Friday, 13 July 2012

Why being clever isn’t going to cut it (Or what you can learn from the History Boys)

Here’s what I learnt last night at my preview. It’s one of the most important things I’ve learnt in my career:


Making logical arguments, presenting ideas, just bores people. They feel they are being lectured. They turn off. Or even if they are interested in what you are saying they can’t take it all in because they are focussing on listening and interacting with your show.

So don’t bother with the clever ideas, the clever arguments. They will go in one ear and out of the other.
People rarely remember the message, but they do remember the holistic effect: how they felt in the show.

Always put the stories first, and the takeaway last. The story grips and moves, putting them in the palm of your hand, when they are there give them the gift of the idea as pithy as possible before their mind wanders off somewhere else.

Here’s another thing I learnt:


If people have come to be entertained, and you present yourself as someone who provides that, then make sure you do your job. You are a showman, not a preacher. An artist, not an academic. A comedian, not a philosopher.

Remember people aren’t judging your intellect. They are only asking themselves one question: is this an enjoyable experience or not? Don’t let your own intellectual insecurity, or pressure from snobbish “artists”, crowd this fact.

Here’s the paradox: by not trying to be too clever you are being clever. Because the message will hit home. It will be simple, it will be wrapped up in an authentic story that moves people, and therefore people will remember it.

Clever doesn’t have impact. Clever doesn’t change people. Stories do.

Before I go here’s something I thought about walking home from my preview last night. No one cares about clever people who know lots of stuff, not really. They don’t change things. They don’t have impact. They aren’t memorable. They aren’t fun, or the sort of people you’d like to hang around with. The key to life is to:

1.  Be Authentic.
2. Stand-out.  (Don’t be right, be different.)

Here’s a quote you should print out and put above your desk. It comes from Hector in the History Boys by Alan Bennett:

“The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back, or better still, the side. Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse…History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so... truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.”

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