Radio people talk about theatre of the mind a lot. And they should!
It would be better if they used the strategy as much as they talk about it, but it’s an important concept nonetheless.
Here’s the late, great Stan Freberg’s explanation:
And if you’re interested, compare these two scenes, one as a radio drama, the other as a Hollywood production and tell me which engages you more fully:
But is theater of the mind limited to radio?
Here’s a current print ad campaign making excellent use of Theatre of the Mind:
And since this campaign came straight out of Mad Men, I’ll let Don Draper explain it:
Got any Theatre of the Mind in your ads?
Let’s say you raise chickens and farm eggs for a living.
And unlike big agribusiness, you’re trying to raise your chickens under humane conditions, to follow the spirit and not just the letter of the law for “organic,” and that your chickens truly are “free range.”
How do you compete with all the aggribusiness jerks who cut corners, spin words, play the loopholes and then get to claim the same “organic” and “free range” titles as you?
When the average shopper looks down at all her options staring up at her in the Whole Foods aisle, most of her choices are all going to say the same things, over and over again: organic feed, free range/cage-free, omega 3s, yada yada yada.
How do you make your eggs stand out in a sea of sameness?
Alfreco Farms specifies “108 SQ FT Outdoors Per bird.”
They put a number to the idea of “free range.” And that added credibility was enough to win my sale.
And you not only know, but FEEL in your gut, just how big the difference is between Alfresco Farms’ pasture-raising and some mega-farm’s “organic” and “cage-free” practices.
So when you’re faced with a similar challenge, give this a try: Put a number on it, then paint a picture.
P.S. Note that this company also tries to use alternative labels and certifications: “pasture-raised” vs. “free range” and “certified humane” over and above “certified organic.” All good things to do, but none of them have the power of putting a number to the claim.
OK, before we do anything else, just watch this Audi Superbowl Commercial:
Now, let’s talk about why that’s such an amazing piece of storytelling…
How Long Is a Moment?
There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to Steven Spielberg that talks about feature-length movies as “60 two-minute scenes” — with each scene capable of capturing and riveting the audience’s attention. It’s a fabulous way to think about filmic storytelling.
And, for advertising, it works just as well on the small scale.
Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that a moment lasts 2.5 to 3 seconds, which is also roughly the same amount of time our brains can hold and process in working memory.
Handshakes last a moment. So do hugs. So does a glance into someone else’s eyes. Go longer than that and it’s both more than a moment and more than a slight change!
A moment, then, is exactly how long a single, vivid mental image is held in the mind’s eye. Draw the imagery out too much longer than that and you’re either building tension or risking the loss of your audience’s attention.
So for me, I don’t think of a 30-second spot as 30 seconds, I think of it as 10 great moments (or 20 moments for a 60 second spot).
That’s 10 mental images, each vivid and interesting enough to capture the imagination, strung together to form a riveting mini-movie. For a TV spot it’s a real mini-movie, and for a Radio or Print Ad, its a movie in the mind. Either way, creating one is a game of sequencing mental images for maximum impact.
All of which leaves only two questions:
- How do you pack as much wallop into each 3 second moment/image as possible
- How do you ensure that the moments all build into a meaningful story that ends with a bang
Packing Wallop Into a 3-Second Moment
Obviously, this is a big topic. Whole books could be (and have been) written about it. But here are the main techniques that come to my mind when I think about making each moment count:
- Entering late and leaving early through ritual,
- Visual Intrigue Through Imbalance (aka trouble),
- Forced participation/closure/enthymematic communication,
- Vivid & Striking Imagery (+ Persuasive Imagery) and Symbolism
- Speaking to Self-Image
- Leveraging High Stakes
And while all of these elements are important (and can be found in the Audi ad) I can’t help but feel that the first one, the use of ritual, or what Terry Rossio describes as situation-based writing, is the key to most of the others. It’s also the one that struck me the hardest when I watched Audi’s 2013 Superbowl Ad.
