Insight: All the World’s a Stage
How theatre influences your events
By Peter MacKenzie Litten
Not so long ago, the term ‘business theatre’ was regularly bandied about in the events sector. Perhaps the phrase was coined to give some added kudos to what clients and production agencies were doing at the time. It always sounded a bit pretentious, that’s for sure.
Whatever the reason, it’s heard less often in conversations these days; even though some events have elements that are pure theatre – especially when actors, dancers and musicians are involved.
But you cannot deny the theatrical and cinematic heritage of the live events business. It employs people with experience in the entertainment industries, and it uses many of the same techniques and technologies. But how does that theatrical heritage affect what business events have become in the 21st Century? And does it matter? This article addresses the heritage of theatre and cinema in live events and how the similarities – and the differences – influence the way that live events work today.
An audience is just an audience – right?
You could say that all audiences are alike; they want to be entertained, stimulated, amused, made to think, and surprised. We have discussed in another Insights article, the importance of the Wow factor in grabblng and holding an audience’s attention at a business event. People are people, whether they are on a night out or watching a presentation in a hotel at a company conference. That’s all true: up to a point.
Because there is a difference, of course. Going to the theatre or the movies is a conscious choice. It’s pretty rare to turn up to the theatre having no idea what the evening holds. We come with expectations. We also, in general, come with a positive attitude; and with the desire to suspend disbelief, use our imagination, and to be transported to a different place. Unless we are being dragged unwillingly to something we don’t fancy by a spouse or partner, we generally do at least try and like what we see!
But a business event is different. Audiences usually haven’t bought a ticket. They may be wishing they were somewhere else (at home perhaps?) If not cynical, they are certainly often sceptical about what they are about to see and hear. They need to be convinced, and convinced quickly, that your messages are something they might want to engage with. There is an impatience factor and, if we are honest, a bit of an expectation that ‘this might be boring.’ This means a very short window of opportunity to grab, and hold their attention. So although they are an audience – and they need to be thought of as an audience, not as delegates – there is a different focus. One that we need to be aware of.
Focus on the first five minutes
When you sit down in a theatre or cinema, you usually know within the first five minutes whether you are going to enjoy yourself, or if this is going to be ‘a long evening.’ The same dynamic is apparent in business events. It’s really important to engage attention early and to help people to focus on what comes next. Hence the emphasis usually given to the attention grabbing opening sequence.
There are dangers though. This approach can mean that too much attention and too much resource gets thrown at the opening sequence of an event. Imagine a theatre show with all of the action in the first five minutes! Once you have raised expectations you have to deliver: for the whole of the event.
Our philosophy is different. We work with our clients to shape the whole fabric of the event from start to finish. Applying creative and storytelling skills to every session, not just to the big bang opener and ‘hearts and minds’ closer that is the default setting for many events.
So however you chose to start your event, remember the way that theatre works and always ask the question: ‘and then what?’
Are you still paying attention?
Like theatre and cinema. You have to do different things to maintain interest. We have all had that feeling that ‘this scene is going on too long’, but clever directors and writers don’t allow that to happen. They shift the focus, they change the scene, they bring on new characters, they change perspective, they cut to something else. Your event company should be advising you to do the same. Not an edit every 30 seconds, but regular changes of pace, mood, perspective. Something else that theatre shows us is that we must make sure we have a clear story to tell, and move the story on in appropriate ways with regular injections of new faces, ideas and screen and stage imagery.
Networking, not just entertainment
Here the live entertainment diverges from business events practice.
In Shakespeare’s time the theatre was very much a social space. Somewhere to meet people, to see and be seen, to do business, to have liaisons of every kind! And that continued after the Restoration, pretty much right up to the 20th Century. Just sitting and watching the play is really quite a recent thing.
These days we seldom go to the theatre or the cinema to network and certainly not to become more engaged with the company we work for, or with. Not so with business events. Because around 70% of our clients tell us that what they and their audience most value from their events are the networking opportunities, with ‘engagement through participation’ as the next item on the list of objectives.
What this means is that networking and engagement need to be hard wired into an event, not added on at the last moment when we realise that there is too much chalk and talk! And that can mean thinking about your events, especially conferences, in a very different way. Perhaps we don’t need any ‘plenary’ sessions; perhaps we don’t need a CEO address; perhaps the audience should get to choose for themselves what they wish to learn about?
