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Make Every Word Count. (The Art of The Thirty Second Story, Part 3)


In this installment of The Client Blog six-part series on The Art of the Thirty Second Story, we’re moving on to the second key element, and one that’s near and dear to my heart -  language. More specifically, writing.  To briefly recap, part 1 was about story and promo structure and part 2 was about The Hook.  In this post, I’ll demonstrate different writing styles used to solve different storytelling challenges. And I’ll have some helpful writing tips and tricks that every storyteller – whether 30 seconds or not – should use. Thanks for checking out the first two parts of this Client Blog series. Now, let’s get started!

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Here I am on-stage in Austin with a giant pencil behind me.  Because pencils write words. It works on so many levels.


As I mentioned up top, the second element to your story is The Language. Once you have a hook, you now need to draw in your viewer by picking the perfect style and choice of words to captivate them – language that will awaken their imagination or paint a picture for them. A great hook is meaningless if you can’t craft the right way to tell the story.  For the National Geographic brand, powerful storytelling is what it’s all about. SO much of our jobs are to use those words to inspire the viewer – we want to give them something amazing or memorable. And telling a story in a commercial break requires that you use more interesting or attention-grabbing language and don’t waste a moment.  After all, nobody is choosing to watch a :30 commercial, so you better work hard to earn their attention. And being a good writer isn’t necessarily a God-given skill that you either have or don’t have. Sure, not all of us can be Hemingway by any stretch, but there are some simple things that you can do that will absolutely make your scripts better.

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“Less is more. Except when it comes to the length of client blog posts.”


For frequent Client Blog readers, you’ll know that I am a big believer in “less is more.” And that mantra is especially true in promos!  After all – you don’t have much choice, right?  After the retail needs of your promo (covered in part 1 of this series) you are often only left with 15-22 seconds of time to tell your story and convince someone to watch. So, with that in mind, let the audience fill in the spaces sometimes. I love it when a commercial or promo allows the viewer to help fill in those blanks, to let their imagination support the story. Because our imaginations are always bigger than words anyway. Think of how you can sell your film in one sentence.  When you boil it down, what’s the quickest, and least amount of words to sell your story?  Because when you work in handfuls of words rather than pages full, you start to boil it down to it’s raw essentials. Adding fewer words also allows you to also inject emotion – when you fill up your story with too many words and lead the viewer directly where you want them to go without having to be a part of that journey, they won’t feel as much emotion. But when they feel like the journey is partially theirs, it can be a richer experience.  Also, avoid writing clichés that often slip into writing. In promo writing, the clichés are numerous and constant. There’s a lot of writing crutches that we use, and it takes practice to avoid them. For instance, one of my big writing pet peeves is using “From/To” in promo copy.  You know, like “from hippos to giraffes, the Serengeti is an amazing place.”  It’s an incredibly overused writing crutch, and prevents you from pushing yourself to write in new and inventive ways.  Same goes for classic promo copy like “Until NOW…” or “we’ll show you the weather like you’ve never seen it before.”  Work hard to avoid that language when you can – sometimes it’s true that your content IS something “like you’ve never seen before” but that sort of language is so over used that it tends to just fly right past the viewer, another empty-sounding promise. Stickier language will grab their attention, and engage their brain a bit more.

Screen shot 2015-02-10 at 10.00.50 PMAnd another thing to remember is to talk TO your audience, not AT them. This is big for promos – to make it feel less like we’re shoving something down your throat, and more like we’re telling a great story. How you pick each and every word is critical to your film or even your sizzle reel or promo’s success.


My first example of using language to communicate a specific message in a new way is for “Live Free or Die.”  I did a longer post about this entire campaign here, so if you haven’t read that, please check it out for a longer look at the spots and creative for that show. Briefly though, the show is about people who live off the grid, sustainably and with little impact on the earth. Viewers could easily see these people as dirty hippies in the forest or it could feel small and unimportant.  Our challenge was how to write a story that would feel more purposeful, more intentional – and one that conveyed that these people’s story is actually a reflection on a growing movement of people going back to the basics. And the language that Executive Producer and writer Erin Newsome chose captures that intention perfectly. Take a look, and more importantly, listen to the language carefully.

“Food tastes better with dirt on your hands.” “Fire is hotter in a house that YOU built.”  That is great language, and feels tactile, and sensory. It makes the simple act of having dirty hands or making a fire seem more purposeful, and important. And it’s language that will engage the viewer’s mind and put them right in that place in the woods. 

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In Austin, talking about copywriting in Wicked Tuna promo campaigns.

