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Five Things To Learn From Heston Blumenthal: Part 2

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

heston_featst_1

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 was unexpectedly 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.

Five Things To Learn From Heston Blumenthal: Part 1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Welcome back to 2010, folks.

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.

Part 2 tomorrow, or perhaps the day after.