Elon Musk and the theatre of business: Six rules to help you stand out and be remembered

One company's mission for diversity theatre

Hey there trendspotters, remember when futurists told you COVID-19 had changed everything? That there was no going back to the old world?

So it’s with some evil glee I bring you this story from the Financial Times“Hopin: virtual events struggles as real gatherings return.” 

“In November 2020, with the pandemic in full force, British virtual events start-up Hopin declared that a new era of digital gatherings had begun. Virtual events were “here to stay”, said founder Johnny Boufarhat, as he bragged that there were “more than 15,000 monthly events” available on Hopin’s “Explore” platform. Today, there are fewer than 500 listed.”

Boufarhat raised more than $1 billion in investor cash over a year, and pulled out $195 million for himself.

To those investors I say: lol.

Lesson one of today’s long-ish yarn. When someone tells you tech has made something dead — branding, events, books, banking — it isn’t wisdom or knowledge. Just a desperate lunge for LinkedIn clicks from a clown without much understanding of human nature.

Meanwhile events are back. Because normal people want to hang out with their herd and get loose.

Watching the shows start rolling out again reminds me that so much of business is theatre.

It’s putting on a performance that speaks to the reptilian part of our brains and makes us think, feel and buy.

Everyone’s mind will go straight to the obvious area of speeches and presentations. But a sense of theatre brings benefits across a lot of areas you wouldn’t expect, like packaging or emails.

Theatre skills will get you places. Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase is the latest season of a show that’s been running for years. He’s basically one of those unpredictable hero-villains who pop up and steal the show from the sensible performers, like King George in Hamilton. People go: ‘Wow he’s interesting. What will he do next?’

And because awareness that you exist is 90% of the battle in business, it’s a powerful accelerant.

So this week, six essential theatre rules that apply right across the world of business.

1. Open and close strong

You have seconds to get people’s attention in a new situation. And to make them remember you.

It applies in sales, retail, meeting new employees, cocktail parties, emails, your website, everything. Even if it’s for an audience of one, you’re metaphorically walking out on a stage and creating an impression of what you are.

What’s your opening number? You only get one chance. So you may as well smash straight into it like the opening helicopter shot in the Sound Of Music. From the first second of that movie, you know what you’re getting. Tunes! Mountains! Wholesomeness!

Julie ain’t sitting down in front of a boring bookshelf going, “I hope this song finds you well.”

If you want to be good at business, it helps to plan out each element of those opening moments, whatever they are. Rather than working it out as you go, like you’ve just been dropped into the room by an alien tractor beam.

“So … uh … how’ve you been? Busy?”

Fuss over the first line of that proposal like it’s the only one they’re going to read. Because it might be. I spend a lot of time on the first line of the blog for that reason.

Practice the intros to your prospective clients. The eye contact with the new recruit. The questions to ask that show you’re interested. The lift in energy that shows you’re into it.

The same with the end experience, though it does apply more to presentations and meetings. More on that later.

They’re not going to remember the middle bit so much. Not everything can be the best bit.

2. Don’t go in cold

Ask any musician about the first few songs of a live set.

If you just pick up the instruments and kick off, it will be clunky. There are all sorts of tiny muscles you need in smooth flow mode to be at your best. They take a while to warm up. Your mind takes a while to get into the right space too.

A lot of big bands will have a warm-up setup backstage, so they can play some songs together and get things locked in tight before the audience sees anything.

Here’s Metallica getting their act together pre-gig:

Business people aren’t usually professional like Metallica. They like to wade into heavy situations straight out of an office chair with no mental prep and shallow breathing. So they make no impression whatsoever. If it were a film, their credit would call them ‘Man In Meeting’.

If it’s a big meeting, take half an hour out to get your head around it. Find some people who are on your side and run through some potential scenarios out loud.

Get your conversation muscles warmed up. Work out where you’re going to sit. Think about who you need to make eye contact with to make the important points. What’s the first thing that’s going to come out of your mouth? Whole projects succeed or fail on those details.

“They just didn’t seem … right for us.”

You could have been if you’d paid more attention to the details.

If I’m doing, say, a podcast interview, I’ll do vocal warmups, mic checks and spend half an hour reading through prep notes. It would still be OK if I didn’t. But you owe people your best, not the minimum viable performance.

It might not make a transformational difference for that one situation. But if you apply it as a regular habit, you’ll end up a long way ahead.

3. The art of blocking

Theatre directors have a process called blocking, where they step through each scene to make sure the actors are all in the right place to best tell the story.

