Most things you need to know about staging large events can be learned from This Is Spinal Tap. What event producer hasn’t turned up on site to find some equivalent of a 18-inch high Stonehenge set, because someone misread the plans?
I had my own Spinal Tap moment the other week. For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s where the hyped-up band gets lost in the subterranean labyrinth on the way to the stage:
In my own version, hosting a presentation in a very large auditorium, I had a 45 minute lunch break to get AV crews sorted, panel briefed, run sheet understood etc. With 10 minutes to showtime, it was all under control. At that point, I decided the professional thing to do was take a pre-show visit to the gents’. I headed for the exit doors underneath the raked seating.
The convention centre has gigantic airlock doors out of Battlestar Galactica. You push a large button on the wall and the first door opens. You enter the airlock and push a second button. The next door opens and releases you into the netherworld corridor a level down from the lobby. Being an environmentally responsible convention centre, the lights were off. I stumbled around in the semi-darkness, and finally found the bathrooms. Locked. I pushed the button to get back into the auditorium. Nothing. One-way, no-entry doors.
Visions of hearing the MC intro me, and nobody can hear my door-pounding and screams through the airlock.
Finally, with about a minute to go, run a hundred metres up stairs and push my way through a queue of audience at the door. Get to stage huffing and puffing. “Hello Cleveland!”
After the show I learned there’s an executive-class bathroom just backstage. It’s the little things that get you.
What can you learn about presentations from a TV chef who puts vibrators into a giant, luminescent jelly to make it wiggle as it arrives at the table?
Quite a bit, as it turns out. Today, the second half of what presenters can learn from chef Heston Blumenthal.
3. A Sense Of Theatre
In the olden days, there was no TV or laptop to keep you amused in the evenings. Food, at least for the nobility, was the entertainment. Chefs in those days went out of their way to surprise and delight with grand reveals, illusions, and amusing tricks. Like this medieval gem of food theatre:
“The French would pluck a live chicken, brush the skin with saffron, wheat germ and drippings, then put the head under the belly, and rock the chicken to sleep. The live chicken was then served on a platter with two cooked chickens, carried to the table and the cooked chickens carved as the live one would wake up and run wildly around, to the merriment of the guests.”
Blumenthal delights in putting on a show, like the enormous pie containing four and twenty live pigeons that fly out on cue.
Your surroundings play a huge part in your perception of an experience, even without the magic tricks. A meal eaten overlooking the sea in France is going to taste better than the same meal eaten sitting on a bed in a freeway motel watching TV.
A presentation delivered with attention to the theatrical details will always work more effectively. Imagine that, like a medieval dinner, your audience had no TV to go home to, and that your presentation was their only source of stimulation that day. What would you do differently?
Create a sense of surprise. Dress the room up with mood lighting and interesting set pieces. Finish on a bang, rather than an ‘any questions then?‘ whimper. Leaving them wanting more. If you need help with this, money spent on a good event producer is invariably worth it.
4. Educate By Entertaining
Blumenthal spends a lot of time researching the history books for ideas. Who knew that the Victorians loved nothing more than getting blasted on laudanum, cocaine, and hallucinogenic wormwood liquor? Or that they invented the vibrator, for the purposes of some pretty dubious female therapy? Presented in the right way, history becomes fascinating.
After watching the show, you’re not only entertained, but a little bit better educated. Regrettably, this clip leaves out the scene where they take prototype jellies down to the sex shop to see which vibrator delivers the goods:
And that’s something to aim for as a presenter: to have people leave the room feeling a little bit more intelligent and educated than they were before. Saying, ‘you know, that wasunexpectedly interesting.’ The trick is to tell relevant stories that bring your message to life, not just to speak a list of facts.
5. Love Your Subject
You can tell by the delirious expressions on Blumenthal and his kitchen team when they’re experimenting with covering food with explosive gun cotton, or building an ejaculating, Caligula-inspired dessert, that they genuinely love what they’re doing. It comes across in everything they do. Just talking about it makes their eyes light up.
Your subject might not be as interesting as that, but if you really like what you’re doing, it shows. Your energy rubs off on the audience, and they’ll share your enthusiasm. If you can’t summon up gleeful enthusiasm for your subject, that’s probably a clear sign you should consider changing jobs.
