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.
Last post we spoke of how two revolutions have overlapped to lower the quality of picture and sound reproduction in every area of our lives. The digital entertainment revolution has compressed everything to fit through the web, and the Chinese manufacturing revolution has made equipment cheap and disposable. So the overall production values of presentations have plunged.
Here are a few tips to restore the production gloss so that people at your event get an experience worthy of the effort they made to get there.
Hotel ceiling speakers are designed for wedding speeches, and generally sound thin and tinny. A quality PA system will transform the impact of your video material, and lets you use music to greater effect.
Separate bass subs (professional ones, not the ones that came with your $200 surround sound system) take it to the next level. Movie theatres use them create that massive sound that makes going to the movies worthwhile. Your audiences ‘feels’ the soundtrack, and that creates a powerful impact.
Improve Your Image Quality
A lot of material is produced in HD now, then crunched down to standard DVD resolution for the live presentation. On the big screen, it can feel a little grungy, now that everyone has HD TV at home. Authoring your own DVD’s on your computer is another quality killer, as most domestic programs compress the picture even further.
If you need DVD’s to hand out, use a professional studio. If you’re showing something important, like your new ad campaign or corporate video, bypass the DVD’s, get a good, fast computer, and play it straight from a high-res .mov or wmv. file instead.
If it’s a important video, don’t embed it in PowerPoint, as it takes quite a while to get rolling, with your audience staring at the screen wondering what’s happening. Run the file in its native player in the computer.
Nothing adds atmosphere to a room like well-designed lighting. A good lighting designer can give your room instant emotion. And with modern lighting, you can change the mood instantly. Good lighting makes presenters look much better too, making them the star of the show rather than blending into the stage backdrop.
Use A Stage Set
Sets don’t just look good, they condition your audience’s expectations, so they perceive the presentation as being better than a standard speech. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how it works.
Use an Event Producer
Hire an experienced creative producer to plan out the presentation for you. They’ll do two things. Firstly, they’ll come up with creative ideas to get your message across. Secondly, they’ll stage manage the presentation so it all ‘feels’ right, like a theatrical show, with walk-on music, presenters entering and exiting the stage professionally, and all the other details that audiences draw a subconscious impression from.
Yes, they cost money. But consider the cost of the alternative: paying to entertain a room full of people who leave the room feeling ambivalent about your company and unlikely to take any positive action as a result.
This, by the way, is not a service Scene Change offers, being humble providers of technical services, but ask around and you should be able to find a good one.
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).
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.