Watch the ad again and see if you can’t pick out every single ritualistic moment that whaps you in the face every three seconds:
- Looking in the mirror before a big event
- Mom seeing you off before High School Prom
- Younger sibling/sister as truth teller
- Dad handing you the keys to the car
- The visceral thrill of firing up a high-performance V-8
- Pulling up to and glancing over at the other car at a light
- Looking on with envy at the antics of the (limo-riding) in-group
- “Burning” the other car at a light
- Parking in the “Big Man’s” reserved spot to thumb your nose at authority
- Strutting into a building while cooly flicking the car lock remote
- Entering a happening dance/club/party
- Stalking your way through a crowded dance floor/club/party.
- Spotting the hottest girl in the room
- Approaching a hot girl dancing in the midst of all her friends
- Taking a chance at kissing the pretty girl of your dreams
- The high school fight (over a girl)
- The post-fight black eye (worn with pride)
- The post-kiss sigh of ecstasy
- The “it was worth it” rebel yell
- The ending message: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”
What you’ll notice, as you watch the film, is that the vast majority of those moments come and go before you ever have a chance to get bored with them.
The ad always enters these scenes late and then leaves early because the creators chose each moment with care: they’re either archetypal American growing-up rituals or just everyday, everyone-has-them rituals. No backstory or explanation required; we encounter them in media res and instantly know what’s going on.
Not only that, but many of these moments are further augmented by multiple camera shots within the space of a single 3-second moment. These storytellers are putting the peddle to the metal visually, ’cause they ain’t taking a chance with losing your attention.
Only two of those moments are allowed to linger and grow pregnant with suspense:
- Spotting/walking up to the girl and kissing the girl being one sequence, and
- The brewing, shocked, then angry reaction of the prom king.
Those sequences grow past a single moment because they gain in suspense and interest as they move past three seconds in length.
He kisses her for more than a moment, which sends your mind off spinning: How long is he going to kiss her? Is she going to slap him? No, holy crap, she’s kissing him back! Shit, her date sees him, he’s about to deck him, isn’t he?
The other thing about these particular moments is that they’re the obligatory scenes in the story.
Once the inciting incident kicks off —- once you find out the kid is going to prom alone — the question arises as to what he’s going to do about it. What’s he going to do at prom when he gets there? Yeah, he’s got a cool car, but what’s he going to do after he parks it and shows up at prom all alone? These moments answer that question, and so they deserve to play out over more than just a few seconds.
And this idea of set-up and pay-off brings us to…
Story Arc — Connecting Moments Together Meaningfully
The counterpoint to Spielberg’s blurb on “60 two-minute scenes” is his quote on story structure:
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
So it’s not only about individual scenes — they still have to be connected in a way that makes a point.
Obviously, this is a HUGE topic that many of the greatest minds in history have tackled. So by all means, go read what Aristotle had to say on the subject. Go read McKee’s Story and all the other modern-day story structure gurus.
But also, let’s maybe bring this down to the level of a blog post and talk about some quick and dirty how-to’s. And with that in mind, here’s what I’ve got for ya:
- Why “Therefore” and “but” are GOOD connectors, while “And then” sucks
- Brian McDonald on 3 Act Structure in a 5 minute documentary,
- Roy H. Wiliams on Choosing an Angle, Framing Your Scene, and Deciding How to End
- Set-ups and Pay-offs
- How Narrative Misdirection Makes Set-Ups and Pay-Offs More Powerful
- Applying Save The Cat‘s Beat Sheet to a 30-second Ad
And again, for me, the first element is key. If you’re not connecting one moment to the next through causation or upset, then what’s the point? Either you’re paying off the promise of a previous moment with a “therefore,” or you’re throwing the audience off-guard by subverting their expectations with a “but then.”
If you’re not doing one of those two things, you’re probably wasting time and losing the audience’s attention.
What Makes Great Theatre and Holds Attention
Ultimately, most ads suck because people think they’re making ads, and are willing to accept ads that sound like ads. They think ads don’t have to grab your attention and hold your interest like a great movie or TV show or radio drama.
