Tips, tricks, and personal insight on how to own your audience on stage.
1. Make direct eye contact, or at least create the illusion
Look people in the eyes, dammit! If you can’t, at least fake it and look right above their heads or at their eyebrows. Establishing (or portraying the illusion of) eye contact with crowd members will project your energy and draw people to your performance. No audience member wants to watch someone who only looks at their fretting hand or only acknowledges other band members on stage. That’s boring. You have a job to engage the audience, and it starts with recognizing their existence.
2. Share the story, don’t tell the tale
Grab the crowd by beginning your narrative with “Have you ever?” rather than “One day, I…” This is a simple trick that will do wonders in connecting the audience with your songs and performance. Instead of beginning with a diatribe about how you wrote this song about your fat dog who eats crap, offer the audience a relation: “Who’s got a fat dog? Does he eat crap? Because mine does, too!” Put a question mark on your statements and allow the audience to connect on their own terms while still sharing your own experiences.
3. Don’t be too specific when you introduce a song
This is essentially a continuation of my third point; while it’s important to tie the song to something universal that your audience can relate with, don’t share too much. You want to avoid making your audience feel uncomfortable with too much personal information. Don’t spill all your raw emotions about how your ex-partner cheated on you on Valentine’s day with your best friend while you were out picking up flowers to place on your grandma’s gravestone. Too many details can be a quick turnoff for the audience. Let the song do most of the talking. The audience doesn’t need to know the entire backstory before you play it because then there’s nothing left for the audience to listen for/take away from the song. With that in mind, aim to keep your intro to around 30 seconds or less.
4. The audience is there for themselves, not you
This may sound harsh, but hear me out. 99.9% of the time, I’d argue that people come out to shows mostly for reasons other than to see you/hear your music. People come to shows to experience moments, to be captured and engaged, and to essentially have their lives changed in some sort of way, however small it might be. This tip is difficult to translate into stage advice, but simply acknowledging the fact that people are at your show for their own personal benefit, and not necessarily yours, can change the way you perform and how you reciprocate with the audience for the better. Your enjoyment doesn’t have to take the backseat, but it definitely shouldn’t control the wheel, either.
5. Make “moments” for the audience
As artists used to being the center of attention on stage, we tend to think that our entire set is one big experiential “moment” that the audience can get behind. However, the idea that the audience is captivated by your performance just as much as you are isn’t realistic. At your next performance, pay attention to what gets the audience hyped, what grabs their attention, what makes them dance, and also what makes them not do any of those things. Try and pinpoint where these special “moments” are within your set and exploit them. These sought-after instances could be anything from cleverly introducing a song a certain way, performing a call-and-response activity involving crowd participation, or even getting down that middle-eight section so it flutters into silence before landing right back in the groove. You should always be thinking in terms of what the audience wants. If it works with the audience, then it works with you and your performance. Not the other way around, unfortunately.
6. Know who your audience is
It’s easy to think that the audience is simply there for live music, which may be true… sometimes. To give you a personal example, I perform weekly at an Irish pub located across the street from the Driskill Hotel, which is a pretty swanky place to stay. Considering this, there are tons of businessmen, vacationers, and other out-of-towners that come across the street and fill the pub. Most of these patrons are typically older white males and definitely have money to spend. Knowing this, my band and I tend to perform mostly classic nostalgic covers, such as Hank Williams, CCR, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, etc. People love familiarity, and if we can provide these out-of-towners with that while showcasing who we are as a band, people will react. Between songs, I’ll casually ask who’s from out of town, what they’re up to in Austin, and maybe throw a lighthearted joke their way. After gaining our audience’s trust through playing familiar covers and talking with them a little, we can then play a few original songs which are well-received because we’ve already proven our worth to the audience. We’d be leaving potential fans and lots of tip money on the table if we got up on stage, showcased all of our original songs, and bantered about ourselves.
7. Physically own the stage
As a performer, you’re up on a pedestal. People are literally and figuratively looking up to you because you have what it takes to get on a stage and perform. So act like it! Make that stage your domain. Jump on it, dance on it, move around the stage and show the audience you’re comfortable with being judged on your musical merit because you’re there to prove exactly that. Studies have shown that communication is over 90% non-verbal. In further examining that 90% non-verbal communication, around 50% is comprised of your body language, while the other 40% entails the tone of your voice. This means that what you sing or play isn’t nearly as important as how you sing or play it. I can’t emphasize this point enough. It doesn’t really matter how well you sing the chorus because if you sing every word of it with 100% genuine sincerity, and people can see that, there’s a better chance they will like you and your music. So next time you’re up on that stage, radiate with confidence and visually embody the emotions within your music. It will carry you far in the crowd’s mind.
Written by: Gus Miller