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Ultimate Performance Tips #4: Setting Up Your Story

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

"What Art has over real life is the ability to edit. Life in its raw beauty has little sense of structure. It has amazing textures but doesn’t relate to the snappy beginnings or endings of a movie, book, or engaging live performance. By giving your story and performance structure, you amplify the message you want your audience to receive." from Film Flam: Essay’s on Hollywood, by Larry McMurtry.

Now you’ve already researched your audience and know your own story. You have an idea for an experience that will compliment where they are at in their journey with you. You’ve also looked at where and when you want to provide this experience. Your next step is to start drafting your why for this performance by creating an outline. Think of this as your performance template.

Your why is the story you want to tell. Go ahead and put a title to name the experience. It can be as simple as a song title like “Dancing on the Ceiling,” by Lionel Richie. Your title paints a picture of what the audience should feel by the end of the performance. It can also be more complex like a statement. “The Amazing Band, performing the best of the decades; so that, you will be dancing on the ceiling all night long.”

The next step is to figure out the what and how of your performance. Start by asking some simple questions to guide your structure. In “Telling the Story,” by Peter Rubie. The author explains 4 basic elements of organization for telling a story.

4 Basic Elements of Organization

  • Recognize you are taking your audience on a journey

  • Keep a good eye for visual detail to enhance your story

  • Have a good ear for aural detail like the dynamics of your performance

  • Use your heart to guide compassion for your audience

As you’ve investigated your audience and the tools you possess to create an authentic performance, you can turn these ingredients into recipes or moments for executing your why and the vision for your performance. Whether your performance experience is 15 minutes or 90 minutes long, you want to focus on the right mixture of ingredients to excite their taste buds and deliver unforgettable multi-level experiences.

A master chef plans out your dining experience in a similar way. From the sights and smells you have when you walk into a restaurant, to each course on their menu, they are taking you on a journey. They also plan and prep the experience to allow their customers to make choices or decisions enhancing the customer's experience.

What are some experiences you’ve had as an observer that stood out to you where you felt connected and engaged to another artist?

Performance Engagement Questions:

  • What are some musical moments that engaged your emotions and what visually enhanced that moment?

  • What are some different kinds of storytelling you can incorporate into your show?

  • What experiences have your audience already had you can mimic or recreate to create nostalgia and connection?

Write a list. These are the engagement tools you can use to connect what you want to do in a performance with how you’re going to do it. Keep this list handy when creating an outline for your performance. Remember the audience wants to feel connected to you, so it is extremely important you create a journey that involves their tastes as well as your own.

Bram Bessoff of says artists who truly love their audiences get outside of their own heads when designing a show. To love your audience, Bram says, you need to concentrate on how the audience is listening to your performance through visual storytelling. Audiences listen with their eyes first not their ears. A good structure for a performance depends on where you take an audience visually as it highly impacts the story you want to tell. This includes visualizing how you are going to interact with each audience member throughout your performance. This could be the guy in the back row of the concert hall or your guests during a live stream. The ultimate goal here is connecting with everyone you can so they have a story to tell.

Crucial to storytelling and building relationships with an audience is how you also interact with any other performer sharing the stage with you. The audience will observe how you relate to each other first. It’s all about the hang! Remember the 15/30/55 rule? 30% is deciding if they like you. If you aren’t including the other members of your band as part of your show, your relationship game is flawed and exposed.

Your story depends on every actor on your stage. The dynamics of your performance will greatly depend on each performer understanding the flow and intent for each song or moment in your performance. It is imperative you go over the emotional intent behind the music when building an outline; so that, everyone shares the same interpretation for what is to be felt. This includes a solid understanding of lyrical intent, style, tone, and the groove of each arrangement. The moments you want to create will be impacted by these variables as you plan out your performance.

Additionally, all performers bring their own styles, experiences, and personalities to the overall experience. When thinking about your performance, you should incorporate as much as you can from each performer's tool chest when creating moments for greater authenticity. Whenever possible celebrate the diversity of your band with your audience as this greatly influences growth in relationships and brand authenticity.

When further setting up your outline, it is great to number your moments to create a simple blueprint. This will help inform you if you’ve used enough of the right ingredients to impact your audience. You should have already nailed down a theme for the experience. Now you can tailor how you feed the emotions of your audience. At first, you want a basic number for the types of moments you can envision within your performance. Think of it as an intensity scale. You can choose a number 1 to 3 or 1 to 5. You could also think of your intensity in terms of spiciness. If you’ve ever tasted a habanero, there is a big difference between that and a banana pepper.

Let’s use songs as an example. “Don’t Stop Believing,” by Journey is a band favorite go-to at the end of a night. You have an emotional lyric that excites a common dream. You have a massive guitar solo and sing-along opportunities. You can envision glam rock costumes and long-haired musicians. This is a rock anthem that gets audiences on their feet. You may consider this a 5 out of 5 for all the elements that create an intensity for this moment. Yesterday by the Beatles is another illustration of intensity. Paul McCartney recorded his guitar and vocals simultaneously in just two takes. It’s an intimate tale of love and loss anyone can relate to. This is a 1 out of 5.

BPM and the mood of an audience also factor in planning your moments and the flow of your performances. An early afternoon performance geared towards a coffee shop crowd might not be the best place to play Don’t Stop Believing. If you want to influence an audience's happiness level or dance-ability of a performance, you may want to increase your beats per minute. What you hear in a DJ club setting or DJ club mix, may be different to a radio edit of a song. House mixes typically have higher BPM to elevate the mood of an audience. BPM and mood are also a consideration for background music and pre or post-show planning. You want to warm up and warm down an audience for an event.

We’ll talk more about the kinds of moments you can create as we work further along in the training.

So your live performance template is the blueprint for the story you want to share in your performance.

  1. Start with the end in mind by naming your performance in a simple way that sets up why you’re doing this

  2. Remember the 4 basics of storytelling to help inspire the moments you want to create

    1. Take them on a journey

    2. Use visual storytelling

    3. Have a good ear for aural detail and dynamics

    4. Use your heart to guide compassion

  3. Begin ranking your moments; so that, you can put them in a logical order

  4. Take account for the mood you want to create pre and post-show

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