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Insight: The Power of Wow

By Peter Mackenzie Litten & Steve Quah

‘Distinctive, different, maximum impact.’ That’s what our clients tell us they want.

Many of the live event briefs we receive from clients ask us to help design a conference, brand experience or expo that has the ‘the Wow factor.’ Sometimes they even use those actual words!

But what does Wow actually mean and do we really need Wow in corporate live events? Why is Wow considered important, and does it always cost a lot of money? Can we do without Wow? These are just some of the issues discussed in this article.

So, what’s with WOW?

At one level it’s obvious, the cardinal sin in any live event is boring your audience. Whether it’s an internal conference, a customer meeting or a presence at a trade event, this is the big no-no. Being dull and uninspiring, being too po-faced about your message or frankly just overwhelming people with detail that simply cannot be absorbed (and perhaps even understood?) by your audience. These all mean a rubbish event. Do any (or all!) of those things, and you have just wasted your money and in some cases done more harm than good.

Of course, we all want events and live experiences with impact, that are effective and move a business, brand or product forward. And making a strong and memorable impact means, frankly, entertaining your audience, be they your own people, customers or people you want to influence.

That doesn’t always mean having them rolling about laughing, dancing in the aisles or sobbing with tears of joy (though we have seen all of these things happen at our live events). But it does mean deploying the nature of the live, theatrical experience to excite, intrigue, move and make people think.

Like many things in life, Wow means different things to different people. However, ‘Wow, wasn’t that amazing!’ doesn’t have to mean high energy, high production, instant gratification on a massive scale. Wow can be calm, measured, human in scale.

As the famous soldier, adventurer and scholar Lope de Vega famously said, theatre consists of nothing more than two boards and a passion. All that is required, he said, is “A platform to stand on, and a script that evokes passion – in the character and in the minds of the audience.” It’s just the same for a live event.

Do we even need Wow these days?

There is an argument that goes something like this.

There is so much happening on social media and online that really there is no point in trying to create a Wow factor. People will find out what they need to know and form opinions. You can’t influence how they think and behave by getting them together in a room or via an immersive experience.

Well it’s interesting isn’t it that as most forms of entertainment become available wherever and however we want, the live performance has never been more popular. The latest Beyoncé video may be great, but ‘Wow you should see her live!’ Watching Peter Kay on the TV is very funny. But live at the Manchester Arena with 20,000 other people is a real experience!

Even in news and current affairs, we see that one of the biggest growth areas of recent years has been the live debate, the lecture and the on stage interview. People are paying high prices to attend lectures and to join in a discussion. Book tours and literary festivals have never been more popular. TED talks are big business.

Live has taken on a new importance in our lives. In an online, connected always on world. Going Live is not redundant. It’s more important than ever.

So, we think live matters. But how do you do things differently, so it’s not just another conference or expo?

Does being different really work?

There is a lot of confusion about being different and being distinctive. Difference for the sake of novelty, because ‘we want to be different from last year.’ Or ‘something we haven’t seen before,’ isn’t always the best starting point. Or even ‘to make us stand out as different from all the others.’

Being creative doesn’t always mean being original. There we’ve said it. There are very few things that haven’t been done before, by somebody, somewhere. Does that mean we just give up and churn out the same old stuff? No, although many people would argue that a lot of corporate conferences and expos are very formulaic.

So for us being different means how you combine the various techniques that are available in a distinctive and authentic way. So that whatever you do, it speaks to your audience in ways that they find intriguing, surprising, emotionally engaging and entertaining. Do that and the reaction will be that elusive Wow factor. So what are the five main components of Wow?

1. Emotional Wow
Whatever kind of event it is, the aim is for story that is so compelling and powerful in its own right, that it will always resonate and inspire the audience. Indeed, without such an emotional connection with the story, the rest is largely irrelevant anyway.

2. Visual Wow
As seen on a screen near you. We live in an age where film and television imagery has achieved such a level of sophistication that making people genuinely impressed is challenging. But film remains a powerful corporate medium that can take you to a different world and bring other voices to your event.

3. Theatrical Wow
The combination of stage sets, live action, techniques of reveal and illusion, drama, script and performance that are at the heart of why the live event is something quite unique.

4. Aural Wow
The sounds that we hear and are immersed in during a live experience. We see with our ears as well as our eyes.

5. Unexpected Wow
The genuine surprise. The ‘didn’t see that coming’ moment, the twist, the thrilling change of pace, the image you didn’t think you would see, the sound you never thought to hear, the person whom you didn’t think would speak.

Generally, the Wow factor is a combination of some or all of these ingredients. So when we are talking Wow, what we really mean is a multi-factorial audience experience that makes the audience sit up, take notice, engage with your message and share a feeling.

Why does Wow have to be so expensive?

It doesn’t. It all depends what sort of Wow you want? Which comes back to why we need the Wow factor in the first place, and what are we trying to achieve? And that means digging down into the flow of the day, the narrative of the session, the stories we want to tell, the messages that we hope will resonate, the memories we will create.