Coming soon to NGC will be the new season for one of our biggest shows “Wicked Tuna.” We’re now in Season 4 of this show, which is a great place to be because presumably people like the show, and know what it is – and the challenge often shifts to marketing because the format of the show is the same, the characters are more or less the same, so the key will be making this season stand out and get people to come back – or try it for the first time. How you write copy for those shows that are the same as before can be a challenge, and this tease shows how we are approaching this season.  Using the metaphor of morning fog in the Gloucester Harbor, once again Erin Newsome found some great language to speak to the pressures, the expectations and the anticipation of beginning a whole new fishing season.

It’s also clear what this season’s hook will be (no pun intended) – it’s the ‘biggest season yet’ – so the challenge here was how to GET to that point. The language chosen – “the air is so thick with promise” is also, again, very tactile and evocative.killing-kennedy-day-2_01365_final
Photo by Joey L.

Here’s an example of some powerful writing by Creative Director Tyler Korba. This spot, from last year’s “Killing Kennedy” campaign, is written from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald – with a menacing tone and an unforgettable ending, the language takes you on a frightening journey to that fateful moment of the assassination. 

Grab Attn


And sometimes your language has to work in different ways – sometimes less eloquent or poetic ways.  Sometimes you have to find a more engaging and unconventional manner to draw them in. We had a show called “Shark Kill Zone” on WILD which was all about sharks and their predatory power. It showcased the amazing strength and cunning of a shark, their habitats and struggles. Well guess what? That story’s (of predatory sharks) been told before. Like, a LOT. So we tried to find a new way to get the audience’s attention.  At the risk of potentially shocking you, I will warn you that this spot takes it to the extreme – but its brutal honesty and personality will certainly make you sit up and take note. Big props to Senior Writer/Producer James Introcaso for taking a chance and writing (and singing) this spot.

I can guess what you’re thinking. Trust me, there were a lot of raised eyebrows at Nat Geo about that one. But here’s the facts – that show rated double the prime time average, and was the #1 show of the week on WILD. It got people to sit up, take notice, and watch. Now, I’m not saying that the promo alone did that, but I do feel strongly that it had to help. It was ultimately honest, and respected the viewer – that straightforward approach with a twist can sometimes be the best way to tell your story. Take something conventional and expected and turn it on its head. So don’t be afraid to take risks and challenge the norm a little bit when writing – it can pay off!

End Big

The other important part of telling a story and the language you choose is to END BIG – as you build a story, have a big or at least memorable ending to your story. Make them want more. Leave them with a smile, or a wince, or without their breath.  Sometimes that’s done with language, or just the power of a great edit. Here’s a great example of using no words but delivering a powerful, building edit that culminates in one memorable shot at the end, truly ending with a bang. It’s definitely an editorial ending, but sometimes that’s the best writing you can use – none at all.

Another language twist we use in addition to ending big is thinking about the concept of Contrast.  What ISN’T your show? Think of the opposite of your show hook and lean into that. Go the opposite way of what the viewer is expecting. It’s exactly what we did for this Big Cat Week promo, with an ending that should make you smile.

In a similar vein is this promo for Showtime’s “House of Lies” which takes the idea of opposites to a different place – hearing one thing and seeing another. Clever concept, simple copy that sells the idea of the show – that Don Cheadle’s character will say one thing but means something else.

And one final example of an ending is this spot from a “Life Below Zero” campaign from last season. It punctuates with a strong, simple bite – and pays off the themes of the show succinctly and memorably. Combine that with tight, simple, powerful copy along the way, and you really get a nicely written and structured promo.

Now, you may say (similar to the Drugs, Inc spot) “how is this about the writing?” which is a fair question. After all  it’s mostly soundbites and just minimal copy. But that’s part of the challenge of writing in promo. Sometimes its about what you don’t write, to leave enough blank space for the viewer to get more involved in your story. And of course, an incredibly compelling edit doesn’t hurt! But when you have a line like “live cold or die trying” – that’s strong writing, and is the backbone for a message for the viewer to take with them. It’s important to not clutter, or add more than what you truly need to convey your story.


As I said at the beginning, writing isn’t easy, and it’s also not something that you’re either good at or you’re not good at. Like most things, it takes time, dedication, and practice to get better. Remember some of these simple tips – always cut and edit and trim and shorten your words. Give the viewer’s mind some space to process what you’re saying, and let THEM fill in the blanks. Think about what your show is about and go in the opposite direction. Pick fresh perspectives when telling your story to give the audience a new way to experience it.  Stay away from cliches or the easy way out.  Be bold when you need to, and tactile and imaginative when you need to. And always have a strong ending that leaves the viewer wanting to see more. Because if you fully satisfy them or tell them too much…they might not come back to see the show!  And having a strong ending is part of the next key storytelling element that I’ll be covering next time on The Client Blog and The Art of the 30 Second Story.