Derren Brown: The Art of Understanding

20110615-013128.jpgI admire two people. One is dead and one alive. The dead one is the great American showman PT Barnum. He is my muse. Why? Discovering his legacy influenced my thinking on the power of the crowd enormously. Barnum’s majestic stunts were works of genius – they went viral long, long before that word sneaked into modern parlance. He was so influential that people tried to attribute quotes to him that denigrated his approach. He never said: “There’s a sucker born every minute” but he did say: “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

Way back in 2003 I scribbled a note about another great virtuoso; one who is very much alive. He is Derren Brown. Derren Brown mesmerises me. On the occasions I have been lucky enough to see him perform live, I have marvelled at his persuasive power. I felt his showmanship was so important, I defended it after it attracted negative press when he staged a controversial Russian Roulette stunt on Channel 4. The media called foul, but I believed it was a masterstroke that confirmed his showmanship and considerable talent.

Last night I witnessed yet again another brilliant Derren Brown performance. Every PR pixie should buy a ticket to bear witness to the real art of crowd manipulation. The new show, Svengali, is a wonder. It celebrates 10 years of his craft. In the programme he declares the first rule of modern PR; a declaration of brand transparency. “I am often dishonest in my techniques,” he writes, “but I am always honest about my dishonesty.”

So much is written and discussed about the PR game of communication. It’s never been under so much scrutiny and we all know it’s passing through various stages of change. We pitch ideas and try to impress. Watching Derren, I saw a talent at the height of his powers. The audience last night were in the palm of his hand.

I am not going to offer spoilers and write a review of all of the show’s fascinating elements, but it is worth noting the depth of his planning. The way he maintains a sense of wonder is a thing of awe in itself. If he was an unknown and chose to parlay his skills into the dark arts of marketing, goodness knows the outcome. I suspect that we would all believe turkey twizzlers were nutritious if he put his hand to marketing them.

Derren understands the minutiae of human behaviour. He’s driven by his place in entertainment history and he has a clear understanding of the past. Much of the show genuflects to the past masters. He is modernising the art of illusion and bringing it into the modern day. Be aware and make a note: the tricks and skills of the great PR practitioners have not changed. It’s exciting for those with a respect for the past; the same techniques that have enthralled retain the same power to engage.

We allow ourselves to become fixated by process, and are shortsighted about our own sense of persuasion. Kill to buy a seat to watch Derren and see how he persuades a crowd. He’s done his time recognising the intricate mechanism of the human psyche.

Josef Goebbels was perhaps the most notorious exponent of propaganda and PR. Goebbels understood the human too. He was very clear about how he went about his dismal craft. Speaking in March 1933, immediately after his appointment as Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda in Hitler’s first government (a role in which he was to do more than most to ensure the evil progress of the Nazis) he said: “If you examine propaganda’s most secret causes, you will come to different conclusions: then there will be no more doubting that the propagandist must be the man with the greatest knowledge of souls. I cannot convince a single person of the necessity of something unless I get to know the soul of that person, unless I understand how to pluck the string in the harp of his soul that must be made to sound.”

To my fellow PRs: listen up! Understand the human, entertain and enrich and capture the imagination on behalf of brands. Build a unique campaign! Greatness is in your grasp. Perhaps the easiest way to start is to watch Derren Brown work his audience and see how he does it. But be quick; tickets are going fast and it’s better to learn from Derren than Goebbels.

And no, I am not doing publicity for his show…