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.
When most companies plan an event, they’re focused on the ‘how?‘ rather than the ‘why?‘
So there are endless meetings about what brand of wine to serve, and whether the delegates should be arranged theatre style or classroom style. Where should the off-site dinner be?
These are all important questions, but few people actually give much thought to why they’re having the meeting in the first place. Exactly what results are your organisation expecting, other than a feel-good round of applause at the end?
Giving thought to the ‘why’ has profound effects on the style of your meeting. Is the standard ’speeches & lunch’ model of meeting the right way to reach your communication goals?
Here’s an article I wrote on the subject for the latest issue of MICE.net magazine. It uses one of those clever virtual magazine viewers, so go here, then go to page 18.
For years, people in black clothes and matching square-frame glasses have told you that font choice is important for successful communication.
But how important are fonts, really? Maybe that’s just the designer’s opinion, rather than a scientifically proven fact. After all, communication is fertile territory for pseudo-science and wrong conclusions from legitimate research.
As it turns out, scientists have researched it, and found that fonts play a decisive role in how your audience perceives your message. And more importantly, how likely they are to act on it.
In this useful article in The Psychologist, studies have shown that fonts “influence how fluently new information can be processed. The resulting feeling of ease or difficulty, in turn, informs a wide variety of judgements, from judgements of effort to to judgements of familiarity, truth, risk and beauty.”
One example studies people who were considering a new exercise program, and wondering how much pain was in store. They were given two sets of printed exercise instructions, identical except for the font.
Asked to estimate how long it would take to do the routine, they estimated an average 8.2 minutes when reading instructions printed in Arial. Given the same instructions in a complex, harder-to-read font, they estimated it would take 15.1 minutes.
They list lots more studies in which the choice of font has a dramatic effect on how people respond to new information. If your job involves getting people to overcome their fears and act on new information, you know how hard it can be.
So check those fonts and make sure they’re easy to read, because that makes them non-threatening at a subconscious level.
By the way, article uncovered via @ChasLicc . Who would have thought that the wackiest Chaser prankster of them all would provide an endless stream of Twitter links to fascinating, thought-provoking information, much of it of a decidedly non-wacky nature? The man must never sleep.
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.
Westpac has rightly taken a lot of stick for its animated presentation on why they’ve raised mortgage rates beyond everyone else.
The overall idea is a good one - explain to confused customers what’s been happening with the money supply over the last year. And the simplicity of its animated figures might have worked well with a better thought-out message, even though the people have been taken directly off the doors of ladies’ and gents’ public bathrooms.
Between concept and delivery, the presentation ran way off the rails and ended up as something a 10-year-old would find incredibly patronising.
Lessons for presenters from this ongoing PR trauma:
Choose Your Analogies Carefully
If you’re talking about a high-commitment product like a 25 year mortgage, it’s wrong to compare it to something as trivial as a snack, even if the comparison works in terms of pure logic. It makes your audience feel that you’re too big and out of touch to understand their pain.
Don’t Underestimate the Intelligence of Your Audience
The whole tone of the speaker and the script suggests someone talking to children. Your audience might know less about the subject than you do, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Beware of using a tone that suggests you’re talking to simpletons, or they’ll turn against you fast.
A bit of editing would have helped, too: “Once upon a time, there were big lush fields of banana crops.”
Understand People’s Preconceptions of You
People will hold certain beliefs about you and your company before you open your mouth. You need to know what those beliefs are, because that context affects your whole message. If you’re from a family-oriented company like McDonalds, you have to present in a style that matches their family values. If you know you’re starting with negative preconceptions, you can pleasantly surprise them as ‘the bank executive who was unexpectedly warm and human’ or ‘the IT department head who was amazingly open to suggestions from other departments’.
Given the general public perception of banks, perhaps ‘Being popular is not our focus’ wasn’t the best choice of words.
Get Someone Else To Check Your Material
When you’re immersed in your own subject, you can assume that everyone else feels the same way. And material that makes perfect sense to you might not work for everyone else. So show your script and visuals to an outsider and see if there’s anything in there that makes them scratch their head.
Like “We all understand this story, right? A+B=C.”
Well, no, we don’t.
Understand How Fast Material Can Spread
Once Westpac realised the folly of its banana-themed message, they pulled the video from public view. But the horse had bolted, and it’s easy to view on a wide range of sites. In the digital world, once you’ve released anything, it’s out of your control. So be more careful next time.
People love ye olde medieval frolics. Who hasn’t been to a Dirty Dick’s or the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur? And at least one regular reader of this blog got married in medieval style with lutes and town criers and acres of velvet.
Until now, there hasn’t been much medieval work done in the world of presentations.
For your enjoyment, here’s a surreal feast of mixed metaphors and a banquet of bizarre speaker support from US Senator Chuck Grassley, debating on healthcare funding.
Ever wondered why some quotes live on for decades?
The great ones use clear, vivid words. Words everyone can understand and relate to.
Just because you’re in management doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to greatness in what you say. Every jargon word you add dulls your message and acts as a barrier to understanding.
Just one can be enough to kill a sentence stone dead.
Let’s take 10 immortal lines and add a single phrase from the MBA phrasebook. You be the judge.
1. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant positive outcome for mankind.” Neil Armstrong
2. “Beware the Ides of Q3 going forward.” William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
3. “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can action for you - ask what you can action for your country” John F. Kennedy
4. “I may be drunk, Madam, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be attractiveness-challenged.” Winston Churchill
5. “I have a vision and value statement… that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King
6. “In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the persons.” Al Pacino, Scarface
7. “Government: of the stakeholders, by the stakeholders, for the stakeholders, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln
8. “You engagin’ with me? You engagin’ with me? Well, who the hell else are you engagin’ with?” Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
9. “Imagination is more important than key learnings.” Albert Einstein
10.“You’re rightsized!” Donald Trump
“You want a robust dialogue? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A ROBUST DIALOGUE!”
If you took a poll of audiences everywhere, maths lectures are up there with OH&S inductions and televised golf for stifling dullness.
So top marks (ho ho!) to Matthew Weathers, professor of maths at Biola University, who proves that presentation greatness doesn’t need big budgets, just a great idea.
In this case, it’s an idea that you could stage using very basic AV equipment. And a long rehearsal to get the timings right. They’re just simple sight gags, but audiences love them. Admittedly there isn’t a lot of maths in there but I’m sure he brings that alive in his regular lectures.
Think about how you could mess around with the form of your presentations to keep people entranced like the professor.
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.