Been away from the blog longer than expected, but that’s probably a good thing.
At this time of year I always feel sorry for Americans, who only get about three days leave a year. Holiday deprivation can often lead to a blinkered, captive-animal approach to work, shying away from any idea or technique that breaks the templated approach.
And there are few forms of communication as templated as the TV cooking show. An endless parade of chirpy, chatty chefs building their personal brands and cookbook franchises, churning out the same old char-grilled beef fillet drizzled with a balsamic reduction of pan juices etc etc, ‘plated’ up with a wink and a flash of whitened teeth.
All the food’s been done a million times before. There’s no sense of wonder, magic, or even of a special occasion.
Then there’s Heston Blumenthal. Over summer his Heston’s Feasts popped up amid the other shows like a centaur in a pet shop.
The Art Of Messing With Your Mind
Blumenthal, at his UK restaurant The Fat Duck, has taken food to places that few others have dared, or been able to. His work combines science lab techniques, a love of theatrics, and painstaking historical research into recipes from ye olden days. His specialty is messing with your mind using flavours and ingredients presented in forms that make you expect something else: a realistic looking fruit platter that’s actually made from different meats, snail porridge, or edible candles and cutlery.
On each episode of his TV show, he creates a banquet from a different era, and serves it up to half a dozen nervous celebrity-types. It’s absolutely riveting television, full of dangerously mad ideas and terrifying ingredients.
It should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the event industry, and anyone who’s involved in making presentations will learn something useful.
Blumenthal’s fundamental challenge is to get a reluctant table of diners to overcome their fears and preconceptions in order to experience something wonderful. Anyone in advertising will recognise this challenge, standing in a boardroom trying to persuade six nervous people that your strange ideas might actually be good for them, if they’d only try one.
Here are five things that you, the presenter, can learn from Heston Blumenthal.
1. Aim High, Take Risks
Blumenthal is ambitious in his plans for each of the banquets: he wants to create the greatest dining experience of his guests’ life. He’s obsessively driven by that aim, and it comes across in his painstaking attention to detail.
To create an experience like no other, he takes a lot of risks, feeding his guests brains, testicles, grasshoppers and lampreys in various disguises, having faith that the rewards will outweigh the risks. In the end, some of them aren’t major hits. But when one hits the bullseye, you can see the guests eyeballs rotating in amazement and pleasure.
Almost all presentations are put together in the hope of creating as little impression as possible, because that means the lowest chance of any embarrassing mistake or controversy. And that’s fine if your sole aim is to keep your current job.
If you want to achieve greatness, you’re going to have to go out on a limb and try a few things that others are afraid to do.
2. Work With All The Senses
When you’re eating, taste and smell are the basic building blocks of the experience. Blumenthal spends a lot of time exploring how the other senses can color your perceptions. Like a Victorian era ‘edible garden’, with deep-fried crunchy insects, served with the smell of grass and the sound of a lawn mower. Or serving sashimi with a set of earphones playing squawking seagulls.
Likewise, most presenters believe their experience is limited to audio and visual. Why not get your audience touching things, playing with your new product? Theatrical smoke machines can produce different fragrances like vanilla, mint, or coconut. You could use atmospheric sound effects that can take their minds to another place.
Blumenthal describes memory as the most powerful sense, where “the triggers from our past create the most intense flavors of all.” Smell and sound can evoke this at a far more powerful level than words and images. It’s not as easy to stage as a slide show, and you can’t do it for the average boardroom presentations, but for a larger event it’ll create lasting memories.
If you watch any speaker long enough, you notice interesting patterns in their behavior.
Here’s Annabel Crabb’s lovely analysis of Kevin Rudd’s range of hand gestures, including the ‘Dead Spider’,'Bidding For Erotic Drawings At Sotheby’s’, and my favorite, ‘Trying To Catch Evasive Frog With Upturned Pint Glass’.
Victoria Beckham has reportedly taken acting and elocution lessons so she will come across as ‘more human’ when she steps into Paula Abdul’s seat on American Idol.
And she shouldn’t be mocked for this: actors spend lots of time with vocal coaches, and that’s why they’re interesting to watch on the screen. Some people have it naturally, others need more work.
