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The concept of a boy band is quite bizarre. It's a completely artificial version of the street gang, really."

-- Edge

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Column: off the record ..., vol. 16-706

@U2, January 17, 2016
By: Steve Lawrence


off the record, from @U2

In November of last year, I was privileged to give a TED talk for TED @ StateStreet 2015 at the House of Blues in Boston. For those unfamiliar with TED talks, they are short, impactful talks of an educational or inspirational nature, carefully curated by staff at TED. “Ideas Worth Spreading,” to use TED’s tagline.

The experience was unlike anything I have ever done before, nor will I likely ever come close to replicating – to say that it was a pivotal point in my career is not understating things.

When my application was accepted, I knew I had significant preparation ahead of me, but the language TED used should have given me a hint:

“At TED, we have quite a rigorous speaker coaching process where we work with our speakers well in advance of each event. All of our speakers (including Bono, Bill Gates, etc.) go through this process with us and we find it highly effective and essential to the process of creating a great TED talk.”

Their name-dropping of Bono and Bill Gates was clearly not designed to impress me – what if I were a Coldplay or Apple fan instead? Rather, the point of this note was to warn me: I imagined them saying, “We are about to put you through one of the most intensive boot camps of presentation preparation you will ever endure in your sheltered little career of financial research. You are going to think that we are overdoing it, will want to quit or tell us to get lost! But we didn’t allow Bono or Bill Gates to cut corners, so what makes you think you get special treatment?”

For two solid months of my life I wrote more than 100 drafts of my script and delivered hundreds of full and partial rehearsals: with my coaches, with my coworkers, with my family, to a mirror, to a camera phone – by the night of my talk I was even delivering the talk in my sleep! I’m not a performance artist, so this kind of dedication to the spoken word was completely foreign to me. As I sailed past the high watermark of past presentation preparation, I eventually reached that point where you memorize your speech verbatim. Only to be asked to rewrite huge sections of my script and rapidly relearn. Again and again, until every fiber of my being wanted to do anything but rehearse. Toward the end, I had to put my day job completely on hold and focus on the total package.

I slowly started to realize that delivering a great speech is not about memorization – it is about becoming one with the content and the story, about being confident that you can deliver the goods even if an individual word (or if I were to sing, note) was off. Suddenly, walking in the footsteps of Bono took on greater significance, because for all the reverence I have for this consummate performer, I have been to enough shows to know that Bono misses cues, sings the wrong note, forgets lyrics and still delivers a showstopping performance. And, unlike Bono, I was instructed to stand with my feet planted firmly on the “circle of power,” which meant I had the upper hand over Bono without worrying about accidentally falling off stage.

By the time I actually took to the stage, I had learned how to channel my adrenaline into a positive energy and walked on stage with a confidence I’m not accustomed to. I’m not an extrovert, and while doing presentations is not part of my job, it’s not something I’m called upon to do at this level with this much on the line. My only kryptonite was the stage lighting – as I walked onto the stage, the blinding spotlights made me wish I had borrowed Bono’s shades.

As I look back on the experience, I have a renewed appreciation for the speeches that Bono is called upon to give and looked at his TED talks with a different eye.

Bono has taken to the stage of a TED event three times: virtually in 2005 to accept the TED prize, as an invited guest in 2007 at a TED conference in Tanzania and as a traditional TED speaker in 2013. As I watch his TED talks (and indeed many of the speeches he’s given in recent years), a couple of things spring to mind.

First is the amount of preparation Bono puts into his speeches. It’s easy to overlook because of his casual delivery, but he is a master at delivering a tight narrative. He knows exactly what he wants you to hear and how, and makes sure you receive every point at the right time with the right emotional response. Obviously, it ties in closely with the narrative he weaves into a show each night, but it’s also closely related to my second observation – soundbites.

TED taught me to focus on the key soundbites in my presentation and make sure I got them perfect. These “catchphrases” draw the audience in and serve as anchor points in a longer, more flexible narrative. But they also become incredibly powerful tools as you expound on your design away from the stage and lights. Bono is often ridiculed for his catchphrases, from “The Edge is on fire” to “Where you live should not decide whether you live,” but they provide a great foundation for him to build a compelling case when telling a similar story to multiple news outlets, one after another.

I already mentioned the flexibility of being able to rebound from a missed note or flubbed line, but being comfortable with your material gives you liberty to ad-lib, and after watching or listening to multiple shows from this past tour, it’s interesting to see the band adapt a song or lyric to fit the tone of a situation. Their comfort in the core of their material gives them the confidence to experiment and makes each delivery a personal, heartfelt expression.

TED likes to find speakers who are passionate about their cause, who can speak credibly and enthusiastically about their domain, no matter its importance, but this passion is often underscored by the careful use of humor to get across a complex or awkward point that might otherwise lose the audience. In my talk, I used humor to broach the topic of academic papers, machine learning and finance, while in Bono’s talk he quips about his “messianic complex” to soften people to talk of Africa, aid and AIDS – words that might otherwise get us to tune out, yet here become a call to action: “The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.” (Almost makes you want to break out into song, doesn’t it?)

