How do we keep audiences involved in the story?

Max Slevogt (“Scheherezade tells her stories,” painting by Max Slevogt. Public domain in the U.S.)

Max Slevogt (“Scheherezade tells her stories,” painting by Max Slevogt. Public domain in the U.S.)

Attention is a finite resource. Social-change groups have to excel at storytelling if they want to be heard in a noisy field. Here’s how.

Hook your audience early.

In online video, you’ve got about 15 seconds (if that) to grab your viewer before their attention starts to wander—to another video or website. That number is different for audiences of street theater or a film at a cinema, but the principle still applies: Your audiences must have a compelling reason to start—and continue—engaging with your story. The organization behind the popular live storytelling series The Moth suggests that storytellers “start in the action.” Don’t say, “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain,” but rather, “The mountain loomed before me.” (For inspiration, read Gawker’s “The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction.”)

Leave part of the story untold.

Questions and mysteries can draw an audience to your stories and keep them interested. As playwright Bryan Delaney has said, “Starve the audience of information to make them work their brains.” A story is given shape not only by what’s in it but by what’s left out. The website Upworthy has become famous (and reviled) for producing a stream of “irresistibly sharable” stories about “stuff that matters.” The site’s success is thanks largely to its headlines, which are designed to inspire curiosity that can only be satisfied by watching the video stories. Radio host Ira Glass says, “The whole shape of a story is that you are throwing out questions to keep people watching or listening and then answering them along the way.”

Build suspense through intercutting and serialization.

Another way to inspire progressively deeper interest is to create serialized stories—just look at the success of Charles Dickens (whose novels were originally published in serial form), soap operas, or the Serial podcast, which the New York Times says is part of an upsurge in serials. Another way to build suspense and interest is to intercut different scenes or chapters of your story—switch back and forth from one subplot to another, or between different characters’ perspectives, as two speakers from Resurrection After Exoneration did to excellent effect. In each scene, you leave your audience curious to know what happens next.

Use pictures.

Seeing Is Believing, Resource Media’s guide to visual storytelling, reminds us that visual imagery has a profound effect on emotions, and recommends testing your visuals with your target audience before going full throttle with them. Also, pair words with pictures, have subjects make eye contact with the viewer, and make sure your images match your message. The Network for Good guide Storytelling for Nonprofits offers some similarly useful advice: Write photo captions, because people are more likely to read captions than other blocks of text. Think about the best opportunities to get photos for your organization: Solicit photos from your members on Pinterest, hire a photographer, or shoot photos at your organization’s special events or actions to illustrate your work.

Further exploration:

  • Serial Storytelling, a webinar by See3 featuring former TV correspondent Mike Lee.
  • 1 in 3 Women,” a short video with a twist about how a third of the world’s women don’t have a safe place to go to the toilet.