First, an apology. I have been out of the loop for weeks and weeks now, but I’m getting back on the bike today. In fact, I’m going to try using my “Artist’s Way” training and do my “pages” every morning. Not the write-anything-that-comes-into-your-head blather, but a paragraph or two on the creative process… whatever takes my fancy. There’s my promise, and I intend to keep it until I don’t.
Okay, today’s topic:
Grabbing Your Audience’s Attention
My family and I were at the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica – a pedestrian-only section of town filled with shops, restaurants, tourists, lovers, panhandlers, and street performers (buskers, as they say in Britain). Most performers are solitary in their pursuit of spare change – a guitar player here, a plastic bucket drummer there. They simply play and play, hoping someone will stop long enough to fish out a dollar. But then there are the SHOWMEN! They are the folks who play a loud CD, shout for attention, and herd a crowd together like a Ginsu knife salesman. They drum up their own business, creating an audience of 20 or more.
Well, we ran into just such a performer that balmy evening. Dancer-comedian is the best I can describe him, since he performed to an ambitious (though crude) mix of music, sound effects, and soundbite snippets. He was definitely entertaining (having just been a contestant on a popular televised talent show). But as we waited for the show to start, I realized that this fella was spending an inordinate amount of time pulling his audience together. He formed a neat but large perimeter, moved bodies around like a store window dresser, and steered strollers so that every inch was packed with human flesh. This went on for at least ten minutes. I finally squeezed myself out of the pack and sneaked off to take notes for this blog.
And what were those notes about? – Grabbing your audience’s attention. This guy did a swell job of getting everyone to look at him (mainly through his painfully amplified music), but once he had ‘em hooked, he spent all his time trying to make his audience perfect. That would be like playing the overture to a Broadway musical, then refusing to raise the curtain until the producers moved the audience members around into an aesthetically pleasing arrangement. Folks, there’s no such thing as a perfect audience. (As a stage actor, I know there are better “houses” than others, but it’s never perfect.) The main audience for my cartoon shows are kids in their underwear slurping cereal and tossing Cheerios to the dog… while building a Lego house… with his sister in a headlock. There’s no guarantee they’re picking up every wonderful word I’ve crafted. And that’s the nature of the beast.
However, back at the Promenade, our busker is still choreographing his audience, not realizing that these people are actually transients – shoppers and gawkers who just happened to be strolling by and thought they’d give this guy a minute of their time. Now he was demanding their undivided attention for a half hour
show… shaming them when they tried to sneak away.
Shaming aside, the street performer had broken a cardinal rule of storytelling: “You must grab and hold your audience’s attention.” (This is Secret #5 in my webinar on “The 7 Secrets of Storytelling.”) Your story must grab the audience. Grab their attention… their imagination… their hearts… their balls.
Quick side note
<<< “Wait a minute,” you ask. “How did Jymn suddenly jump from street performing to storytelling? They’re not the same thing, are they?” Of course they are! We are all storytellers. We tell stories every day. Some are true. Some are not. We tell stories to our teachers (“My dog ate my homework.”), to our significant others (“You have the biggest… smile I’ve ever seen.”), and to ourselves (“I’m gonna start a workout plan – tomorrow!”). We tell our stories consciously and unconsciously – with our body language, with the cars we drive, with the jokes we tell, with the way we treat others, and with the skinny jeans hidden in the back of our closets. Singing, dancing, walking, driving, or street performing – we’re all telling stories. >>>
Your story (the point you are trying to make with someone) should be interesting or relevant or entertaining. Mostly all three. It’s hard to believe, but people WANT to hear stories. They want to be engaged and entertained. But they won’t enjoy your punch line or your message or your wonderful finale if they walk out (or change th
e channel) in the first couple of minutes. (Syd Fields says to grab the audience in the 1st 10 minutes of a film or you’ll never keep ‘em.)
We are a nation of Instant Gratifcationers. We want our meals, our rewards, our diplomas, and our repairmen now, now, NOW! So the best way to appease today’s audience is with a hook, a gimmick, or something to pique their interest. That’s why films and TV shows often start with a teaser sequence. A murder… an actio
n sequence… a stunning visual. (Think of the Bond teasers or the opening of Raiders.) Here are some examples of attention getters:
- An interesting character
- Fascinating locales
- Flashback (or Dream Sequence)
Audiences can be fickle, so you’ve got to trick them into loving you (or your material anyway). And a big trick is to…
Make the audience forget their lives
Create a world that is so tasty, so cozy, so amazing, so shocking that the viewer completely forgets what he was doing. That’s not so hard with a theater audience; they have come specifically to enjoy your material – to let the lights go down and to share a communal experience. They are willing travelers. But TV viewers are a bit tougher. They may be doing homework, cooking, or snoozing – using the television as a radio, as background noise. Or worse! – flipping channels! And buskers have it even rougher; their audience wants to shop, get to a meeting, or grab some food. So the entertainer (the storyteller) has got to hook his fish quickly and not let go. Amuse, amaze, cajole! But don’t make ‘em stand a certain way or demand a participation they’re not willing to give yet. Cuz after you’ve got their attention… NEXT you’ve got to get their hearts. And that’s a different blog.