know how well they are playing.
So before the show they attach dozens of on-stage microphones to their various instruments and connect them to a PA system directed back at them, all so they can get the feedback they need.
We can take a cue from this as well because truly effective leadership acoustics requires us to listen.