The pivotal scene in the recent Oscar-winning, The Darkest Hour, captivated viewers across the world. Winston Churchill—stuck between a Parliament resigned to accepting tyranny’s demands—and his own stoic sense of right and wrong, ventures down into the London Underground to speak to the people at the heart of it all.
Joining a tube carriage of ordinary Londoners, Churchill—who lunches regularly with the King of England—opens his ears and listens. Rallied by their conviction that Britain must stand up to Hitler at all costs, Churchill returns to Downing Street knowing what he must do.
Although it doesn’t re-enact an event that really took place, it is as the film’s director Joe Wright puts it, “a fictionalisation of an emotional truth.” He says that “Churchill was known to go AWOL at times, no one could find him. And he was also known to go and visit the people of London and seek their counsel, and have a little cry with them sometimes.”
The strength of audiences’ reactions to the scene demonstrates the love we all have for the sense that sometimes, absolutely anybody can affect big change. Leaders and influencers occasionally look to the masses, ask them their opinions, and listen. Sometimes it changes history.
I have a dream...
Speeches, with their innate power to incite action, are usually calculated with precision. There are speech writers and language consultants, oration coaches and press managers, all with the intention of finding the most powerful words delivered in the most powerful way. And yet, the most famous speech in living memory was born not out of meticulous planning, but from listening to the people gathered to hear it.
On the 28th August, 1963, Martin Luther King addressed over 250,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He began, in earnest, calling on the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. He reminisced about the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and looked back at all that the Civil Rights Movement had achieved so far.
There were several different drafts, written at various points in the run up to the march. Originally titled, “Normalcy, Never Again,” it underwent edit after edit. The night before the march, King was still not happy with it.
Gathering his aides in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, they discussed what it should cover. One wanted King to discuss jobs; one wanted more coverage of housing and discrimination. King dismissed them and went up to his room to work alone. He didn’t finish the final speech until 4 in the morning. That speech had no mention of the words “I have a dream.”
It no doubt would have been a very convincing, well-put-together call to action. But what it would not have had was the extraordinary spirit, the timeless electricity of King’s “I have a dream” speech.
And for this, we have Mahalia Jackson to thank. Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer, who had sung two hymns earlier in the day, was standing in the crowd. She’d heard King speak before and, when he was nearing his conclusion, and he hadn’t yet used her favourite bit of his usual recitation, she called out to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
And so he did.
The Final Problem
Sherlock Holmes may well be the world’s favourite ever detective. His popularity isn’t a recent phenomenon, either. The original books quickly propelled Arthur Conan Doyle to fame with wide readership in both Britain and America.
It did not go down well, then, when in 1893, Conan Doyle sent Holmes plummeting to his death off a cliff over the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle’s personal reaction was one of relief: “Killed Holmes,’ was all he had to say about it in his diary.
He assumed that because he was sick to death of the character, his readership would also be ready to see Holmes go.
He could not have been more wrong. The public outcry was enormous: over 20,000 readers cancelled their subscription to Strand (the magazine Holmes was printed in) and it nearly ruined the business.
In America, “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs were started; in London, rumour has it that men wore black mourning crêpes on their hats.
For eight years, people persisted in letting Conan Doyle know of their outrage until, in 1901, public pressure had grown so great that he gave in. He produced The Hound of the Baskervilles (a prequel, which featured Holmes earlier in his life, before the fateful fall).
But still people were not satisfied. Finally, in 1903, Conan Doyle relented and brought Holmes back to life, explaining how Sherlock had faked his own death. He wrote a further 13 Sherlock Holmes stories, much to the public’s relief.
The Obama Voice
Obama’s conviction, charisma and humility all contributed to ensuring he was one of the best candidates ever to run for presidential office. But was there something else that gave him the boost he needed to overcome the odds and make it to the White House?
When he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2007 and 2008, he only had two years political experience. He was up against Hillary Clinton who had the backing (and funding) of the Clinton brand. Not only that, but he was hoping to become the first African-American president in a country where racism is still a prevalent issue.
His campaign leaders did the smart thing and went to the people to get the insight they needed to successfully shape their messaging. A key focus group was shown different video clips to introduce them to Barack Obama.
What they learnt from this was that any clips which featured Obama’s voice, were very powerful. His recognisable, calming voice formed a strong connection with any members of the focus group who heard it.
On the back of this, all advertising for the Obama campaign included a vocal track of Obama speaking. And it definitely worked its magic.
Instinct can be pure magic
It’s a story that ought to go down in consumer insight folklore. Nigel Newton, as chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing House, yielded serious power in the world of books, and should have been expertly qualified to spot a bestseller when it landed on his desk. But, like all the best bosses, Nigel didn’t rely solely on his own opinion. Instead, when Joanne Kathleen Rowling’s manuscript came into his possession, he gave it to a non-industry expert: his eight-year-old daughter, Alice.
Relying on the instinct of a future-consumer, rather than analysing the manuscript with infinite industry know-how, turned out to be the best decision Newton ever made. We all have Alice to thank for those months that she nagged her father. Because he did publish it, and Harry Potter changed the publishing industry forever.
Public opinion defines history in all kinds of unquantifiable ways that slip under the radar. Whether something takes off, whether something flops: it’s mostly the people without influential voices who are deciding what makes it into the history books.
So going to the people before you release something into the wild can be the ace up your sleeve in giving your story the best chance of making it big.
Get in touch with Attest if you want a direct route to talking to the great masses. You never know, it could be what changes the path of your brand.