Last week I took my kids to see the Blue Man Group show – almost 13 years after seeing the innovative program during it’s original run in Chicago. Beyond noticing the updates in technology and content – there are several new segments that feature iPhones and digital messages – what struck me are the valuable lessons BMG has for professional communicators; think of it as a theatrical metaphor for highly original, memorable and impactful communication.
At its source BMG is about human communication – almost all of it non-verbal. The program features a dizzying range of multi-media sketches mixing mime, comedy, improv theatre, drumming, props and digital imagery. All the frenetic, often hilarious sketches relate to telling a story, and entertaining the audience. And it’s all done with very little “formal” communication.
Here are a few useful tips from the performance:
- Start conversations – Right from the beginning, when a scrolling text line gradually engages the audience in a fun back-and-forth dialogue, the performance goes well beyond the one-way “push” performance you’d expect with a show of this nature.
- Assume intelligence – Everything about the program (from the subtle mime movements to the smart comedic moments) suggests BMG take for granted their audience will get the joke. This is not a show that dumbs-down or shoot for the typical or obvious – despite the fact there are plenty of kids in the audience. It’s a good reminder that worrying too much about “talking down” to an audience can be counterproductive if it strips any nuance, wit and creativity from the communication.
- Let the audience join/be the performance – Like in many shows, the BMG group team use several members of the audience in some of their sketches. It also uses mobile cameras to focus on the audience at regular interludes…breaking down the proverbial fourth wall. The show also makes good use of informal crowd-sourcing, using audience input or reactions to influence the performance.
- Use your body – It’s no surprise that the BMG team use physical tricks and props in their performance – including the famous drumming on paint cans sequence – but it’s a good reminder that more formal presentations could benefit from better use of movement and stage presence.
- Use music to help set mood and emphasis – It often surprises me how little corporate communication professionals use music in their presentations and deliverables. Music is central to the BMG experience – ranging from basic drumming to background music – and is a major factor in the overall experience.
- Tackle the elephants – Too much corporate output is compromised because it tries to dance around contentious issues or latent questions among the audience. BMG boosts the relevance and impact of the show by going straight for the hidden elephants – such as celebrating the arrival of latecomers in a hilarious paparazzi-style announcement, or proactively addressing likely audience questions at the outset of the show.
- Go for a laugh – This show confirmed for me (again) that smart, timely humor can be a universal language that crosses age, background and culture. And most importantly, humor helps keep the attention of the audience and increases the chances participants will remember anything. Too many communicators frown on humor and argue it can dilute and distort a serious message. That may be true – in some cases – but the reality is that material that is serious and dull can be much more effective if presented in a more engaging format.
- Improvise – One of the great things about BMG is that it leaves plenty of room for surprises and improvisation. I really noticed this during the audience participation segments, where it appeared there was little structure or script to guide the volunteers…to positive effect.
- Make the event an experience – BMG is famous for the explosive ending where the audience is showered with toilet paper streams, confetti and giant balloons. Though this may sound like a silly exercise, this celebration is invariably a highlight of the program. At the Austin show I saw audience members spent almost 15 minutes “playing” after the formal end of the show.
Clearly, not all the tactics and tricks used by BMG are appropriate for more formal corporate communications. On the other hand, too many professionals adhere to outdated, unfounded rules about what constitutes effective communications – particularly in an era where YouTube parodies, virtual games and Twitter updates dominate the landscape. Blue Man Group shows communication can take many forms. It’s time we take a fresh look at the tool kit and focus on what works best, not what is accepted practice.