Barack Obama is human, Kevin Rudd… well, you can practically hear the whirring of the tiny servo-motors and sophisticated vocal synthesis circuits that make his performances so reasonably human-like.
Naturalness is a desirable quality in your presentations, but it’s hard to do in an environment as unnatural as the stage. Here are five quick tips to help you come across as more human.
1. Open With A Story About Yourself
Humans have weaknesses, and we have a subconscious distrust of people who come across as too perfect. So open with a story that opens a little window into you, the person, rather than you, the Human Resources Director or whatever your title might be. Thanks to social media, the whole world is broadcasting its personal life into the public arena, and sharing a little of it helps breaks the ice. Obviously it’s important to keep it relevant. ‘Here are some photos of my new baby niece’ won’t cut it.
But if someone can make a bestselling book and movie out of life lessons they learned from their Labrador, you can draw on your adventures with your family, dog, salamander, neighbors or clients for a few interesting anecdotes that will lighten up your subject.
2. Vary Your Vocal Tone
Flat, monotone delivery robs your delivery of naturalness and makes you come across like a corporate robot. Concentrate on varying your tone up and down. The secondary benefit of this is that the effort of doing it shows in your face, giving you more energy and a wider range of facial expressions. Watch TV presenters and see how they vary tone and pace.
3. Break The Rhythm
Normal human communication goes back and forth randomly. Speeches tend to follow a rigid routine: talk, click, talk, click, end, any questions? Pause from time to time, and ask the audience questions. Create a conversation rather than a broadcast. It’ll break you away from your pre-prepared answers and give things a more relaxed feel.
4. Don’t Fear Contractions
Some speakers come across like they’re reading a letter from a lawyer, because they believe that contractions sound unprofessional. So they say ‘We could not believe what we had seen’, rather than ‘We couldn’t believe what we’d seen’, which is how you’d normally say it. Cautionary note - this doesn’t extend to dropping your g’s, as in ‘We’re fixin’ to deliver them cost cuttin’ initiatives’.
5. Leave The Lectern
Audiences judge naturalness the same way nature does: by watching, listening, and sniffing the breeze. They look for signs of openness, like open palms, eye contact, smiles, a confident stance. Lecterns block all of that from view, leaving you as just a head poking up out of a box. If you want to come across as more human, loosen that death-grip on the lectern and come out where they can see you. That’s why experienced reality show judges rise up out of their chair when they want to get their point across.
I wouldn’t suggest you go this far, though, all that noise and teeth-baring can be seen as a threat in the animal kingdom or corporate world.
Edward de Bono ponders the human need for PowerPoint.
I’ve never been chased down the street by an angry lynch mob of AV technicians before, bent on stringing me up from a lamp post with multicore cable, wrists and ankles securely gaffer-taped together. But I think that’s what’s going to happen when they read this.
The Rules of Presentation
Presentations have rules, just like everything else.
You have to learn the rules. Then sometimes, it helps to just ignore every damn one of them, just as Picasso binned his freakish realistic portrait skills and decided that eyes don’t have to be on either side of the nose.
Consider Edward de Bono. He’s the man who invented the term ‘lateral thinking’, long before it became a conference cliché (“Hey, let’s all think outside the box. No, wait, we’re air traffic controllers, let’s not.”).
He’s written lots of best-selling books on how to think better, sometimes with the aid of colored hats.
Presenting in a parallel universe
De Bono is a highly sought-after presenter. And he operates in a parallel presentation universe, where all the conventional ideas of what makes a good speaker are turned upside down.
Stand at the front of the stage, engaging with your audience? Not for de Bono, who sits next his overhead projector, sideways to the audience.
Next to his what, you say? Yes, the overhead, curse of AV technicians the world over, an embarrassing teacher-style medium you all thought was dead.
Overheads: Time for a Comeback?
For those with a long memory, early PowerPoint was hailed as a great, professional-looking alternative to scratchy overhead projector images. It’ll help you stand out, people said.
Now that everyone uses it, PowerPoint has the stand-out value of a white business shirt. And Mr de Bono is left looking… quite interesting.
Drawings are Appealing, Even Bad Ones.
