Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Your Attention, Please

It’s 9:00 am on a Monday morning. There are about a million other places you’d rather being than a training session, but here you are. The Training Program Specialist gets up, fumbles with his laptop, searches desperately on the cluttered desktop for the PowerPoint, finds it double clicks and… Still loading. Lots of images. Hold on. Almost… There it is!

A title slide, five different fonts (just to make sure you notice), some swooshy graphics in the background (you see this, right?), and a clipart drawing you’ve seen in a million other places of a successful team moving forward into a paradigm of a new tomorrow.

Some opening remarks, the agenda, and then you’re into the meat of the session. Yes, the Training Program Specialist speaks in a monotone. Yes, you might have laughed at his opening joke if you could hear him, but you’re finally going. Things seem to be moving along and he’s covered a number of slides and you’re positive the session is half over until you check your watch and-- FOUR MINUTES!?!?!?!?!

A quick calculation reveals that, at this rate, the entire training program will take 10,000 years to complete. Give or take. Albert Einstein once said when you’re sitting on an open flame a minute feels like an hour and when you’re talking to someone you’re attracted to an hour feels like a minute. That’s relativity.

So, going back to our training session, how would you change things so you no longer feel like you’re sitting on an open flame, but talking to that special someone instead?

This is the question we ask ourselves (though phrased a little differently) whenever we begin a new program or draft a new episode or even write a new scene. What about this is going to win our audience’s attention, defeating such temptations as watches, daydreams, phones, or opportunities to doodle?

Our work has captured the attentions (and the hearts and the souls) of audiences around the world. But not simply because we present our work in a sitcom format. The fact that our audiences are watching a “sitcom” is just a novelty and novelties always wear off quickly. Just ask anyone who owns one of those barking dog Christmas albums.

In order to capture your audience’s attention, we rely on three key ingredients:
  1. Familiar people 
  2. Familiar environment 
  3. Something in return for the audience’s time
Let’s break these down a little further, shall we?

We’ve learned audiences will focus on a show when they recognize the characters involved. They know the “by the book” accountant, the over-zealous sales rep, the timid intern (who also seems to have the best ideas). And they want to see what happens to these recognizable characters as they tackle the challenges in a familiar environment.

The familiar environment means more than seeing, say, a cubicle that looks exactly the one they’re working in. It’s also the situation. The 11th hour fight to submit a proposal on time, the unexpected visit from a client, the training session that never ends. Finally, we give the viewer something in exchange for viewing. But instead of, say, a keychain or pat on the back, we like to give a nugget of wisdom, teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish.

This is the thing that brings all of the pieces together, so when they’ve finished watching an episode, they think “Now I know when I’m working with that colleague, in that situation, I can avoid that problem by using this shiny new nugget of wisdom.”

Yes, there will always be situations where something will beat our best efforts for the audience’s attention. But we know we’ve got a much better chance of earning their attention (and they have a much better chance of actually learning something) if we give them familiar characters, familiar situations, and something they can use.

Now, turn off your phone or close your laptop and turn your attention back to the training program. You only have several thousands years left.

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