This happens to everyone. It’s happened to you.
You have something to tell people, but you don’t know how. You don’t want to lecture, you don’t want to bore…
You want your audience to be eager. On the edge of their seats. Mouths gaping. Eyes bright. Hearts racing.
There’s only really one way to do that.
Tell a compelling story.
You can smuggle all kinds of information into stories. And you can get people excited about hearing more if you promise to reveal something compellling, then postpone it.
I’ll show you what I mean in a moment.
(See what I did there.)
Now you can do it too.
I learned that trick pretty early in my career, as a magazine writer on business magazines, then on the Financial Times, where I was a writer and associate editor.
I realised that if I wrote something tantalising in the first few paragraphs, then “but I’ll come to that later”, I was much more likely to keep the interest of my readers.
It helped me to become a feature writer of the year, in national newspaper awards. And got me lots of freelance work with glossy magazines like Wallpaper and Harpers Bazaar.
The documentary maker Michael Moore applauded my work, as did the film and theatre director Richard Eyre. The late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, once told me: “Very good. Very funny… In fact, it made me laugh.”
But there’s lots more you need to know.
I mean, I can’t tell you everything at once.
After all, I’m drawing on a lot of several different storytelling disciplines, each one magical in its own way.
For instance: theatrical improvisation.
When I started training with the impro legend Keith Johnstone, he sent us on stage alone and invited us to entertain our audience for as long as we could manage, with no preparation whatever.
Quite a scary prospect, no? Gets the heart racing.
Mind you, we’d been training together for quite a while by then – I went on to work with Keith over several years – and we thought we were pretty good.
But individual audience members had been given explicit permission to stand up and leave quietly if we lost their interest.
Can you guess how long they stayed?
15 minutes? That’s the length of a TEDx talk. (I’ve done three of those.)
2 minutes? Less?
Go on, have a guess before you read on.
Remember, we were making up our material from scratch, from one instant to the next.
It’s a hell of a discipline. Very easy to panic when you’re standing up there, looking at all those faces.
I tell this story when I teach storytelling in companies, non-profits, schools and prisons.
I tell it when I’m teaching journalism at City University, and the London University of the Arts.
It’s important for young journalists to understand how hard it is to keep an audience.
And I tell the same story when I’m teaching authors to write memoirs, on week-long residential courses run by the Arvon foundation. (I’ve published a couple of memoirs myself, and I’m a published novelist. My books are available in 16 languages.)
If you made a guess, you probably want to know the answer now. Here it is:
On average, audience members stayed for just fifteen seconds, even for trained improvisers.
Fifteen seconds is not much. About as long as it takes to read 50 words out loud.
And 50 words is a relatively short paragraph, for most people.
As a journalist, I was taught to make my intro shorter than that, to be really compelling. “Grab the reader by the throat,” they told us.
Some journalists do that brilliantly.
Others, not so much.
At the FT, I launched the new Saturday magazine in 2003. I was stunned by how boring some writers’ intros could be.
Felt like an insult to the reader.
Whether you write, or say things out loud, try not to insult your audience.
Tell better stories.
And if you want some help, you know where I am.
JP “storyteller” Flintoff