Dr. Daniel Levitin would say there’s more going on than the mere fact that I like the rhythm of that song. Levitin is the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, where he runs the Laboratory for Music Cognition, Perception and Expertise. He’s also the author of the 2006 best-seller This Is Your Brain on Music. He and his latest research would say that my brain hears the human touch of Stevie Wonder.
Wonder released “Superstition” in 1972. He played the drums himself on the recording, with natural and expressive inconsistency. Later he used commercial drum machines in the studio–and experienced a drop in record sales. Was it just a coincidence?
The most engaging music is exquisitely imperfect and original. It carries surprise elements of soulfulness—holding a note longer, changing the lyrics slightly, striking the pedal harder and allowing the music to stop. Paul Simon is the master of stopping the music only to surprise you again. He believes that sound without stopping loses its power.
Applying this to the every day
Levitin’s work can teach us something about business presentations. Next to email, the many forms of presentation are the primary means of communication in business. Based on the level of engagement of listeners and participants, they are sadly unoriginal and void of soulfulness.
Most of us have never been encouraged to light up brains through our expressive interpretation of business initiatives—much less to be exquisitely imperfect. We haven’t been taught the art of storytelling in business. We don’t know how to stop and use the silence. Nor have we been shown how to communicate visually in a compelling way beyond flat slides and pictures of text.
Stevie Wonder still uses a drum machine, but he inserts the human variable, so the sound is less predictable. Paul Simon believes that real timing deviations are so critical to musical expression that he refuses to use drum machines. He believes they reduce the drums to a sound that is so predictable and perfect that the brain ignores it.
We have broken business presentations to the point that people ignore them. Bad presentations are the status quo and ones that actually engage the brain are surprises.
So here’s the good news
You have an amazing opportunity. Every meeting, presentation and conference call is a place to show up and stand apart; to earn the engagement of others by being human and imperfect; to deviate from business speak and be expressive—and to play the drums yourself.