“Hamilton” & Creativity

You could roll out a wheelbarrow full of adjectives and still not capture the brilliance that is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

When I saw Hamilton at the Public Theater in February 2015—in previews, before any critic had anointed it as the groundbreaking work it undeniably is—I was astonished at how quickly it grabbed both my attention and my heart. Specificity. Complexity. Intelligence. Emotion—all the things I preach about to my clients, right there in one wondrous package.

Standing ovations have become the rule in New York rather than the exception. Someone in the front stands up during the curtain call, so everyone has to stand or miss seeing the actors’ bows. But the moment that preview performance of Hamilton ended, the entire audience leapt to its feet simultaneously. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I probably never will again.

I’ve seen the show twice now—it’s even better on Broadway than it was downtown. But as remarkable as Hamilton is, what’s even more remarkable is the tsunami of creativity it has unleashed.

There’s the a cappella group that condensed the entire show into a beautifully arranged seven minutes.

There’s the fabulous opening number, which has been parodied in many ways by many people, including Lin-Manuel and the cast themselves: giving it the Sweeney Todd treatment at a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund-raiser and using it to introduce host James Corden at last weekend’s Tony Awards.

But this may be my favorite Hamilton-inspired song—the children from the cast of Fun Home (itself a remarkable, groundbreaking, inspiring, multiple Tony Award-winning show) addressing themselves to Lin-Manuel directly:

[vimeo 164477520 w=640 h=360]

“Gee, Mr. Miranda” – Fun Home at Easter Bonnet Competition 2016 from Broadway Cares on Vimeo.

Simple words

Insecure writers often fall into the complexity trap. If I use complex words and syntax, they think, then people will think I’m saying profound things.

No. Generally what happens when you use complex words and syntax is that you lose your reader’s attention.

You’ll lose that attention even faster if you’re using complex language in a speech. At least when it’s in print, people have the option to go back and re-read. Although you shouldn’t count on it, what with shortening attention spans and increasing demands on our time. In a world where people practice “one and done” when reading and processing emails, how much time do you think they’ll make to re-read and decode your Joycean business prose?

But don’t people equate simple words with simple thoughts?

Try this speech on for size—this video links to the closing five minutes or so. Dean James Ryan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education uses the simplest of words—a two-syllable, two-word question fragment—to hook his listeners. He follows up with several other simply worded questions. But he uses those questions to build a though-provoking and even profound message.

I’ll admit the setting does help. Few people will accuse you of being simple-minded if you’re speaking in front of a backdrop that has HARVARD written all over it.

But, really, who wouldn’t be proud to give this speech, or one like it? James Ryan connects with his audience—he got your attention, right? (And you’re just watching on video.) He takes us into unexpected territory. He makes us think. He moves us.

And this part of his text never rises above a 9th Grade level. Ninth grade! The kinds of students Harvard accepts could probably understand that before they get out of elementary school—and here he is speaking to graduate students. Here’s the full text of his speech, if you’re interested.

Dean Ryan asks five excellent questions (and a bonus sixth at the end). I have one more for you: Do you want your audience to focus on your ideas or do you want them to focus on  decoding your language?