And They’re Not All In Their Underwear, Either: Tips For Storytellers To Better Understand Audiences
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of students who have gone through mandatory high school public speaking classes have learned a dubious old maxim in an attempt to cure stage fright: Just imagine that the entire audience is wearing only underwear.
Aside from the questionable thought process behind this piece of advice (Is it meant to make the speaker feel more important than the audience rather than intimidated? Or just meant to introduce some levity into an otherwise terrifying situation?) it’s problematic for another reason. In a well-concocted, well-presented story, the audience isn’t a punchline; in fact, it’s much more central to the storytelling process than most storytellers are aware — whether we’re advertisers or authors or terrified high schoolers desperately hoping to pass speech class.
It’s forgivable that audience awareness falls by the wayside. There’s a lot for a storyteller to think about: They’re thinking about their plot, their adjectives (“does saying ‘rarefied’ instead of ‘elite’ make me sound smarter?”), and their sentence structure, but all too often, little attention is paid to who is actually reading. This editor is guilty of it, too. Regularly.
So to keep us all in check here are three, extremely basic truths that every storyteller needs to know about his or her audience — whether that audience is intended to be soccer parents, dog owners who might buy a marketer’s client’s new line of leashes, or a group of beer-toting guests in your living room who absolutely must hear the story about the time you almost hit a 15-foot-long alligator while driving a golf cart at a Caribbean resort.
1. Your audience doesn’t know everything that you do.
When a writer hands something over to an editor — whether it’s a 500-word news story or a 500-page novel — frequently the editor’s first comments will be something about a hole in the narrative, or a reference to something that the editor simply doesn’t understand.
That’s really not a dig against the writer. In reality, particularly if the writer’s work is a long one that’s required hours or days or weeks of immersive effort, it can be easy for him or her to become so absorbed in the work that elements of the story start to make perfect, obvious sense to them even though an uninitiated audience wouldn’t have a clue what they mean. Or, if the writer is recounting something that he or she knows well, crucial steps in the storyline can be hopped over. (Sample editor’s comment: “What happened to the guy with the noose to catch the alligator? Did he go away after your 911 call? In your narrative, he just kind of disappears and is never mentioned again.”)
Hopping over crucial parts of a story is a great way to confuse readers, or at the very least, to watch their attention careen off a cliff. And the likelihood that it happens is evidence that even if a story doesn’t have an editor, it would do well with at least a second pair of eyes.
2. Your audience is eager to get to the point.
Some of us are great at going off on tangents, and yes, in conversation those tangents can be incredibly funny and turn into stories of their own (“Wait, what were we talking about again? Before the thing about the elephant attack at the circus. Oh, we were talking about the alligator incident — what had you just told us?”) But they’re terrible at getting anything across to an audience whom you’re hoping to educate or convince.
Particularly where brand publishing is concerned, the audience needs a hook early on that will tell them what they’re going to learn, and the subsequent story needs to stay on target. Even bestselling authors aren’t necessarily good at this — it’s the reason why many Amazon and Goodreads book reviews contain comments like “beautiful prose, but unfulfilling.”
Without keeping it top-of-mind at all times that the audience ought to be reminded of why they’re reading, stories can wander off or unravel and lose the reader’s attention quickly. Budding journalists are taught how to subtly keep referring to their “nut graf,” or the early paragraph in a story that tells them why they’re reading. This is key to ensure that even the most distracted-by-kitten-video-in-the-adjacent-browser-tab readers will not just have a firm grasp on what the author is trying to convey to them, but find the content compelling enough to spread and share.
And that brings us to item no. 3.
3. Your audience wants a reason to retell.
“Oh, my gosh. You have to hear this story about my friend who was driving a golf cart on Key West at midnight and she almost slammed into an alligator, like, a really big one.”
Alas, this editor cannot tell you a guaranteed way to make content go viral, be it digital or word-of-mouth. A little secret: The overwhelming majority of marketers who promise clients that they can make content “go viral” are full of snake oil, and the overwhelming majority of eager brands who pitch their agencies on “creating a viral video” are met with eyerolls on the other side of the table.
But here’s a truth. As humans, we love to tell stories. We love to tell good stories, and we love to pass along the particularly good stories we’ve heard. No number of Facebook “like” buttons or esoteric SEO juice will make people want to pass along a story that simply isn’t worth passing along. (This is probably obvious.) The basic question to ask is: “Why would anyone ever want to tell this story to anyone else?”
Justifying a story’s appeal to an audience requires specifics. “Because it’s awesome” is not a good enough answer. “Because there’s an alligator and everyone wants to hear about alligators” isn’t either.
But “Because they’ve never heard this one before, and it should caution them all to be more careful drivers, especially in small open-air vehicles in parts of the country where humans aren’t the only apex predators around” — that’s a start.Image by Kelly Nelson / Shutterstock.com