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"If you can define a thing you can duplicate it. If you can duplicate it you can achieve mental consistency. If you have mental consistency you can win."
From "With Winning in Mind" by Lanny Bassham [Book]
A couple of years back, I wrote an essay about a phrase my Dad used to tell me when I was performing music regularly—always perform like you're in an arena.
I came to view it as a mantra when performing on stages of all kinds, ranging from noisy restaurants to weddings, Sweet 16s, and even the iconic Apollo Theater. It reminded me that anything less than my best was a disservice to myself and the audience. In retrospect, it also underscored the importance of establishing and continually elevating my standards.
Lately, I find myself revisiting this philosophy in the context of client work. In an agency setting, the stage is akin to clients and projects. While it's important to understand their intricacies, that shouldn't adversely impact our performance, though it often does.
When we're working with a renowned brand, it's natural to feel a surge of excitement and motivation to deliver excellence. But it can also create stress and pressure, stealing energy and focus needed to perform at our best.
At 18, my brother and I auditioned for America's Got Talent and made it to the live show with the judges. Separate acts. We were two of a couple of hundred performers to make it out of the apparent thousands who had auditioned. We couldn't believe it. Unfortunately, none of the songs I normally performed cleared legal, so I had to learn a new song virtually overnight.
Backstage, the pressure consumed me. I got so worked up that I nearly fainted. While the performance went fine, and the audience seemed to enjoy it, I didn't advance. Sharon Osbourne told me I sounded like Bob Dylan doing a rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." That was my thing at the time, so I didn't mind. However, reflecting on the experience, I can't help but wonder about the outcome if I hadn't succumbed to the hype.
On the flip side, some less-known clients and projects aren't as inherently exciting. A bit like playing a coffee shop open mic night. And when we treat them as such, they aren't. But when we give them our all, amazing things happen.
During my college days, my best friend and drummer Kyle and I used to do regular open mics at Saxby's, a campus coffee shop. While these were nothing like being on a grand stage, we brought the same energy to our two-song set and aimed to keep the audience engaged the whole way through.
On one occasion, Kyle's classmate came out to watch. He worked at Best Buy and invited us to perform in a live concert series at the store. It was in an unfamiliar area in what most people would not consider a venue, so we had no idea what to expect. But a show was a show! So we were pumped.
Little did we know we were opening for a popular band at the time called Stereo Skyline. As we were setting up, the crowd kept growing and growing.
Post-performance, we felt like celebrities, autographing CDs and merchandise. One group of girls talked to us for a few minutes, bought some merch, took a photo, and said goodbye. Then... they showed up at nearly every show we played in the coming months. Over time, they invited us to be the surprise at one of their sister's Sweet 16 party, among other shows at colleges and friends' houses. We even got invited back to Best Buy to impress corporate executives coming into town. Unfortunately, we couldn't make it work due to a conflict.
It's incredible to think about the opportunities we would have missed out on if we hadn't treated open mics at Saxby's like we were playing in an arena.
But it goes both ways.
The stakes are low in an environment like Saxby's. I always had less fear of making a mistake. The laid-back environment made it easy to interact, try out new material, and even share dialogue with audience members. While bringing arena-like energy to every show is critical, there's something freeing about embracing the open mic mentality when on a stage like America's Got Talent. The same goes for engaging with clients.
Earlier this year, we got a lead from someone in our network for a brand looking for website design support. Once we received more details on the brief, the opportunity looked like one where we could add value. The budget was also sizable. With a light pipeline at the time, we could use the work.
When we got on a call with the client, we learned the client had a great business that had grown for years in channels outside the website. Now, they were looking to modernize and level up e-commerce. The call was positive until we heard they were talking to 10+ agencies and wanted a proposal as soon as possible. We tend to steer clear of competitive leads like this, but we had a warm connection, so we figured we'd give it a go.
Our proposal was well-received and led us to a call with the CEO. Getting on a call with a new stakeholder, especially a CEO, at this stage can be a recipe for disaster, but we didn't overthink it. We didn't expect to get this far, so we figured we'd go along for the ride.
The call couldn't have gone better. It felt more like a conversation with a colleague than a prospective client. Our team was relaxed and poised, which invited the same tone from the client. Everyone left the call feeling excited about the potential collaboration. The next day, we won the project. Our work with the client has continued to grow, making it one of our top accounts this year.
I often reflect on this experience as inspiration for approaching calls, proposals, and interactions with our clients. It's like taking the Saxby's approach to the big stage. We knew the opportunity would have been a big win, but because so many agencies were involved, we almost passed on it. This took the pressure off when we chose to move forward. We still gave it our best, but we didn't let the prospect of losing it stress us out. The result was a level of confidence and clarity throughout the whole process. These days, I try to bring the same across every new opportunity we commit to pursuing, regardless of shape or size.
Everything we do is a performance of some kind. The lesson is simple: you never know where the stage will take you, so it's not worth letting anything take away from showing up, doing your best, and feeling proud when it's all over.
Think of a time fear or pressure affected your performance. How might embracing an "arena" mentality have changed the result?
Read here: Understanding When a Quiz Makes Sense