We can learn a lot from the Piano Man.
I went to my first Billy Joel concert last weekend and in addition to a great show, it was a master class on how to connect with an audience.
No matter whether your audience connects with you in a stadium or in their Facebook feed, there’s a lot to be learned from what Billy Joel did on a warm Los Angeles night.
Here’s what I noticed watching Billy that can help you connect to your own tribe.
1. Share your backstory.
One of the first things Billy talked about on stage was his background — specifically his connection to Dodger Stadium, where he was performing for the first time in his life.
He talked about growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they left for Los Angeles. Then, he looked around at the stadium and joked, “So, this is where they ended up?”
He later shared a memory of coming to Dodgers Stadium in the 1970’s to watch Elton John perform and how surreal it was to now be on that same stage.
His Elton John story sent a message to the crowd that he’s not that different from them. That he’s stood where they stand now and remembers what it’s like to be the audience instead of the star. Deep down, we’re all the same.
Sharing your backstory is a great way to connect with your audience. It can be a foundational element to what you create and give your followers context to understand why it matters to you — and why it should matter to them.
2. Invite your audience to influence your work.
During the concert Billy would occasionally name two songs and ask the crowd to vote for which song they wanted him to play. Essentially, he crowdsourced the set list.
It’s more than just a fun gimmick.
It enables customization of the show, ensures each show is unique (different crowds may choose different songs), and gives the audience a sense of ownership of the experience.
By creating a way for the audience to influence the show, Billy makes them feel like an active participant in it. It’s not his show, it’s now our show.
The same can be applied to our own creations. We can bring our audience into the fold, enable them to influence our creations, and make them feel a part of it.
The more our audience feels a sense of ownership of our creations, the more likely they are to enjoy them, connect with them, and tell others about them.
3. Surprise your audience.
There were no shortage of memorable moments in the concert. But, you know what most people talked about afterwards? The surprises.
Two surprise guest appearances — one from Pink who joined Billy to sing “New York State of Mind” and one from Axl Rose who joined on “Big Shot” and to cover the AC/DC classic “Highway to Hell” (talk about a surprise!).
It’s no shock these guest appearances stuck with the audience because they were both surprises. And surprises get noticed.
The best way to connect with an audience is to give them the unexpected because the unexpected is what people talk about.
It’s one thing to satisfy our audience, but it’s another to surprise them.
4. Collaborate and share the spotlight.
The appearances by Pink and Axl Rose were more than just a cool surprise — they were also acts of generosity.
They demonstrated Billy’s willingness to share the attention and shine his spotlight on others for the benefit of the show and his audience.
He realizes that just because it’s a Billy Joel show doesn’t mean it has to be ONLY about Billy Joel. And he’s willing to put his audience above his ego.
This is important to remember when we try to connect with our own audience.
Just because our audience cares about us and what we create doesn’t mean they aren’t equally interested in the work of others.
We should share things we think our audience will enjoy. We should lend our platform to others we think deserve it.
Our goal should be to serve our audience, not to use our audience to serve ourselves.
5. Curate your influences.
People are interested in what we’re interested in and can be influenced by that which influences us.
We can’t be afraid to curate our influences and incorporate them into what we do. (I take this to heart on a weekly basis.)
That’s exactly what Billy Joel did through several cover songs he incorporated into his set. He played songs by Elton John, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles among others and the crowd ate it up.
We love seeing artists perform cover songs in part because we appreciate them sharing their influences with us.
We can find ways to do the same in our own work. When we share our influences with our audience, we draw our audience deeper into our world and strengthen our shared bond.
6. Embrace your mistakes.
At one point, about 30 seconds into a song, Billy realized it didn’t sound good so he stopped.
“That was an authentic rock n’ roll fuck up,” he said, noting that the mistake proved what they were doing was real and not some lip synched show.
Mistakes happen. That’s what makes our creations real and what makes them interesting.
Our mistakes humanize our creations and connect our audience to us. We must embrace them.
Nobody connects to perfect because nobody is perfect. So stop trying to be.
7. Play a long game.
Billy played for almost three hours to a packed Dodger Stadium crowd, despite having not released a pop album in more than 20 years.
It’s a testament to his staying power and the connection he’s built with his fans.
He’s done it by playing the long game — not looking for shortcuts or obsessing over instant fame.
He focused on his craft and delivering to his audience. As a result, his audience has stayed with him on a journey that’s lasted decades.
That’s the approach we must take with our own audience.
What will our relationship with them be in five years? 10? 20? How can we nourish it so fans come along for the ride?
If we focus on that instead of worrying about how we’re going to go viral, we’ll wind up a lot better for it in the end.
As Billy sings in the song “Vienna…”
“Slow down, you’re doing fine. You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.”