It is so important not to put form before function. Not to come up with a solution, before we understand the problem. The question to be asked is: ‘What emotional and intellectual impact are we looking for at any given moment or period of time during an event?’ In other words: why Wow, why now?

The impressive reveal that stirs the heart and emotions with dramatic theatricality, lighting, music and stunning imagery can these days be almost a cliché of the live events business. Used, not always wisely, in the past to launch cars, boats, planes, trains and a whole host of near identical beige boxes with screens on them; the ‘big reveal’ is the most obvious Wow moment in many events. And it still has its place. Audiences can still be impressed by something that takes them on a high octane journey, as they celebrate something that has been a long time in the making, and upon which they have a lot invested.

But it doesn’t always have to be like that. You can send a shiver down the spine, set the pulses raising and even bring a tear to the eye without all that. If your message is authentic, eloquently and succinctly expressed and superbly delivered, then there is Wow aplenty.

Think back to the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Did we say ‘Wow!’ as the giant chimneys grew magically out of the stadium floor? Yes, we did. And at many other times during the evening. But wasn’t the most powerful point in the whole show one of the simplest? As it so often is. It was a beautiful voice, powerful words. simple evocative music, darkness and a spotlight that captured our hearts, as “Abide With Me” filled the stadium and reached out to millions of people around the world.

And it’s the same in the corporate events world. ‘Testimony’ can be the most powerful Wow there is. A strong story, well and simply delivered, may be all you need. A single person on a stage, in a spotlight, perhaps with music and imagery, perhaps with nothing but the words, can be just as impressive than any number of musicians, actors, dancers, acrobats, special effects and stunning films.

So, just keep it simple right?

Are we saying that we should abolish all the great high energy visuals that go into many events? No. of course not, they have their place. But context is all. Less is often more.

A patient telling us in their own words how a treatment has changed their lives, a customer who has been given fantastic service, a committed employee talking about their hopes and plans for the future, a powerful exposition of your company’s place in the world. These things don’t need big production – but they do need work to hone the message and bring it to the audience in an authentic way. This is not without cost or time required, to get it right. And using professionals to tell the story is also worth considering. But throwing money at a show just to create an impact is not the only way.

However, on the other hand, will you enthuse your retail staff about a new uniform with the Marketing Director showing you a few pictures or putting a manikin in the foyer. Or do you have Diversity or another amazing contemporary dance crew do a great show while actually wearing your new kit? And perhaps having some of your own people joining the routine as well? Which will get the juices flowing most for a young, enthusiastic, image conscious audience? Marketing Director or Diversity? The answer is obvious. Sometimes you really should just spend the money and bring on the dancers!

Acceptable Wow

Too much Wow is not good, that’s for sure. Banging audiences over the head with a range of videos, impressive stage technology and stunning effects can quickly become tedious, if the underlying narrative doesn’t hold the attention. It’s the story that matters most. Use Wow to support a great story, don’t use Wow as a substitute for a great story.

But there are also three things that we need to be wary of as we strive to use Wow effectively:

1. Don’t be ridiculous
‘Don’t go all David Brent on us!’ is something that both client and agency constantly needs to be thinking about as they design, write and produce live events.

‘The Office’ changed a lot of things in business communications. It called out insincerity, hype, feeble humour, bombast and just plain stupid language. Now if it’s not authentic, truthful and plainly expressed, any audience will be likely to reject your message. Even if it’s a good one. The ‘BS Detector’ is finely tuned in most people. Avoiding ‘cheese’, doesn’t mean abandoning the idea of Wow, it just means you need to be careful, authentic and compelling. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

2. Be true to your brand and culture
Every live event has lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Things that if said or done can alienate your people, your suppliers or your customers. If this is not ‘who you are,’ then don’t do it. Just because your creative agency thinks it will make for a good show or create a ‘cool space.’ Good Wow is aligned Wow!

3. Think about perception
This is a conversation we have many times with many clients. There is a boundary between being bold and confident and being considered over-lavish and boastful.

One way this often comes out is in ‘the entertainment.’ And it’s a two-edged sword. We have clients who have decided to cut back on the ‘big name’ evening entertainment, only to regret it as staff morale takes a hit because they didn’t have a top act like they used to. A sense emerges of cutbacks, penny pinching and ‘all work and no play.’ But it also can be about stagecraft, visual effects, even the lighting. ‘That must have cost a bit,’ is an issue that needs to be addressed. But if your event is considered uninspiring, dull or even ‘cheap’, then you may equally be criticised for ‘not doing it properly.’ Sometimes you just have a take punt and use your own judgement.

As ever the conversation has to come down to added value. If the Wow factor genuinely improves a compelling story, then it will be well received. If its perceived as a frivolous add-on, perhaps even as some kind of ‘bread and circuses’ approach, to gloss over a tough underlying message, then it can have a negative impact.

Forget the technology, focus on the message

In conclusion then. We are fans of Wow! We think Wow is good. We think Wow works. But Wow is about a compelling story, effectively delivered. And embellished by creative wizardry and exciting technology, when that’s the right thing to do and when it supports, not undermines your message.

Never think that Wow will paper over the cracks of a weak story, it won’t. But if you add Wow to a great story, well then… now you’re talking.

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