Question One: Who's Listening?


Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth made me angry. It seemed like it had been made without anyone thinking to ask. 'Who’s watching?’ 

I could describe all the things that frustrated me about the film – from the sketchy characterisation to the clumsy dialogue (see: ‘I’ve come to realise there are only two types of people; the beautiful and the ugly. Everyone in between is merely cute’’). 

But you didn’t come here to read a rant or a movie review. And if I wrote one here I'd be just as guilty of forgetting what my audience came for in favour of indulging myself.

And actually, watching the film was a powerful reminder that professional storytellers should start every project by asking themselves: ‘Who is this for?’ and coming up with a better answer than ‘people like me’.

In his book Copy. Righter, Ian Atkinson advises copywriters to tackle this by fleshing out demographic info with their own ‘pen portraits’ of imagined audience members.

“Use an invented example; a name, a picture and a description. Think about their likes and dislikes… the way they talk… what interests them and what winds them up. Then write as if you’re talking to them.”

I also like to ask myself three other questions:

  1. Why are they here?
  2. What do they want?
  3. What do they need?

If you can answer these questions, and keep them in mind as you work, you’ll have a pretty good barometer whenever it comes to making a tricky creative decision, or getting a project back on track.

As social media makes everyday storytellers of us all, this has become a more important consideration for anyone who wants to avoid winding up their customers - or even friends and family - online.

The brilliant 7 ways to be insufferable on Facebook blog looks at what makes some Facebook posts so annoying, and boils the answer down to the same issue.

"A Facebook status is annoying if it primarily serves the author and does nothing positive for anyone reading it", he says, providing this helpful diagram.


Posts that fall into the un-annoying B and C regions are always either:

1) Interesting/Informative


2) Funny/Amusing/Entertaining

What this tells us is that audiences expect this kind of consideration from their friends. Just as in real-life conversations, they consider anything less to be impolite.

As professional creators, we are strangers to most of our audience. Unlike their friends and family, we have no legitimate claim on their patience beyond the value our stories have to offer them.

So if we want to win them over, we need to remember a key lesson any theatre director worth their salt will tell us: Never, ever, turn your back on the audience.

[This post was originally published on Feb 15, 2016].