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  • Writer's pictureHava Horowitz

The Deadheads Taught Me Communication Skills

If you've ever seen the chaos of dancing bears and tie-dye come to town, you'll know the Deadheads have arrived. They're a subculture hard to ignore and perhaps harder to understand.

The Grateful Dead had an infamous allergy to recording radio-friendly hits. They avoided photoshoots and PR. And their frontman and guitarist was missing a middle finger. Despite their eccentric start, the group has built an unlikely, enduring community of dedicated followers.

Only 60 years behind schedule, I too became a Deadhead this year. I experienced the magic of Dead and Company this year thanks to generous friends who bear-hugged me into their adventures. Their swan song in SF last weekend marked the final show of their last ever tour.

What about this iconic band made their message and their music so impactful? And, more importantly, what can we draw from them as we develop and share our own messages with the world?

1.Fall in love with dynamics.

The Grateful Dead take you on an emotional journey.

You gladly sacrifice your eardrums for the thunderous experience of songs like “St. Stephen.” It won't be long before they turn all the way down.

Way down, towards tender tunes of lost love and pillowy lullabies like “Sugaree.” So unhurried, time permanently slows.

During these quiet moments, I’m lost in thought, memory, and tears - until WAM. Another funky groove hits.

We’re up-and-at-em again. without spoken word, the Grateful Dead master nonverbal communication. We receive information about the song not just from the music itself. The band's body language, nonverbal cues, eye contact, and tone of voice move us emotionally, too.

Their music has the power to make us stop and feel, then pushes us to move on.

They remind us that human emotion includes many types of communication. To improve your communication skills, you shouldn't aim to be the loudest, quietest, or most serious. Good communicators are those who know how to traverse the full spectrum of feelings and expression.

2. Pair the familiar with the unexpected to hook your audience.

Everyone knows the Dead is a jam band; each show is a unique creation from the same beloved ingredients.

Devoted fans predict which of the 1000 songs in their repertoire will make the set list and in what order.

Not only is the set different every time, but so are the songs. They introduce an iconic hook, before transforming it into something new entirely. By the time they return to the original riff, you often forget where it began.

Overtime, each song contains so many layers for listeners, asking: Who was I when I heard this? Who was I with? What did it mean to me then?

When we are creating something new, think about how to inspire confidence from your audience as you introduce unexpected elements.

Andy Warhol made a career of revisioning familiar household wares as art. In King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, he reimagined lyrics from "My Country 'Tis of Thee." “Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California," he shares. The familiar patriotic tune has a new message of hope.

3. Mission Critical: have fun.

As the band was beginning, Jerry Garcia said something that would change the course of the band forever. “Instead of making something that lasts forever, I think I’d rather have fun.”

Their commitment to fun influenced their professional life. They decided to double down as a touring, live band, rather than recording artists, tucked away from the unpredictable public.

Even though many songs center on difficult themes, the Grateful Dead never forgets about joy.

Whether that is through their signature playful colorful dancing bears or lyrics that ask flat-out “how does this song go?” They show us not to be so precious with our creations, and that huge movements, social revolutions indeed, can be pleasurable.

While we say bye for now to our beloved Grateful Dead. The lessons they’ve taught us clearly extend far beyond the stage.

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