Watch him in action. His little squiggly drawings work in a way that sterile PowerPoint can’t. And bear in mind that he can’t draw any better than you or I. But we know what a stick figure means.
And because nobody else does it, hand-drawn stuff stands out. It feels warm, human and individual when everything else is cold, electronic and mass produced. There’s a sense of occasion, because no two hand-drawn presentations are alike.
Handwriting Is Cool
When you open the mail, which envelope gets you more excited? The laser-addressed, window envelope one or the handwritten one? Handwriting is an attractive medium because it feels personal and there isn’t much of it about these days.
Staying On Track
Best of all, it’s easy for the audience to stay on track. With PowerPoint, the audience is never sure where to look unless you do a lot of laser pointing.
For de Bono’s audience, it’s easy to follow his train of thought, because it’s right where the pen is, emerging in front of your eyes, even if it’s in a scruffy fashion.
Great Idea! Should I Use it For My Next Presentation?
Maybe not. Don’t present your company’s financial update this way, or you’ll look like you’re making it up as you go. And you’re not doing that, are you? OK, don’t answer that.
Plus de Bono’s achievements allow him to get away with being a bit eccentric with his presentation methods.
But if you’re doing a smaller, less formal presentation, perhaps on a subject involving some kind of human behavior, get a whiteboard or overhead and give drawing a try. You might engage them on levels you’d never expect.
Presentations are often about trying to get people to change their thinking or behavior. To try a new way of doing things. To see a subject through fresh eyes.
Change is a tricky thing to achieve, because most people over 25 are very set in their ways and fear change more than spiders.
But what about yourself? Are you trying to persuade people to change something, while everything about your presentation follows the same tried, true and tedious techniques that audiences have been enduring all their lives?
Maybe it’s time to question everything you do. Just because most people follow a rigid rule book, why should you?
With that in mind, here’s 10 questions you should ask yourself before you put together another perfectly average presentation. We’re not suggesting that these are the ideal answers to a winning presentation, the idea is to suggest that it’s possible to break the routine a bit.
1. Why do you have to stand up the front? Why not walk down into the audience, get them to gather their chairs around you, and talk like you’re around a campfire?
2. Why not do a 5 minute speech and a 25 minute Q&A instead of the other way around?
3. Why not hand-write all your graphics with a felt-tip pen, illustrate them with your own childish, colored-in drawings, scan them and put them up on the screen to add some real, memorable personality instead of slick’n’predictable PowerPoint?
4. Why not do your presentation in the form of an on-screen puzzle they all have to solve, like a crossword made up of your key topic words or a something?
5. If it’s a small audience, why not take them for a walk outside and talk to them as you go?
6. Why not videotape yourself at work for a month – put a camera in the corner on a tripod and use a remote control - as you go through the real-life situations that form the basis of your presentation. Difficult phone calls, meetings, hallway chat, the rougher the better. Anyone can edit now, in a good-enough fashion - cut together short bursts of material that illustrate your points. It breaks up the routine and it shows you’re talking from real experience.
7. Why not put a large lounge chair on the front of the stage and talk to them from that, like a presidential wartime address? I suppose you can’t smoke a pipe these days, but would that make you look thoughtful?
8. Why not set your whole presentation to music, like a documentary narrator?
9. Why not restrict yourself to one word per slide, big enough to fill the whole screen?
10. Why not take a handycam, walk down the street and ask total strangers questions about your topic? If their answers are smart, it’s good material to illustrate your points. If they’re stupid, it’s good for a laugh and makes your audience feel smarter.
You can always find reasons not to change anything. There might be a Vice-President of Something or Other in the audience.
There might be a hundred other speakers and the meeting planner will kill you if you mess with their processes. But don’t let that scare you into eternal conformity.
Start gently. Maybe use a font other than Arial. Then gradually increase the size of the rules you break. It’s OK. You won’t go to jail, and you’ll jolt your audience into paying attention.
Not because I didn’t think this sort of thing went on in fast food outlets.
But it shattered my innocent Australian preconceptions of what North Carolinians were capable of. I’ve met a few of them, and my brother-in-law is one. They are the world champions of good manners and considerate behavior. Aside from these two rogue pizza hillbillies, North Carolinians can be trusted around food preparation.
