You’ve heard it a million times. “Timing is everything.” In the Western world, and most often in business, we tend to think in a linear fashion, in sequence. We process items from A to B to C to get to our intended destination. Yet in other realms, like music or film for example, timing is often used in seemingly random and arbitrary ways to create a dramatic effect. But don’t be fooled.
There are many delicate, deft uses of timing in entertainment, and a myriad of words to describe them. Pacing, tempo, slow-motion, fading, pause, freeze-frame, fast-forward, momentum, crescendo, cadence, and rhythm are a few of many techniques. While many words can describe the ways timing is used to create drama and impact, no one has better used them or invented new ones like the late Michael Jackson, the undisputed King of Pop. Business professionals should take note.
One of the most epic shows ever performed by Michael was the History Tour performed 15 years ago at Munich’s Olympic stadium with a crowd of over 100,000 fans. The show was choreographed by Kenny Ortega, the genius behind many opening shows for the Olympics, Madonna tours, and High School Musical’s Step Up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qF3MO0sCMP0
The show begins as an illusion. In other-worldly fashion, Michael appears on the Jumbotron screen strapped inside a space orbiter. En route to Mother Earth from a faraway galaxy, Michael passes through iconic images and sound bites such as Martin Luther King Jr., Caesars Palace, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Sistine Chapel. Once landed on stage, the King emerges from the orbiter in a Tron-like space suit to the screams of a crazed audience. The longer Michael pauses, the more deafening the applause becomes.
Finally, the opening song, so aptly chosen is Scream.
Consider the peculiar but profoundly powerful first words of the show:
Next there are perfectly timed explosions followed by louder screams. Blaring sirens, more screams, fire effects, and chaos. The energy is nearly overwhelming.
About eight and a half minutes into the performance screaming gives way to ghoulish, high stepping Gestapo storm-troopers marching to the rhythm of drill sergeant MJ’s hate-provoking epithets such as “skin head, dead head” whilst flanked by Michael’s team of riot gear-clad dancers.
At 11 minutes 30 seconds we’re presented with the show’s theme—HIStory—with subtle relief from the chaos in the form of Miss Liberty’s flaming torch paired with a flowing American flag. The dancers downshift to super-slow motion for effect, as if to freeze frame the show’s redemptive take-away: liberty and freedom for all.
Curiously, the fans aren’t presented with any of the pop icon’s classics until 14:30 minutes into show.
How do we know?
Being the consummate audience connector, MJ simply asks his 100,000 zealots: “Do you want to be starting something?” The legendary music again takes flight into the stratosphere, this time with the husky and larger than life dancers sporting flat-black unitards and burly boots, strikingly juxtaposed against the shiny gold, lighter-than-air Michael.
But how much “Don’t stop till you get enough” intensity can a fan take? At exactly 21 minutes, MJ deftly slides into the lush, symphonic song, Stranger In Moscow (my personal favorite).
The tune is intended to slow things way down so the fans (and performers) can rest and breathe in the magic. True to his nano-second timed sensibilities, the sultry sway of lush strings and synthesizers morphs violently into Smooth Criminal. So erupts the rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fire followed by the suspenseful pause of a stretched note held tight by the violins, which then transitions into a West Side Story style entrance of 1930’s era gangsters dancing to the staccato chorus of “Annie are you ok?” The back beat is a classic treatment of heart-pounding solo percussion and bass riffs. The timing is yet again deliberate and palpable; with the slow motion side-winding moon walkers and stiff-bodied dancers listing like ironing boards as their noses nearly touch the stage. Brilliant.
Then it happens, the first of several climaxes in the set. Around an hour into the show we witness one of the finest dance sequences in HIStory. Set to the iconic beat of Billy Jean, there’s no music, no props, no back-up singers or dancers. Just the King of Pop alone, silhouetted by a sliding 90 degree vertical spotlight from on high trained on his every move.
Then finally, the moment arrives: Thriller. And the rest is…HIStory.
So how does all this relate to business?
Timing truly is everything, and is as critical for the business professional as for the entertainer. To make perfect, you must practice perfect, and practice takes time. MJ is a classic example of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier. Yes, Michael was gifted beyond human ability, but he was also a staunch believer in the theory of 10,000 hours, times two. You don’t become the King of Pop or king of anything without practicing more than your peers, unless you’re a prince by default, like Prince William.
The next time you need to apply intricate timing to an important business task or event, ask yourself a few questions. How long should this presentation be? When should I close this deal? When should I stop talking and speak up? When should I move on? When should I buy…sell? When should I walk away?
Timing doesn’t just apply to your business, to PowerPoint presentations or cold-calling. It also applies at home, on the tennis court, the kitchen and even in the bedroom.
OK, maybe timing isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. We could all likely write a book on the times our timing was bad (think stock purchases, speeding past a highway patrol officer, asking a dumb question). However, we could also write another book just as thick on moments of perfect, providential timing (think parking spots, the haul we made at the One Day Only sale, that first date).