In my first career I was a musician. As part of that work, I spent a good deal of time in different recording studios learning how to capture performances of our music. These experiences taught me the difference between writing a song and capturing a performance of a song.
Writing/performance studies has quite a history of thinking about writing and performance (e.g., check out Pollack, 1998; Fishman et al., 2005; Claycomb, 2008). It’s worth reading these (and many others) if this is a topic that interests you. What I do in the next few paragraphs is loosely reflect on my experiences recording music and compare those experiences to how I wrote Communicating Project Management.
Let me start by explaining what I mean when I write capturing a performance (also, see the Cs 2019 CFP, which is all about performance!). There are multiple ways any song can be performed. When we hear a song (on the radio, YouTube, Spotify, or iTunes), what I think we receive is a performance of a song. In the context of popular music or pop music as an industry, usually a group of folks (producers, artists, A&R) decided this performance was the “right” version of a song for the public to hear. That means there could be multiple versions that could exist (a good point a colleague of mine, Bill Hart-Davidson pointed out to me in a recent conversation).
When composing, I think there is a lot of value in separating your ideas from the performance of your ideas. Sometimes a song is great even though the performance of it is less effective. A great example of this is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”–a beautiful song that Jeff Buckley truly elevated when he covered it. Same song, but different performance. For me, Buckley’s version offers a more vulnerable and desperate take on the lyrics than Cohen’s.
Even today I see a song as an idea or a series of ideas, and the performance is what helps people to engage with those ideas. The performance harnesses and expels logics and emotions. It can be raw and feel uncontrolled. It can be implicit in tone and explicit in style. It can be carefully nuanced and oriented toward a specific audience. A performance is its own kind of expertise, linked in multiplicity to the ideas of the thing performed, but not exclusive to it. Rather, at least in the context of recording pop music (like I did), a performance is far more about responding to/being informed by the needs and expectations of an audience (which impacts and has ties to social/cultural, historical, economic, technological, etc. factors).
In this way, I saw performing the ideas in Communicating Project Management as comparable to recording pop music. The ideas in the book arrived a lot like how I write songs. That is, they came in parts, pieces, reflections, and eventually these were arranged into a general flow of concepts. While this kind of work was in conversation with research I’d done, I still had to make choices about how to explain (perform) what I learned so others could engage with the ideas (in hopes that others would pick up the conversation). Such performance decisions made up my writing and revision process.
An important point: not all my performances (as a musician or as a writer) were/are always good. Some were/may be less effective. I was lucky to have a writing/accountability group (Stacey Pigg and Stuart Blythe ftw) listen to my various performances (sometimes they read the same ideas performed in different ways like 10 times). Once I’d hear their thoughts, I’d go back and revise. Sometimes I threw entire performances away, but not the ideas.
In the end, my book ended up being somewhere around 70k – 75k words. I’d wager that I wrote closer to 125k to get out the performance that will publish later this month. There were lots of outtakes (seriously) that I stored in a document for potential future use. And some of those performances may eventually become the seed of a new project (e.g., one has become the impetus for some work I’m doing on teaching project management as facilitation).
How does thinking of your writing as performance benefit you? Because it separates ideas from the performance of ideas. For me, thinking of my writing as performed allowed me to ask questions about whether or not I was confused/perplexed by the ideas or by the way I was writing about my ideas, which made revising the work far easier for me to critically manage.