Stage Swissness

Swissness at the Bird's Nest


You will note I am all for Swissness in everything I do. Indeed: Attributes with positive connotations, which include fairness, precision, reliability, political stability, nature-ness, precision, and cleanliness, should be summarised and be marketed overseas as something that is typical of Switzerland. (That’s if you take it from the Wikipedia’s article on Swissness in German!)

My challenge every time I head onstage is how to either host an event or make a talk in such a way that the audience feel like it’s done with Swiss quality. With 12 solid years in Zürich, you start raising the bar and are never really satisfied with just an “OK performance”, or something that remains not “out of the ordinary”. This need to continuously surpass expectations by doing things with the precision and dedication Switzerland is famous for is particularly big for me, because having travelled to so many different places, one does really see the difference between Switzerland and the rest of the world. (Technology people: It’s not too different with, for example, the Mac and an ordinary PC!) There are also the tiny bits and bobs that so define the country that you simply miss when you’re beyond the border.

I myself have gone through it all: been through events a member of the audience where both the event was extremely well emceed, and also having to sit in for a host who was so offensive to British attendees (at a China-UK event) that she had to be forced out of the event. (Thankfully, everyone felt happier with me onstage, as I was later informed by the organisers!) I have also sat through very inspirational talks, but also some that seem ill-prepared, or people forced to read a Microsoft document onstage in front of a visibly huge crowd. I really have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Having myself been frustrated at times with “things from other places” that might not work the way you wanted them to (my stay in London involved the kitchen nearly imploding in the first few months after being resident!), I felt it was important to give the audience an evening where everything simply worked like clockwork. My 12 years in Switzerland, whilst not 100% glitch-free (realistically, no nation could accomplish a 100% fault free rate!), were years where I was using quality goods on a daily basis — or at least things that don’t break all the time! I’ve been adding elements from Switzerland in such a way that I’d be happy as a member of the audience myself, and my idea is if I tested the waters with high standards, you as the audience should enjoy the show as well!

So here’s what I incorporate as part of my “Swissness on stage”… If Switzerland is all about quality, then that’s a key part of my goal once I’m onstage (and even when preparing for it backstage!).

  • I stick to a schedule. This is unfortunately less easy to do when the event is fully organised by an outside body and minor issues crop up. But if I am a firm, central part of the organising body with the authority to make decisions, I will make sure everyone is ready so we are ready to even start the whole event ahead of time, even though we’ll actually wait until the exact moment when we’re due. Ideally everybody should be ready for the stage about 10-15 minutes before the event gets off to a bang.
  • I treat everybody “naturally nice”. Swiss shops are known to be places where everyone is nice to one other, and this is even the case on weekends. We do usually wish everyone a happy weekend on Friday (even in the UK it might not always be so!). When I ask the audience for a favour, I apply the same Swiss politesse. “Please sit down!” is never used (even!); instead, “if you could please kindly take your seat, thank you…” is the norm.
  • Especially when emceeing events, I project the image that I am confident and am in control of the event, but cue it in such a way that you feel you are naturally part of the event as well. (I think I might have flown with SWISS too much, as a flight with them is almost always an event well-“choreographed”, so to speak! In fact the very last time we had a landing where it ended in thunderous applause, it was on a SWISS flight, so there you go — Swiss quality!)
  • I understand the microphone points at a living, breathing, real human being, and so I’d like to present a lively, clearly audible voice to you. On some Swiss trains (and even on some trains and China!) we have minibar people and train conductors who aren’t too far away from singing away requests. Whilst I don’t try to overdo it (otherwise I might ape the north Korean classic, Ri Chun-Hee!), I do try to convey a lively tone of voice that won’t have the audience asleep within seconds!
  • I plan in advance at all times, so the audience is assured a smooth continuation of the event at all times. Where I am entitled to, I try to line up backstage performers so that I have at least the two following performances ready, in addition to the current one. I also try to, where situations permit, thank performers with a nice handshake before announcing who’s next.
  • I keep my cool at all times. Our erstwhile national news reader Leon Huber was a classic; even where masked protesters invaded the main news programme, he kept his cool, let the protesters have their 15 seconds of fame, then continued with the show as if nothing had happened. “Stuff happens”, and the only way around it is — to “smile ’em away”.
  • When co-presenting with someone else, I try to make it interactive not just between us two (or more), but also to make you part of our dialogue as well. This has often worked to great results. I’d like to put a “we” factor; “we” between all hosts, “we” between the hosts and the audience, and “we” for all of us in the entire event.
  • I use legible fonts like our classics a la Frutiger and Univers. (Although: I do use a personal font that’s neither the above.) Simplicity and consistency are key to anything I design, from slides to handouts. This is particularly true when I do actual speeches rather than merely emcee events, although for events I fully organise and emcee only, I also take the point to do “as shown on TV”-like “next event” screens. In anything I present, I try to reduce the amount of “superfluous colours” used; graphs, for example, are in black and white only, unless a point is to be shown, whereupon it’ll be in another visible colour. This instantly makes things that need to stand out, stand out.
  • Finally, like in many good Swiss institutions (the railways, telecommunications shops, and of course our flag carrier), absolutely everything is done with a hearty smile. It’s just the Swiss way. I have been served in many supermarkets around the world; regardless of whose passport I own, I look forward to the ones in Switzerland the most, as they really do smile at you — and the smiles are genuine — hardly ever “forged”!

I do always have something on me from the Helvetic Alpine republic (most likely my Mondaine Swiss railways watch!), probably also as a way just to remind myself of where all this quality is from. I love treating people in a professional manner — from a place where quality is written all over the wall. And because I know Swiss quality worked great for me, I’d like it so that it works for you as well!