Except for their scary love of deep-fried Thanksgiving turkeys.
But you didn’t come here for flammable turkey alerts, so let’s consider the swift response of the Dominos Corporation CEO Patrick Doyle.
Good Point 1: Quick Response
They got out there and dealt with it quickly. A lot of large companies go into denial mode until it builds up into a larger disaster than it need have been.
Good Point 2: Choice of Media
Nice work to actually use YouTube, the source of all the trouble, to get the message out there, rather than the usual press release approach. The script was pretty honest and free of the usual lawyer-driven evasion words, giving you a sense of the trouble the scandal has caused for innocent small business operators and their staff. It put a human face on the damage, rather than just a giant corporation that people won’t feel sorry for.
The guy seemed genuine, though obviously not a born performer. But that’s OK, it would have been horrible to see a glossed-up professional presenter deliver the message on Domino’s behalf. You want to see the Big Cheese take personal responsibility.
Not-So-Good Point: No Eye Contact
As with any presentation, getting a single point wrong can really lower its effectiveness. In this case, it’s his just-off-camera gaze. Eye contact is essential for any kind of ‘trust me’ message, whether it’s in person, on the stage, or on camera.
It isn’t even the proper ‘talking to an interviewer off camera’ angle, although that would also have been wrong for this. It has a disorienting, ‘are you looking at me or not?’ sort of feel to it.
He’s obviously reading a script, but that’s no excuse. On-camera teleprompters are simple and affordable, allowing you to look down the lens in convincing newsreader fashion.
Shame to mark it down for that one error, but overall, a positive exercise for Dominos in a difficult situation.
So we were looking at the many parallels between the communication styles of Anthony Robbins and Adolf Hitler.
Just to reiterate the last post, we’re not suggesting that the two have anything in common other than supreme skill in working a large number of people into an emotionally-charged state. I think it’s instructive to compare people who use their talents for good versus evil ends. Here’s part 2:
6. Long, Long Speeches
Robbins doesn’t believe in short presentations. In the video above, he worries that he only has four hours rather than his usual 50+. Any less than that, he says, “while you might retain what you hear intellectually, you’ve got the notes, but you don’t follow through.” Fair point – most of us have a filing cabinet full of conference folders, unopened since the day we made the notes.
Likewise, Hitler liked a marathon speech. He learned his craft in the beer halls, talking to groups of 2000 of the party faithful. He would start calm and friendly, delivering rational facts. Around the two hour mark he would move into the full ranting and raving performance. This was timed to suit the changing mood of the audience as the effects of the beer kicked in. For this, we must give Robbins extra credit for getting results in a beer-free environment.
7. Sets That Magnify Perception
Hitler was obsessed with stage management. He demanded stage sets to reflect his grandiose aspirations, with epic banners, eagles and so on. Once he attained power, he built his own venues, vast arenas designed by Albert Speer to evoke the might and power of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’. They were even designed to look good as they became ruins far in the future.
Robbins doesn’t build his own venues, but his sets are impressively designed to convey that this is a major occasion. His entry to the stage is carefully managed, rock star style, to build up the suspense in the audience. He understands that delivering a speech in front of a standard black drape wall just isn’t the same.
8. Slightly Higher Pitched Vocal Tone
Moving the tone of your voice up a little from its normal relaxed state conveys a sense of urgency and internal passion. Both speakers use it to convey the depths of their feeling, and create a sense that you, the audience, need to take urgent action.
9. Keen Study of Audience Psychology
Robbins speeches are full of psychological references. Not being a psychologist, I can’t judge how accurate they are, but when I hear lots of lines beginning with “Extensive research has shown…”, it makes my marketing antennae tingle.
Hitler, too, was a keen student of things psychological. He was particularly interested in mesmerism, and employed a voice trainer who had studied hypnosis. He felt that once you got the audience into a certain ‘state’ – a favorite Robbins word – they would be more willing to act on his rhetoric.
10. Raw Emotion
Both speakers understand that rational facts sound good, and make the audience nod their heads in agreement, but facts won’t make people change their behavior. If they did, nobody would smoke. A transformational speech is less about the words as how it makes them feel.