They are breathtakingly, spectacularly wrong.
This is explained brilliantly over at the Sell! Sell! Blog [Emphasis Mine]:
The things that make a print advert work are the same things that make an editorial layout, or piece of printed art strong. The things that make a TV commercial great are the same things that make a TV programme, film or piece of video art great. The crucial difference being that, obviously, the ultimate job of the commercial work is to meet its brief; sell a product, change your opinion about something, etc. But still, the things that make it work in the end are the same craft skills that make other things strong in that media.
The problem comes when you forget this, and you think about making adverts. People tend to do things to adverts that they wouldn’t do to an editorial piece of design, or to a film. But unfortunately ads don’t get processed differently by people. Either it’s good or it isn’t good. There are no excuses just because it’s an ad. But still, people try to cram in way too much information, over-the-top branding, social media logos, and other guff, because it’s an ad.
Sometimes it makes you think that people, clients and agency alike, have forgotten how to make interesting things that also happen to be great ads, and they only know how to make things that look and sound like adverts.”
So the question you ought to be left with is: does your ad guy just make ads that sound like ads, or is he a master at grabbing and guiding people’s attention and desires?
Could your copywriter have scripted anything half as good as that Audi Ad?
P.S. Special shout out to my colleague Tim Miles for inspiring me to dissect this ad and answer exactly why I like it as much as I do.
That means take the dramatic focal point or purpose of a given scene, and move the “cut” or “fade in” — the entrance — as close to that point as possible. Eliminate the preamble.
Then, exit the scene as soon as you’ve accomplished the dramatic moment. Don’t tie up the lose ends and don’t spell out the ramifications. Let the audience fill in the gaps between one scene and the next.
This emphasizes the drama by cutting out the “boring bits.” And it works. But almost no one ever mentions the importance of ritual to this process.
Because a ritual is a defined process, one can enter into the middle of one and have perfect orientation around what’s going on — what happened before entering the scene and what to expect next. Expectations that can then be harnessed for suspense and/or subverted for surprise.
And ritual offers the same help for leaving a scene early: the audience already knows how the ritual is supposed to end. So the writer doesn’t have to show you, or he can highlight the dramatic departure from the ordinary by foregrounding how the ending differs from expectation. Brides are supposed to walk out of the church married to the man they met at the altar, so running away from the altar with a crazy man that showed up halfway through the ceremony (like in the graduate) is pretty dramatic.
Here’s a great video example of John August editing a newbies script and applying exactly this principle:
The ritual, in this case, is checking into a hotel. We’ve all done it, we know how that ritual starts and ends — so why show all of it?
For advertisers, entering a ritual late and leaving it early lets you squeeze more story into less air time. Like this Clorox ad:
The entire ad is built around a ritual that is then subverted to make a point. And that would be cool enough if it was just a typical 30-second ad, but if you look at the timeline on the video, it’s actually a 15-second spot. Clorox compressed the ad into half the typical timeframe, allowing them to combine two of these style ads — two full story arcs — into a 30-second ad-space.
Enter Late and Leave Early Through Ritual!
An images story appeal is its ability to cause viewers to imagine the story surrounding the captured moment. What happened before and after the moment depicted in the painting of photo, and, by extension, what’s the meaning of the moment being captured?
The idea is for people to see the image and ask themselves, “What’s the story here?” That’s story appeal. And at least according to David Ogilvy, story appeal is crucial for advertising imagery, which makes it a skill worth studying.
And with that in mind, is there anybody in the world better at creating images with story appeal than Norman Rockwell?
Just take a look at the following:
Any chance you could look at any of those and NOT understand the story that’s being told, not “picture” the immediate before and after moments belonging to these images?
How He Does It
Rockwell’s depicts rituals.
It is the easily recognized and self-identifiable nature of these American rituals that give his paintings their emotional appeal. And because we recognize the ritual, we also instantly know what took place just before and after the moment captured in the picture. In our minds, we enter into the storyland Rockwell illustrates for us.