We are going to cover both networking and engagement as separate topics in future Insights articles, but this is definitely an area where theatre and events are quite different. So, give your content some space, create some time when there is nothing planned. Time to meet with and talk with colleagues in your company or in your industry. Don’t pack every minute with ‘stuff’ that may be forgotten as soon as the bar opens.
Why are those events people so theatrical?
There are now many training and education courses open to people who want to work in the events industry. But in the early days, most of the people in events seemed to have come from other industries, especially the theatre, but also film and television and the music industry. To this day, many of the leaders of live event companies have some theatre experience and a lot of the designers and technicians certainly do. Does this make a difference to the way events work?
At one level it can create tension and a lack of understanding. Clients can often be rehearsal-phobic! Whereas crews love rehearsing – because it makes sure they get it right at show time. And then there is the language issue. Even words like ‘show’ can create a barrier (“I thought I was giving a presentation?”) And just exactly what is a ‘cue-to-cue’ anyway?
And meanwhile clients talk of ‘golden threads’ and ‘message maps’ that can mean very different things. Certainly both creative agencies and clients should work to find a common language and mode of expression that is jargon-free and easily understood. Lack of understanding is the enemy of a great event. If in doubt, find out.
The theatre and entertainment background of many of your events team does, however, bring real benefits to your event. First of all, there is the sheer enormity of what is achieved. Complex presentations might be staged in about a day and half. Events that in the theatre would probably have at least a week of technical and dress rehearsals. That is only possible because of decades of shared experience within your production team in putting on shows of many different kinds.
There is also a level of precision required in producing an event that is much more to do with the character of the people involved. They really do detail, they are precise. This can be daunting to clients, but the requirement to make firm decisions, get timings exactly right, to rehearse and re-rehearse are all driven by a desire to get it right and leave nothing to chance. You can’t just ‘busk it’ on a live event.
And just to big up theatre people for a moment. They do have a sense of vocation about what they do, they are professionals who are well paid (and to be honest that’s why some of the technicians left the theatre to work in events), but they really do want to get it right, to make it as good as it can be, to put on a great show for you and your audience. That’s worth remembering; and as clients you can channel and use their energy and enthusiasm by working with your crew to put on a great show.
Be prepared for ambiguity
Most great nights in the theatre or cinema have some degree of ambiguity about them. Not everything is cut and dried, you have to work things out for yourself. If everything is crystal clear what’s to talk about afterwards? Maybe live events can learn something here? Spell everything out in black and white and you may just patronise your audience. Don’t expect discussion and engagement if you have already said exactly what you think. Don’t give an audience everything on a plate. Great writers don’t. Nor should we.
Embrace the performance
Clients step into an alien world when they step onto a stage at a large conference. It’s a bit scary, and there are many things you need to do that are a long way from the day to day life of a business person. Hair and makeup anyone? Stand exactly here, don’t move about, change the slides this way, don’t look at the screen, speak slower, speak faster and above all be yourself! Your agency may not always be as sympathetic as you would like, or give you (and your team) the support they need. If so, change your agency. But great performers are made as well as born, so insist on good prep. Be coached if you need to be and, above all, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
Be a storyteller
Most actors think of what they do as telling stories, whatever the medium. In live events we need to do the same. You are not a presenter, you are a storyteller.
We can learn a lot from the theatre. One ‘good bit’ is not enough, we need to engage our audience throughout the experience, whether its 30 mins or 3 days. We need a narrative and a story that links the different elements of the experience and provides meaning to our audience. Like a good play it needs a protagonist, with supporting characters, we need dilemmas, a bit of tension, some humour perhaps, a few surprises and the odd plot twist.
Whether you call it the delegate journey, the golden thread or, our favourite, the story arc; you must definitely have one. And this is one area where technology doesn’t always help us. When I started in the events industry, making a slide took about two days, and then another day to change it! So, you had to think about it and work out exactly why you needed it and what you wanted to say. The same with video content. Now it’s easy to make lots of stuff, so we sometimes just keep on making stuff, rather than thinking about the story we want to tell and the medium we want to use. When you are making fundamental changes and rewriting your content the night before an event it doesn’t always mean you are being flexible and responsive. It often means you are ill prepared and haven’t decided what story you need to tell. So take a leaf out of the theatre world. Have a story to tell and tell it in the best possible way. Think of it as a show, not a meeting.