The success of your event can be decided the moment your audience walks into the room, writes Ian Whitworth.

The great US comedian Rich Hall once noted that if you play a guitar in public, you look cool. Add a harmonica around your neck and you still look cool, like a young Dylan or Neil Young. Why then, just by adding a set of cymbals between your knees, do you become the sort of lunatic that people cross the street to avoid?

madness in the family

I’m pondering this fine line as I write this over the holidays, staying at my parents’ house on the Gold Coast. One of my daughter’s friends has just flown up from Sydney to stay for a week. She hasn’t met my parents before, who are out to make a good impression. They’ve dressed up, laid out snacks, and put the mood music on. It’s louder than they think, as their hearing is a bit sketchy these days.
Just as the friend arrives, Dad’s trad jazz album busts into a kazoo solo. A long, buzzy, demented one at full concert volume. After the first five minutes of non-stop kazoo, you could see the fear in her eyes as she considered the very real possibility of a week in an actual, full-meaning-of-the-word madhouse. Because nothing says nutbag like the kazoo.

it’s the vibe, man

Exactly the same principle applies to event audiences. They form much of their impression of your event as they walk into the room, before a single speaker stands up.
Why so? Because when you put a human in a new, unfamiliar situation, they crave familiarity. So they search their lifelong store of memories for situations that have felt similar, to give them clues as to what they’re in for. And they do it by feel and emotion, not logic. It’s the vibe, man.
So if they walk into a room with no music, the house lights up at full ready-for-the-cleaners strength, cheesy banner on the stage next to a tripod screen, what does this deadness remind them of? Usually, school speech night. So they expect a long, bum-squirming saga. One where each speaker will be like a dull, dusty headmaster who says rubbish like ‘without further ado’ and ‘last but not least’. It becomes self-fulfilling.
If they walk into a room where the vibe feels positive and the stage looks interesting, it reminds them of exciting, entertaining things they’ve seen before, like theatre or TV shows. So everything that’s presented gets brain-enhanced to seem even better and more credible than it is.

learn by shopping

It’s the same way great stores work their magic in separating you from your money. Anyone who is in events should spend some time in a Nespresso store. In my view Nespresso is the finest total branding package in the world at the moment, and the stores are a major part of that. Observe the design, the lighting, the staff. See how the ‘vibe’ turns a good product into something magical (and eye-wateringly profitable). Now go and look at the same Nespresso machines in Harvey Norman. Meh. Perceived quality is all in the context.
You don’t have to build a Nespresso store in the ballroom. Basic showcraft can work with the technology you already have there for the conference.

simple showcraft tips

Templated words on a screen rarely have any emotional value. Put an amazing series of photographs on the screen instead of some pedestrian title slide.
Take some care to select the music you play on walk-in. What sort of mood do you want to create? Would Steve Jobs have let some random AV tech choose the iPad launch walk-in music? No, he would have planned it out obsessively for months, and that detail mania was why his events became world news.
Use lighting colour to change the mood, now that colour-change LED stage lighting is really affordable. Reds and yellows to energise, blues and greens to chill them out. Consider using a simple set, to break from the standard boring drapes.

hire a producer

Beyond this DIY showcraft, consider hiring one of the many excellent creative producers out there – specialists, not AV companies – who know how to play the audience like an instrument. Balance the modest investment in some creative input against the long-term cost of your audience not paying attention to any of the speakers. And you won’t have to worry about Kazoo Syndrome again.

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-owner of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creating marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email –