How listening to jazz helps you communicate your ideas

Last month, I was on a jazz course in France. I’m a pianist – I can play rhythm and accompany a singer, but soloing has always eluded me. Jazz solos seem so complex and dynamic – where to start?? How to play something meaningful (or even just pleasant)?? I felt like I was looking at the top of the mountain without a clue of how to get there.

I sat with the piano tutor – the fantastic Zoe Rahman – and she showed me how putting together simple phrases – working from a basic theme and using repetition – is more engaging, giving the listener a narrative that links it all together and guides the journey.

As I was thinking about this later that evening, it occurred to me how many parallels there are between jazz in general and communication in business. Here are my top 4:

  1. It's important to have a clear and compelling central theme, reiterating it in different ways
  2. It’s easy to lose your audience when you get technical: the technical bits should always link back to the narrative so that they feel relevant
  3. The best jazz players are great listeners. They don’t play a fixed message on autopilot – they’re highly responsive and, as a result, what they play is crafted to the moment
  4. The value of ‘space between the notes’ – how silence can frame a message and make it more powerful. (I’ll be doing it right when I no longer need to be told “don’t play so much!”)

What does this mean, for example, in a sales presentation?  Well, if you’re going to use Powerpoint slides, make sure there’s a strong story running throughout. The story should be clear and flow well enough that you can deliver it without looking at the slides, which should be uncluttered and favour graphics over text. When you present, don’t offload on the audience and don’t be afraid of pauses – they give more weight to what comes next.

If you want to hear what this sounds like in music, listen to this beautiful track, Do It The Hard Way, by Chet Baker. Pay attention especially to his vocal solo – it’s the perfect illustration. It's also on the album Chet Baker Sings.