How To Communicate Like An Edinburgh Award Winner

Written by David Pullan

How To Communicate Like An Edinburgh Award Winner

August is always a special time for McKechnie and me as we pack our bags and decamp to the Edinburgh Fringe for a few days gorging on live performance.

This year was a slightly truncated three day visit, but we still managed to pack in seventeen shows ranging from a three person feminist take on the New Testament via the medium of Christina Aguilera’s songbook, to a staggering account of the Beslan massacre performed by a Belgian duo through the eyes of two children who were victims of that tragedy.

In between those two were stand up comedy, improvised musicals, one person shows, clowning and company devised pieces from around the world.

As is inevitable at Edinburgh, you have to kiss a few frogs if you want to find a prince. But when shows work they work on a level that we rarely find in any other theatrical experiences throughout the year.

As I sit on the flight back to London I’d like to share three key factors that go into making great festival shows, and see how you can apply them to your business communication.

Be warm:

For me this is fundamental. As an audience member you have to want to spend an hour in the company of the performers.

McKechnie and I saw some very harrowing work and some very frivolous work, but the one element that was present in all of the best pieces was that you wanted to spend more time with the cast and get to know them.

On the comedy front I particularly felt this about Bridget Christie and Spencer Jones as The Herbert, who tackled Brexit and family death with huge care for the audience. Conversely we saw a very well known comedian who seemed to harbour borderline contempt for his crowd. I am aware that this may be his post-modern schtick, but I won’t be seeking him out again in the future. There wasn’t the warmth.

When you are presenting, or chairing a meeting, really think about how you can take the audience into consideration and look after their needs during the session.

Don’t Outstay Your Welcome:

The majority of Edinburgh shows last an hour, so you know you are going to get away pretty quickly from even the bad shows.

But the bad shows tend to outstay their welcome in one of two ways.

1. They think the audience is stupid and they are smart. This happened in one particularly gruelling late night performance, where the performer was evidently very pleased with his mental dexterity and was out to flaunt it even though his central conceit was obvious after about twenty minutes. His self devised work plodded on for another eye drooping hour and a half until it reached a conclusion that the majority of a packed house had arrived at while they still had feeling in their buttocks and the will to live.

The lesson here is to realise when you have made your point and stop. Don’t simply keep going because you have been alotted a certain amount of time or want to show off your ‘brilliance.’ Ask for questions, suggest a break…but don’t just fill time because the diary says so.

2. They don’t offer any surprises. Our minds like to be surprised and jolted into action. If this doesn’t happen then we can go into a trance state which is like a waking sleep. This happened one morning when we sat in a series of short plays where every step the writing took was obvious from the outset and the performing remained on the same level throughout. We were never surprised by what we saw or heard and as a result we both started to nod off even though it was just after breakfast.

This show had been billed as ‘One of the most important pieces of work in the festival…’

I suspect that the old producer’s trick of substituting elipses for words had eliminated the rejoinder, ‘to miss!!’

In meetings or presentations you can think about delivering your messages via different mediums and you can definitely make sure that you aren’t telling people things that they already know.

Be prepared, but work the room:

Two of the most wonderful shows we saw were acrobatic clowning shows from Switzerland and New Zealand.

Both of these involved high risk trapeze work and lifts that could have resulted in broken limbs if they had gone wrong. You can be in no doubt that these shows had been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives.

Yet within the highly tuned structures that they had created, all of the performers found moments to use what was in the room. My bottle of water became a shower in one show, and in another the high rise quiff of one chap in the front row became a means by which to dry hands. The result was that the show felt special for all of those present as there were little touches that only happened because of what was present in the room on that occasion.

You can make this work for you by being highly aware of what is present when you are communicating. If a phone goes off then how could you use that? Could a bowl full of apples in the middle of the table become a metaphor by which to demonstrate a decentralised business with common values?

McKechnie and I spend a lot of time rehearsing teams for competitive tenders. The moment when these really spring to life is when the presenters feel so confident with their messages that they dare to go ‘off piste’ and improvise in the moment. Clarity is important but slick perfection is weird. You should never ignore what is there in front of you as it may well be the surprise that sparks your communication into life.

So there you have it. Three tips from Edinburgh to enliven your communication. Be warm. Don’t outstay you welcome, and use what is available in the moment.

See if you can use any of these in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime I’m going to try and remember where I packed that haggis.


  • W B Yeats

    'Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.'