Lollapalooza features 130 bands on multiple stages over three days, and each faces the unenviable task of making an impression on a crowd that hasn’t necessarily come to see them. I caught a good number of bands, but the moment that keeps sticking with me wasn’t a song, but an introduction to a song. I’d heard of the band Social Distortion but never seen them before. Mike Ness, the band’s leader, created a moment before their last song that still sticks with me. He said:
“This next song is written by one of my heroes, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not because he had really good hair or dressed in black and wrote good songs and played good guitar. This man is my hero because in 1954, for black and white music there was still a huge racial barrier. Many parents—most parents—didn’t want their kids listening to black records. Let’s face it though people: we all know that if it wasn’t for good black music there wouldn’t be any good white music. This man was one of the few dozen gentlemen and women who stood up for equality back at a period of time when that was almost dangerous to do. And that’s why this man is my hero.”
With that, the band launched into Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
So why did that moment stick out for me (and probably quite a few other people)? It contained a number of elements that any memorable message has:
It was personal—far too few performers—or speakers—share thoughts or feelings that they truly believe in and that mean something to them. To do so before an audience of 25,000 people that came to boogie, not listen to someone talk, and hold their attention speaks to the power of the personal story.
It was true—When Ness said the line about the debt that white music owes to black music, I saw people around me nodding. Some, myself included, laughed at hearing something spoken out loud that many people had recognized for a long time.
It had the right messenger—The fact that Ness, a performer with a punk pedigree that stretches back nearly three decades, with tattoos covering his arms, would deliver the message gave it even more weight. If you knew nothing about him, his appearance wouldn’t necessarily suggest a personal connection to racial politics. But if he knew this basic truth and was sharing it with the masses, few doubted its authenticity.
Individuals or companies that are preparing for a conference, trade show, or speaking engagement and looking to make a lasting impression should be sure their message contains the three elements above.
Video is never as good as seeing it live, but here’s the clip: