Required Reading: How To Get Your Point Across In 30 Seconds Or Less

The following article was written for, The Contemporary A Cappella Society. It can be viewed on their site at

Stop me if you’ve ever been in one of the following situations:

Your group cuts off the song you’re currently rehearsing. You look around, chagrined as you realize that the group leader has opened the floor to discussion on thoughts of how the song was sounding.  As per usual, on of the tenors is talking and talking and talking, but not giving any concrete suggestions on how to improve the sound. Eventually no one is listening and the MD says “OK, cool, let’s give that a shot.” The song restarts, sounding exactly the same.

Let’s try another: You’re the Musical Director of the group. You are working on a new song which involved a sforzando piano crescendo on an “ooo” into a group of staccato “dits”. For some reason, you’ve told this to the altos fifty times, but they’re still just singing the “ooo” mezzo-forte and the “dits” a little too legato for your taste.

Still doesn’t sound familiar? One more: You receive another email which is longer than this article, just explaining the gigs you have in the next two months. Even though your group will meet many times before these gigs and many of the decisions have been made for these gigs, the email is riddled with inside jokes, comments about unrelated subjects, and directions to rehearsal the next day. You are either more confused after reading the email, or simply do not read it at all.

The power of effective communication is often strongly underplayed.  I recently read Milo Frank’s How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less and think you should too! Before you go out and buy the book, let’s break down how you can start becoming more effective in your communicating right now!

1. Know what you want to say. The first part of effective communication is knowing what you’re trying to communicate. Let’s look at example one. While we all know and despise that guy, his main problem is probably communication. He knows that something doesn’t sound right with the pass you just sung, but doesn’t know what it is. Instead of just saying “that sounded funny”, he rambles on, unable to articulate his ideas, because at the heart of it, he doesn’t know what he’s trying to say in the first place! In this case, it would be much better if he would have a specific and focused idea, giving the song more energy, trying to sing it with better turning, or adding dynamics. If you can’t condense what you want to say into a sentence or so, you probably don’t know what it is yourself.

2. Know who you’re talking to.
 You should realize your audience will probably want something out of the interaction as well. In rehearsal, a group wants its leader to be concise and effective – that way they can go about the rest of their day, whether it’s getting a pizza or finishing a movie. In the studio, the person performing wants a producer who can tease out the best performance in the least number of takes.

If you’re trying to accomplish a specific task, make sure you’re addressing the correct person. If someone was trying to set up a gig, you would direct them to the group’s business manager, not their historian, right? Most groups have executive boards in place for a reason. It’s because work is easier when it is delegated and specialized. Use that to your group’s advantage. If you have a musical idea you’d like incorporated, talk to your MD.

3. Find the right approach. If we’ve covered the what you’re saying and the who you’re saying it to, this is the how you will say it. In example two, you would only really get the gist of what the MD was trying to communicate if you had formal musical training. If your group is a co-ed collegiate group, and this is the first musical thing your altos have done since middle school, you might want to re-think your description of the intended dynamics (or volume level perhaps?) On the flip side, if all of your altos were all music students or were taking chamber choir as an elective, the way it was phrased above might be the perfect approach.

An area that many acapeople find themselves in a position where approach is key is in small coaching sessions, like a rehearsal or in the studio. While the MD or producer may know how they want their singers to perform, they need to be able to effectively let their singers in on it. The direct approach of “sing it in tune, with accurate pitches, rhythms, dynamics, intensity, and facial expressions” doesn’t work too well often, but that’s OK! This is where all the fun tricks like “the Halloween ooo” or leaning on consonants more while singing large leaps help. That’s right – your high school choir teacher wasn’t just being weird, rather she was just using a non-direct approach!

3a. The hook is an essential and crucial part of finding your right approach, especially if you’re communicating via email or to an unfamiliar group. As it says in Frank’s book, “The attention span of the average individual is 30 seconds.” If you don’t capture your audience’s attention immediately, you’re probably not going to have any real impact. I tried luring you into this article with a few likely scenarios of poor communication. The idea was you would say to yourself “Ugh, I know exactly what that guy means! Maybe he can help me if I read on…” See what I did there?

4. Demand a reaction or call to action.
 Now that you’ve made such an effort crafting the perfect way to get your points across, make sure your audience does something with it. If you’re writing an email about what your group will wear at your next gig, inspire direct and concise feedback with something like “I believe we should wear black with a red accent, as it’s all the rage. If you have another suggestion, feel free to email it in response to this email before our next rehearsal (Tuesday), where we will have a quick vote.” If you don’t call for an action, your message will surely get lost.

Bonus tips:
Paint a picture.
 If there’s one thing I love to do when I’m wearing my producer hat is to think up really funky imagery to help my singers get a particular sound. “Now try that once more, but like you’re a robot who is shorting out because I just spilt a glass of water on you!” or “Take that again, but now try it like you were Nicki Minaj’s big ol’ booty, bouncing from note to note.” Metaphors and similes can be extremely helpful, effective, and fun; just make sure you’re using them as a tool to assist and reinforce your main point and not an excuse to mess around.

Be congruent with your message. You should feel confident and sure of what you’re saying in and out of rehearsals. To reinforce how you feel, you should also act, dress, and deliver with that same confidence. Eye contact and body language are essential. If you’re a business leader and want people to keep off their phones during rehearsal, you had better make sure yours is the first one that is silenced.

On emailing. Click the link. Go on. It’s short, to the point, and concise. Even if you don’t follow that rule strictly, it’s good to reflect on it. Can you say you pay much attention to emails with more than five sentences? I don’t.

While I summarized some of the main point in Milo Frank’s book, I definitely advise you to pick up a copy and read through it quickly. Not only will it help you participate effectively in a cappella, but it will help you operate as a more effective human being. It will be one of the best $3.50 you’ve spent in a while.


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