You need emotion when you’re asking people to do things like selling cell phones in a mall that has twelve other cell phone shops. If you sat down and considered it logically for a few moments, you’d pack up and go home. Emotion creates action, and all the elements we’ve listed above create a powerful set of emotional triggers.
As bad as it gets: Hitler appeals to the kids in a purpose built arena (from Triumph of the Will).
Would you like to learn the secret presentation techniques of Anthony Robbins, the most renowned and highly-paid speaker in the world?
You bet you do.
To fully understand these techniques, you have to go back a little further, to the guy who wrote the rules on stadium-scale crowd motivation. A man who got ‘em to not only listen to his message, but also act on it, always a much tougher task.
That guy was renowned, errr… National Socialist dictator A. Hitler.
Hitler pioneered pretty much every modern-day live motivation technique except PowerPoint. He was, regrettably, an absolute master at it. And not through natural giftedness, but through decades of hard work and practice.
An Anthony Robbins speech is a master class of Hitler techniques from start to finish.
OK, OK, calm down. I’m not saying Anthony Robbins is an evil genocidal maniac. He seems like a perfectly reasonable guy.
And while Hitler was about as bad a specimen as the human race has produced so far, it’s worth studying just how he managed to persuade huge numbers of ordinary people to follow him down that path. What possible combination of words could make the average Johann Citizen turn on their own neighbors with such apparent enthusiasm?
The Hitler and Robbins approach takes presentation perfectionism to a level that few bother to do, managing every tiny detail of the speech to be as effective as humanly possible - script, sound, appearance, setting, pacing, and a lot more.
Setting aside the choice of using your speaking powers for good or evil, there’s a lot to be learned from both.
Here’s Part 1 of the Robbins/Hitler Top 10 Presentation Secrets.
1. Get Them Up On Their Feet
As Robbins says, passive audiences don’t retain information. They won’t go into battle, literally or in a real estate sales role, if they’re sitting back in their chairs. Both speakers get the audience on their feet and yelling. A few hours of massed footstomping takes the audience to a different emotional place, particularly when combined with:
2. Powerful Music
Hitler blasted his audiences with hours of loud music, much of it original material written in a stirring martial style by sympathetic composers. Atmosphere and continuity was all carefully planned: sombre minor keys were avoided, and major key music was arranged so successive pieces were no more than a couple of keys apart. Success is all in the details, people.
Robbins music is equally loud and relentless, though more your C’N’C Music Factory’s We’ve Got the Power school of 90’s corporate anthems.
3. Extravagant (But Well-Planned) Hand Gestures
Watch the enormous Robbins hands in action. There’s the two clenched fists of exhilaration in front of the chest, a move taken to new heights by Tom Cruise on Oprah. There’s the open outstretched hands of friendship. There’s the chopping of the rigid hand into the other palm to beat out the rhythm of a sentence. All building up the drama.
Hitler, too, spent hours practicing his stage moves in front of the mirror. People see movie clips of him with flailing arms and think: what a rabid nutcase. But he’d spend the first couple of hours (yes, hours!) in a calmer, Herr Reasonable mode, gradually working up to the dramatic crescendo. To his audience, the lectern-bashing made perfect sense by the time he got there. Compare both sets of hands in the two video clips below.
4. Audience Fist Pumping
The repetition of getting people to punch the air keeps them energized and creates a sense of shared purpose, whether it’s the classic Sieg Heil salute or the constant ‘Say Aye’ exhortations of Robbins.
5. Advanced Technology
Hitler was one of the first politicians to use the new technology of the time – public address systems and floodlights. In the 30’s, the spectacle of one man enthralling a stadium full of people must have created something of a God-like impression.
An audio technician I know set up a bunch of Anthony Robbins shows. He told me that part of the audio specification was an enormous arsenal of military-strength sub-bass speakers underneath the stage. When Robbins clapped his fist to his chest, just close enough to his radio mic*, it sounded like someone swinging a wrecking ball onto the Statue of Liberty. Subconsciously, the audience thought: Whoah - he’s an enormous man of steel!
Here’s some viewing for you. For presentation analysis only, OK? Not to suggest that Hitler and Robbins have anything else in common.
Part 2 later in the week, unless angry mobs storm my office and burn my laptop.
*Yes, technical buffs, this was before he started using headset mics.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.