Without ritual it’s much harder for an audience to have that reaction, or for an image to exert that kind of story appeal.
Show me a car driving down the road and I feel no automatic urge to enter into the story of that car and it’s driver. There’s no ritual there. Show me a car driving down the road that’s dragging a bunch of shoes from the bumper and has a “Just Married” on the back window, and the story becomes clear — both of what happened before the couple got into the car and what’ll most likely happen when they get out of the car at their destination.
That’s the storytelling power of ritual. But ritual isn’t just limited to sacraments and formalities. We all have our daily rituals, too. Show me a guy climbing into his car with his travel coffee mug and a briefcase, and I’ll think “commute.” Our take lunchtime for example:
Why This Matters
While the importance of story appeal is obvious for visual ads, it’s important for radio (and TV) ads, too. Here’s why:
Just as every writer has heard the advice to “Show, Don’t Tell,” every writer of drama has heard the adage to “enter late and leave early” when writing their scenes. Basically, skip the exposition at the beginning (enter late), and let the audience figure out the obvious conclusions while you move onto a new scene (leave early).
But that sort of begs the question: how do you do that?
Answer: tap into the power of ritual — show recognizable situations.
And how do I know this works and is sound advice?
- Famous, working screenwriters have offered it up as sound practice
- The two most famous directors of our era, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, see Norman Rockwell as a kindred spirit and brother storyteller, and
- Spielberg specifically mentions the importance of ritual when discussing the influence of legendary director John Ford on his work: “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures. I grew up with John Ford movies and I know a lot about his work and have studied him. I think the thing that might resemble a John Ford movie more than anything else is that Ford celebrated rituals and traditions”
An Advertising Example
Want to see an interesting example of a commercial that taps into the power of ritual and both enters late and leaves early? Check this out:
So what about you? How are you harnessing into the power of ritual and story appeal with your ads?
When animators, and often times writers, wish to show an internal, emotional state, they’re forced to look for and use “objective correlatives.” In other words, they have to use the outward cues and signs that correspond to the emotion.
And just as importantly, they then have to “animate” those cues and signs through a form of artistic exaggeration. For instance, when a man sees an excruciatingly attractive woman, his pupils will dilate, his eyes will widen, and his heart will race a bit, or “skip a beat.” This is all relatively subtle (even if the attendant leering and head snapping is not), but subtle is not how animators need to do things. So this is how they represent it:
Understand that this is not just crude exaggeration, but instead represents a process of:
- Finding the right cues and signs (aka small specific details) for a given emotion, reaction, or situation
- Exaggerating those cues and signs through the animation principle of Squash and Stretch.
Applying This to Your Marketing
When asked what makes them different, unique, and better, a whole lot of Main Street Businesses end up with the response that “we care about the customer,” or “we simply provide better quality and better service.”
Yet while it’s wonderful that they do care — I wouldn’t want to write ads for a business owner who didn’t, frankly — you simply can’t put that in your advertising and expect results.
So what do you do?
You look for the objective correlates and you apply some squash and stretch.
In other words, what are the signs and cues of your caring and your superior quality? Caring is an internal state on your part. How does the customer end up sensing or experiencing that care? What actions do you take and what sacrifices do you make because you care?
If you insist on higher quality, how does that play out in the construction process? How does that impact the customers experience of your product? In what ways would they be sorry if they didn’t get that higher level of quality?
Now exaggerate and animate these things in your advertising. So let’s suppose you own a bakery that specializes in donuts and, well, you really care about the quality of your donuts. And one of the objective correlatives of that is that you’re willing to get up at an ungodly hour in order to ensure that your morning customers will get freshly made donuts each day. Here’s what a little squish and squash might do for you:
If the squish and squash part seems a bit tricky, you’re right to think so — it IS tricky. And if you’re guessing this doesn’t just apply to the ads, but to the business itself, you’re guessing right on that as well. Creating some objective correlatives and then exaggerating them a bit is a big part of imputing quality and “learning to think like the customer.” More on this later : )