I’ve worked a lot in the theatre. And one of the experiences that has stuck with me happened in a marketing meeting about an unscripted play, early in it’s development.
I asked the director to tell me, as far as possible, what he thought it would be like.
What he described was so abstract and inaccessible that – desperate to find some sort of selling point to work with – I found myself asking: ‘So… what’s in it for the audience?’
He looked at me for a moment, annoyed. Then said, ‘To be honest, I don’t particularly care.’
Apparently he was under the impression that this was my problem.
This is surprisingly common. This weekend I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which had just as evidently been made without anyone thinking to ask. ‘Who’s watching?’
I got angry.
I could describe all the things that frustrated me about the film – sketchy characterisation, a bewildering array of irrelevant cameos from the director’s celebrity chums, plot strands picked up and abandoned all over the place, dialogue so clumsy and inconsistent it made me bite the inside of my cheek (‘I’ve come to realise there are only two types of people; the beautiful and the ugly. Everyone in between is merely cute’’).
But you didn’t come here to read a review.
Being paid to make something that other people will experience is a privilege.
Professional storytellers should never forget that audiences are the people who pay for them to play for a living – and that’s not a position most people are ever fortunate enough to be in.
In practice, this means asking yourself ‘Who is this for?’ (and coming up with a better answer than ‘people like me’).
In his book Copy. Righter, Ian Atkinson advises writers to bring demographics to life by creating a ‘pen portrait’ of an imagined audience member.
“Use an invented example; a name, a picture and a description. Think about their likes and dislikes… the way they talk… what interests them and what winds them up. Then write as if you’re talking to them.”
I also like to ask myself three other questions:
- Why are they here?
- What do they want?
- What do they need?
If you can answer these and keep them in mind as you work, you’ll have a pretty good barometer whenever it comes to making a tricky creative decision or getting a project back on track.
As social media makes everyday storytellers of us all, this has become a more important consideration for anyone who wants to avoid winding up their friends and family online.
The brilliant 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook blog looks at what makes some Facebook posts so annoying, and boils the answer down to the same crime that pretentious creatives have been indulging in forever.
A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it, he says, providing this helpful diagram.
What this tells us is that audiences expect this kind of consideration from their friends.Just as in real-life conversations, they consider anything less to be impolite.
As professional creators, we are strangers to most of our audience. Unlike their friends and family, we have no legitimate claim on their patience beyond the value our stories have to offer them.
So if we want to win them over, we need to remember another memorable lesson I learned in the theatre.
Never, ever, turn your back on an audience.