Before coming to Weber Shandwick, I worked as a freelance editor. It was often my job to not only tidy up the commas and conjugations, but also to offer advice about how authors might improve their storytelling. The most common observation I made on that subject? Authors could afford to pick up the pace. Particularly in the latter half of a narrative, there was often too much stuff that wasn’t of great interest to the reader, which got in the way of the stuff that truly was. At this point in the story, I would tell authors, it’s important to keep things moving. Above all else, what readers care about is What Happens Next.
You know what? It isn’t just readers. Viewers, listeners, consumers of any kind of media made for any kind of purpose — we all want answers, we all want conclusions, we all want to see what’s around the corner. And we want it more than we want anything else from a piece of media.
An Attempt at Scholarly Analysis
It’s hard to prove an assertion as general as the one I just made, but I’ll try. Let’s look at the 10 most popular TV shows last year:
- Five were police procedural/crime-solver shows, a format in every way engineered to tease the audience’s interest in knowing what’s around the corner.
- Three were reality shows, whose competitive elements and “unscripted” vibe give viewers the sense that anything is possible.
- One was a recurring sports event (Sunday Night Football), and though sports fans can go on for hours listing all the reasons they tune in, every sports fan’s experience boils down to this: They’re dying to see how everything plays out.
- Finally, there was one sitcom. Sitcoms tend to thrive on character and flavor rather than plot, resetting to more or less the same “normal” at the end of each episode and incorporating only one or two major events per season (e.g., Rachel and Ross getting married). However, the characters we love would be flavorless if all they did is sit around and “be funny” for 30 minutes. To show off their charms, they have to be put in motion. And if you look closely — as the writer Noah Charney did, before writing this analysis in The Atlantic — you’ll see that the stories in a single sitcom episode are as painstakingly plotted and mapped as a jewelry heist. Though the outcomes of the episodes generally don’t alter the overall course of the characters’ lives, the hook is still there: We’re watching because we want to see what happens in this new situation our beloved characters find themselves in.
Every genre has aesthetic elements that make them unique, and which we definitely find enjoyable. But what every genre — and, I’m arguing, every message in general — has in common is a structure that appeals to our interest in What Happens Next.
So what does this mean for marketing? What should a brand or strategist take away from all this? Well, your audience is no different from a TV viewer.
Satisfying = Surprising
Whatever they’re consuming, whether it’s a video with a bona fide narrative or a blog post without one, your audience is always thinking Where is this going? If it goes nowhere, or somewhere unsatisfying, you’ve lost your audience. You’ve turned someone who was curious into someone who is no longer interested.
What makes a destination satisfying? Surprise. A mystery you already know the answer to is not worth following to the end.
So the lesson here is something like “don’t spoil your endings,” except it isn’t just the finale we’re talking about. If the end were all that mattered, sitcom writers wouldn’t meticulously pace their plots down to the minute, and sports fans would rather check the final scores than sit through the entire game.
The allure of What Happens Next is alive at every stage in the audience’s experience. And that means that we, as communicators, have to manage that allure at every stage. Since our audiences are constantly wondering Where is this going?, it’s our job to constantly ask Where am I taking them? How am I getting them there? What am I revealing to them now? What revelations do I have around the next corner? How can I satisfy their curiosity but also intensify their interest in finding out more?
These questions should be habitual, a lens we’re always looking through. That’s the best and maybe the only way to craft messages that engage.
Actually, it’s just the beginning. The real work is in the next step: giving kick-ass answers.
Photo courtesy of Giulia van Pelt.