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Listen Up! And Know Your Audience. (The Art of the Thirty Second Story, Parts 5 & 6)

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For this final post in the series “Art of the Thirty Second Story” I decided to condense the final two parts into one larger piece. Thanks as always to the team behind the work being showcased in these blog entries (more names that can be mentioned – but a special shout out to my team at Nat Geo), and a huge shout out to Jon and Cristina at Masters in Motion, who invited me to give this talk back in December. And thank YOU to everyone who read, shared, and commented on the content in these posts. I really appreciate it.Masters in Motion 2014-77Photo by Evan Bourcier.


So first up is the Fourth Key Element – “The Sound.”  Sound is obviously key in any film and it’s especially important in promos. Viewers may not be watching when your promo comes on – maybe they’re in the kitchen, or on their tablet, laptop, etc. Making your show, spot, or sizzle reel – stand out amongst a sea of clutter in a placement surrounded by things viewers DON’T want to watch (commercials) requires great sound. We’re all attracted to things that sound great – that jump out of the screen and bring dimension to the pictures we see. Sometimes the best sound is sound that you never even notice, but that immerses you into that world.

Photo by Michael Muller.


Your sound needs to grab the viewer. I like to think that we should of course compete with the loud world of marketing clutter – but not shout along with it.  Startle them, disrupt the commercial break, get the person on their computer or in the kitchen to sit up and notice. That goes for the beginning of the spot for sure – have an entry point to either your music or your sound design/effects. Open that door with a bang – and that bang can be silent, or unexpected.  Remember – don’t shout, because a whisper can sometimes be more effective. And just like your :30 should have an opening, don’t forget to have an ending! Don’t fade the music away – end the spot with punch rather than a fade. In promos, the mix and effects and music are all critical to a promo’s success. If it feels flat, or doesn’t pop, it’s going to run together with everything else. It should be clear when it starts and ends, and leave the viewer wanting more.  Here’s a spot fittingly called “The Sound” for the new season of Wicked Tuna that is all about the sound of a fish on the line. It has a strong sound (“It all STARTS”) and tight ending.

Here’s another example of a powerful use of sound to help motivate the story. This is a teaser for a show called “Life Below Zero” – it just used the sound of the place to tell the story. Simple bold and attention getting – we literally set out to cut a promo that SOUNDS cold.  The crackle of the ice, the crunch of snow under your boots. This spot – about life north of the Arctic circle – feels cold because of the icy soundtrack. You instantly know what the show is, and it uses sound, language visuals and graphics to pull it all together.

In a similar vein, this promo for Taxi Driver on Cinemax is a great example of letting sound lead picture. Sound IS the picture in many ways, and you can’t help but continue to watch the whole spot as the sounds guide you along. Granted, it’s a :45, but the time goes by like it’s a :15.

Sometimes sound that goes in the opposite direction of where you’d expect keeps the viewer off balance in a good way. This spot goes a little unconventional, with soundbites from talent but never seeing them talk.  Weird, non adventurey music, silent patches when you’d expect to hear big sound – all of it makes you sit up and take notice a little bit more.

Here is a :15 teaser called “Chronometer” that actually has the sound of a chronometer keeping rhythm during the spot, but succeeds in keeping you off balance with images that startle paired with that tell-tale tick-tock.

The last spot I’d like to show demonstrates how the perfect song choice can help move your story forward. Sound is really what gives the goosebumps. It tickles the emotions, and helps guide your audience where you want them to go. If you’re making pitch or sizzle reels – half the battle is finding the perfect music.  That’s what gives ‘em the goosebumps. Notice in this spot not only the music, but how it is still balanced with the crackle of bark being ripped off a tree, the sound of metal rubbing rock, and all of the little touches that bring the environment to life a little bit more.

Like I mentioned before – the goal is not to scream louder. It’s to be smarter with your use of sound.  Say less, surprise the audience, make them fill in those blanks like we talked about with the language.  If you’re pitching a short film with a trailer – spend time picking that music. Do your mix correctly.  Sound can lead to goosebumps more than most other things, so make sure you’re paying attention to every single detail about how your piece sounds.



And the last and final Key Element to any great :30 story is – “The Audience.” After all, if you’re going to tell a story, you need to know who your audience is.  You can’t be blind to that – any more than you can tell a campfire horror story to a group of toddlers! You must know who your audience is, what their triggers are. And that goes for all stories – whether in a documentary, sizzle reel or promo.  Know what they’ll say before they say it.  If you’re doing a personal project – which I am a big believer in – then your audience is yourself and you should do whatever you want and be selfish about it. But for all other projects, if you’re not thinking of your audience, you may end up just talking to yourself.

At Nat Geo, we have the luxury of being able to customize the message from time to time – to make sure we’re talking to the right audience and hyper-customize how we sell a show.   After all, we control our commercial breaks, which allows us to know exactly who we’re talking to.  So we definitely use that to our advantage because in TV, your ratings are built on bringing people in, keeping them there longer, and having them come back more often.  But that can be a challenge when one night you air a show about fishing, and the next you air a science show about your brain. So we get creative and figure out ways to connect shows. This example is exactly for that challenge I just mentioned. How do we convert the audience for Wicked Tuna – to Brain Games? It’s not easy, but here’s an example of how we tried to do it.

As I said, it’s important to know your audience. To understand what they want, what they need.  Because we’re not making shows for ourselves, we’re making them for our viewers, and our potential viewers. So when you try to sell your show or concept or film to either a network, website, whatever – you need to know who you’re talking to – and who THEY want to talk to – and completely and customize your message to them.

Masters in Motion Andy 9On-stage at Masters in Motion. Photo by Evan Bourcier.


Too often, pitch reels for shows are a “one-size-fits-all” approach that could work for multiple networks. If you can – customize your pitch for your audience.  It’s important that you not produce just what YOU want to see. Think about what the network will want from your film. You must customize your story to whom you want to reach. And that requires diligence to understand who your story will appeal to.  And while you must focus your message for your viewer, you must also remember not to limit yourself, either. My final promo example is for Brain Games – while our target viewer is any adult 25-54 in America (a very wide target) we don’t limit ourselves to making just a one-size-fits all spot. We have a host in Jason Silva that is well known to a younger, more savvy audience, and he’s fairly well known for creating Youtube videos where he rhapsodizes and philosophizes about technology and futurism and the human condition in sort of a free form “rant” – so we wanted to create a spot where Jason can be Jason and do his thing, and it could spread across social media, to his fans, and existing fans of the show.  We’d never use this spot off-channel to viewers who know nothing about the show, but for that existing audience of Brain Games fans, it’s a wonderful example of not limiting but rather expanding your creativity to deliver to those who already know your content.


So I’m gonna wrap it up now. I hope this blog series has been helpful in some way, or insightful, or entertaining. Because whether it’s marketing a show in a :30 promo or crafting a multi-part mini-series, the beats of story are the same. You can tell a story in thirty seconds, and you should learn those skills. It just takes discipline and focus. You must remember your objective, your target and your goal.  Focus on the little things, pay attention to details. The production value is key and today’s consumer recognizes quality, and expects it from their entertainment.  We all want the same thing – to inspire people, to tell stories. But we must be realistic about today’s media-saturated world, and the fatigue that the audience has for that over-saturation.  You must make that viewer fall in love with your story first, and we all have to be our own marketers of our content. Use the tools of storytelling: the hook, the words, the visuals, the sound – to do just that. Thank you so much for checking out the blog – and look for more posts coming soon!

Photo by David Thomas.