They’ll spend days or weeks on it before the show opens. With the detached eye of the director analysing each scene and thinking: ‘Does this work? What’s the best order to unfold this story?’

It’s in the details. Like when eight people go out for a business lunch and nobody thinks about who sits where at the table. So a group of guys end up the sitting together like a gambling app TV ad, and the group effectively splits into two or three independent nations. Or when someone launches into a badly-timed business pitch at the table. Bad blocking.

People worry so much about what they’re going to say. Without thinking about how the setting or timing can change the whole effect.

Like the French hotel brand that forces its Australian staff to say “bonjour” each time they answer the phone. In a way that clearly embarrasses them, so every contact feels clunky.

For a solid gold example of context changing everything, watch Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ routine on doing James Packer’s birthday party.

It was in the dying days of Packer’s relationship with Mariah Carey. Packer had no idea she’d booked what she believed to be his favourite comedian.

Nobody had any idea who he was or why he was there.

“There was no light. No microphone. I just look like a guy who’s gotten onto the property and has a few things he’d like to say. The difference between standup comedy and a drunk guy giving opinions (points to microphone) … that’s it.”

I cannot recommend this sweary clip too highly, if only for the Eddie Murphy in the kitchen cameo.

An old client, Breville, has risen to global appliance domination through brilliant design. Not just their products, but the packaging.

They used blocking principles to create every step of bringing that product home and opening the box. The words and pictures you see and in what order. How it physically feels. How the appliance appears as you open things up. The whole journey.

Their share price has risen about 1600% in the 15 years since the current design team started. So don’t think this story is some poncy creative indulgence, it can deliver hard ROI.

4. Lighting is everything

Lighting effects your perception of everything, at an animal instinct level.

Consider Nespresso stores. They array their pods in tasteful patterns on the wall so they look like art. The coffee machines sit on elegant pedestals, perfectly spotlit. Black-clad staff hover, attentive not pushy, adding to the art gallery feel.

Those machines are desirable, and you will pay a nice premium for one because that classiness will rub off on you.

Nespresso: you know you want it.

Now look at the same machine on display at Harvey Norman. It’s a mixed gaggle of appliances on a generic shelf under cheap-ass fluoro light, boxes piled up. It feels like a garage sale.

Your first thought is: whip out your phone and Google ‘where’s the cheapest place to buy it?”. You will not feel as good about that machine when you get it home.

Lighting is a big player in what makes offices so depressing. Prison-grade fluoro lighting that makes you feel like a battery chicken, and makes you look shit on Zoom so your self-esteem drops off a cliff.

In show world, a good lighting designer is pretty much the best investment you can make. They will make everything look incredible, using far fewer lights than people who don’t know what they’re doing.

Same in your office, your store, your home. An architectural lighting designer will create an atmosphere that makes people feel welcome, relaxed and impressed when they walk through the door.

It’s that first impression thing again. Light your office better and your staff will be happier without even knowing why.

5. Turn up on time

As a junior show technician, the crankiest technical director I worked with would drum into our heads: if you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.

He was right. And his crankiness was fully justified.

If you’re late, you’re letting down a bunch of better people than you. You’re effectively telling them that you think your time is more valuable than theirs. Lift your game.

6. Leave ‘em wanting more

If you’ve nailed it, whatever it is, stop. The worst thing about business communication of any kind is the group urge to add more.

“Can we just get some value-adds in there? Plus we have some mandatories from legal. Also I don’t think we mentioned that we offer total solutions, maybe we can finish on that.”

Do the good bits — the ones that relate to client benefits — then get off the stage. If they’re interested they’ll ask for more information. There’s nothing flatter than that end-of-speech Q&A.

“Any more questions?”

*deep space silence*

“Well I guess that, uh, speaks to how comprehensively we’ve covered the topic. Can I just thank …”

No it speaks to how much that audience wants lunch and to chat among themselves. Cut your estimate of the audience’s attention span in half. For everything. Emails. Meetings. Sales presentations. Web copy. Your LinkedIn video.

And yes, I recognise the irony that this tip comes at the end of a longer-than-usual story but I’ve spent years gathering readers who can read.

This shit works. And it’s timeless. It’s all been true since the first ancient cave plays, and will be true millennia after the likes of Hopin are dead and buried.

I will not be taking questions.

This article was first published on the Undisruptable website. Ian Whitworth’s book Undisruptable: Timeless Business Truths for Thriving in a World of Non-Stop Change is out now from Penguin Random House. 

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