Bono’s talk challenges the world and how it reacts to a continent – a far loftier goal than I could ever aspire to. But for those who deliver a talk of any magnitude in front of an audience, his presence at a podium should inspire us as much as his presence on the e-stage.

In my talk I hint at a combination of machine learning and human expertise enabling “rock stars to better understand what their fans are saying.” It’s a subtle nod to U2 and their willingness to embrace technology. From virtual reality to holographic sound, and even the day-to-day marvel of the Innocence and Experience tour, U2 have always found innovative ways to leverage technology in their art.

But it’s the technology behind the scenes in the U2 fan experience that really excites me and inspired my comments. To quote Bono:

"What excites me personally about the digital age is you have closed the gap between dreaming and doing.”

Between activist and audience. Between rock stars and their ability to speak to us personally … and listen to us.

How U2 engage with their audience has changed over the years. From the traditional roots of winning over fans one at a time in club gigs to the global reach of Live Aid, and from Propaganda magazine to the various social media tools U2 are finally embracing, the band is able to reach us in ways that were impossible only a few years ago.

We’ve gone from impersonally texting your name to 86483 (UNITE) in 2005 to the ability to tweet directly at the band and the possibility they might respond.

“Big Data” is cliché these days. Everything from our shopping experiences at Target to our Netflix viewing habits are examples of big data helping businesses adapt to a diverse audience (though in the case of Netflix they have intentional roles for humans should you fear for a future entirely ruled by our robot overlords. But as cliché as it has become, it remains critical for the future of the live music industry.

What used to be an all-out media blitz of tour promotion in the 1990s has turned into a far more tactical exercise of marketing and advertising avenues backed by statistics and a carefully planned series of PR activities that have little room for error -- let alone a bicycle accident. Even decisions about what tickets to put on sale, when, and at what prices are all controlled by algorithms designed to maximize the chance of selling out a venue with ticket and package prices ranging from $80 into the thousands.

Universal Music already uses big data to inform its decisions, and companies like Salesforce, which sponsored the Innocence and Experience tour, provide U2 with the power to listen to us more closely and intentionally than ever. If I allow U2 to track my activities and choose to link my Facebook account to my account, the band can leverage immense computational power to crunch the numbers on my interests and activities and tweak their engagement with me.

How much of this they choose to do right now is uncertain, but the ability is there to deeply interrogate the demographics of their most ardent fans and even the antics of casual concertgoers who chose to tweet, or “see where their friends are sitting” via the Ticketmaster/Facebook linkup.

In time the power of big data will start to shape the dynamic of the concertgoing experience. When you link data on concert attendees to data from music streaming apps, you get insights into the listening preferences of your audience. (Although, honestly, how many of you asking for “Acrobat” during the #u2request campaign actually listened to the song on Spotify last year? And clicked “thumbs up”?)

But why stop there? Internet-of-things devices like Fitbit can give amazing insights into our collective activities (Check out this Jawbone blog post about Fitbit usage during the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake.) But link concertgoer data with fitness bands, and you start to get real-time biometric feedback on what the audience responds to. (Imagine the pre-show production meetings: “Boys, based on rigorous statistical analysis, we’d like you to play more of the greatest hits. But Bono, if you could add that ‘shine like stars’ coda – I don’t know what it is, but the only other phenomenon that induced a similar crowd reaction was when Larry forgot to re-button his shirt during the intermission. Speaking of which, Larry, if you’d entertain this new outfit – our data suggest it will be a hit with the female concertgoing demographic …”)

The challenge with big data is learning when to pay attention to it and when to use your instinct. U2 have seen great success long before any of this information became available and certainly don’t need to pander to us to deliver a great show. But to the extent that big data can help them tweak minor aspects of the show – tighten up the setlist or adjust the visuals to re-engage the people to use “Every Breaking Wave” as their pee-break song – I’d fully expect them to embrace this new world. And if they ever need a statistician to help them crunch the numbers, I’m sure I can find someone. Right after I finish practicing my talk in front of this mirror …

U2’s willingness to adapt to the evolving business and technology of music is far from unique. As the world remembered the life and career of David Bowie, Bhaskar Chakravorti took a closer look at David Bowie, the innovator. In his Washington Post column titled “David Bowie taught me everything I need to know about innovation,” he surmises:

“While innovating in contexts far from the glam world of Ziggy Stardust, is very different, there is no harm in trying some audacious leaps of faith. However, innovation requires more than audacity and courage. As Bowie showed us, it takes a combination of attributes to fall in place to ensure that the leap is not into the abyss.”

Bowie was clearly an inspiration to U2 as a musician and performer, so it’s easy to imagine that his willingness to experiment with the business and technology of music also inspired many of the band’s off-stage advances.

And finally, I can’t help but plug a talk by a colleague of mine, Michael Metcalfe, who hopes to persuade central banks to use their ability to print money to intelligently address the issue of global climate chang. If only there were a rock star willing to print the currency of his celebrity (ZOO ECUs?) to amplify the message …

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.

© @U2/Lawrence, 2016

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