A few weeks ago I went to see Tom Ford speak about his first film, A Single Man. The critic of The Times was on stage with him, asking him about the making of the film, and his vision for it, and at the end they turned it over to the audience for questions. So I stuck my hand up.
I had read that he described his sense of his catwalk shows as ‘filmic’, and asked him what he meant by this – what he has taken from the world of film into the world of fashion. Until then he had been leaning back in his seat - witty, engaging, poised. But now his body language changed, and he leant forward. His voice became rather more urgent, more compelled, less reflective, as if rising to the challenge of that catwalk – and as if the challenge of that temporary theatre, that small catwalk performed to a tiny audience for just one afternoon, was a steeper and more demanding challenge than that of making a film that will be viewable by anyone in the world, and will last forever.
‘In a fashion show you have 13 minutes to convince a room of 200 people of your vision.’
He repeated the time:
He continued ‘And this is a very cynical, seen-it-all audience in this room. So you have to have an idea. And then you have to tell a story.
So you need a big start. Boom! Act One. Out it comes. And as you start to tell your story you have to really focus the audience. I turn the lights off and have a spotlight on the stage, otherwise they are all waving to their friends and checking their phones.
You start to tell your story and you move on. Boom! Act Two. On you take them.
I use music very deliberately to try to control the audience’s emotions. To help control the rhythm in the room. And after a while you can hear the breathing of the room (he inhaled and exhaled at this point). ‘You can start to feel them reacting together to your story. It is palpable. Till at the end as you finish they all exhale (and he exhales a big breath at this point) at the same time.’
He was a hugely stimulating speaker (I am going to write about how central having a point of view is to everything he does next month). And I was very struck by a number of things he emphasized in conveying his sense of how to communicate a vision. Struck by how useful they could be for us as owners and drivers of Challenger Brands when it comes to communicating our stories, convincing our own audiences of our vision. When it comes to translating our Saying into Doing.
It’s a little prosaic to spell it out, point by point, but indulge me while I do that anyway, because I think each is worth focusing on.
i) 13 Minutes
He didn’t say ‘you don’t have long’, or ‘you have around a quarter of an hour’. He said ‘13 minutes’. Twice. He knew exactly how long he had to make the impact he needed. And it was the tension between the time he had, the importance of success, and the lurking cynicism of the audience that gave an urgency and drama to how he decided to do everything that followed.
So… Let’s understand exactly how long we have to convince our audience of our vision, how long we have to make the impact we need. And let’s use this fixed time frame to give urgency and drama to everything that follows. Note here that we are not necessarily talking about external audiences. It could be our CEO, our sales team, our R&D scientists. Anyone we need to enlist and excite.
ii) Act One
He is telling a story without words. So he sees each appearance on the catwalk is an Act. Each Act tells a part of the overall story. And these Acts are thus not simply connected, they are sequenced.
So… What are the five key Acts that will together convey our vision? What is the right sequence for them? How does this sequence of Acts build our story?
These actions are intended to create a sense of drama, and arresting Ford’s audience at the beginning of each act is critical. So his ambition for each one is to start with ‘Boom!’ A very striking word. If you wanted to have the effect of ‘Boom!’, you’re not talking about getting heads nodding, or quiet agreement. You are talking about really getting them to sit up and take notice.
So… What would it mean to define our ambition for each act as Boom! What kind of response would we be looking for, not just at the end, but at the beginning of each Act? How can we more theatrically engage with our audience right from the start of each element of our storytelling?
iv) The Spotlight
Even in a Tom Ford fashion show, if the audience can get distracted they will. He can’t allow that. Even drama is no guarantee of attention. Tom Ford forces his audience to focus their attention.
What is our equivalent to his spotlight, and where are we going to focus it?
In reality, the notion of a viewer of our spectacle is wrong. Ford knows he will not succeed by engaging his group’s eyes alone – he has to engage their emotions. He is going to think about how he can use every sensory trigger at his disposal to do that.
What are the sensory triggers at our disposal? How can we use them to engage every sense to bring our audience along with us?
Ford has a whole new metric for emotional engagement. One that is – in his words – ‘palpable’: whether the audience breathe in and out at the same time. If they exhale together at the end, he has succeeded. If they don’t, it hasn’t worked as he intended it to. Hugely demanding, but very simple, very clear, very measurable.
So what is our metric for emotional engagement? That is hugely demanding, but very simple and clear and measurable? That is palpable?
And he has also denied himself something critical, that most of us rely on more than we should: he has denied himself words. I am not suggested that we do this ourselves, but I am intrigued by Pinter’s observations that ‘words are sometimes just a strategy to cover nakedness’ – and that forcing yourself to be less dependent on words requires you to have more substance, as well as more theatre (Rob Poynton talks about this in his short film this month). That if as Challenger Brands, and as owners of Challenger Brands, we thought more in terms of ‘Boom! Act One!’ then actually we would not find ourselves all too often dressing up the insubstantial, but the very opposite – pushing ourselves to greater substance.
Of course, there are also limits to this analogy for many of us. Ford has at one level a captive audience, for instance – they cannot leave the room. And that is certainly not true of our external audiences for us.
But then most of us are not presenting to as tough an audience as Nuclear Wintour, either.
Adam Morgan, Founder, eatbigfish
See more and join the project at www.eatbigfish.com.