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Acanthus insights:Content that engages your audience - 10 lessons from writing for the theatre

Posted on 21 August 2016.

There is a tendency for professional and financial firms to decide what they want to say and then to put a lot of effort into trying to craft content that they think works both in terms of being clear to the end audience and formatted appropriately in the context of the plethora of communications channels we now have to deal with.

Content that engages your audienceRarely, however, do the needs, wants, response and reaction of the end audience get effectively baked into content programmes.  Activity is essentially inside out not outside in.

Marketing metrics – click throughs, shares and the like - rarely tell the whole story and are unhelpful in isolation or against benchmarks that may in themselves be somewhat arbitrary.

Actually talking to the end audience about how they consume content, why, what they do with it and how they react to it is rare. This is particularly so in firms where marketing sits the other side of the relationship management or sales team from the end client or customer – both B2C and B2B.

I have just spent a week on a creative writing course on writing for the theatre.  Unlike in business often those who write for the theatre are not short of feedback.  On first nights they look at the audience not the stage. Lessons I took away for my day job as a marketing and communications specialist were:

  1. How you say it is as important as what you say. For example most corporate video production is still focused on talking head subject matter experts most of whom won’t win awards for their lively delivery.
  2. Use visual language. I don’t mean infographics which are often too long and complex for their meaning to be easily digestible.  A simple diagram or chart, a photo, even a cartoon is better.
  3. Be clear. In live theatre you don’t get to rewind if they didn’t understand it the first time.
  4. Tell a story. People remember stories and anecdotes not facts.  They engage with the emotion and resonate more strongly.  An audience will remember the general sense of a good story for much longer than lists or collections of facts and figures.
  5. Tone of voice consistency is important.  An actor who can’t hold his accent is never credible in a part.  Consistent tone of voice aids credibility as well as familiarity. 
  6. Rehearsals are vital. Anyone who speaks in public regularly knows this but equally written content is often produced at speed to tight deadline with insufficient editing time being made available.  Planning can help as can being less ambitious about length, frequency and so on. 
  7. Editing is a much underrated skill. When content no longer has to be cut to word count to fit on a page, the discipline of getting the red pen out on your own or others’ work can go out of the window. Usually you can get your point across in half the time with fewer shorter sentences and less self-indulgent demonstration of one’s own knowledge or research.
  8. Remember your audience might be a broad church. Particularly with social media- you might draw an audience you didn’t intend. Technically much of your audience may not be as expert or knowledgeable as you.  If you make your work too full of jargon or obscure language you’ll have a smaller audience.  It may suit you to have your audience self-select but often firms are keen to reach more not fewer people.  I thank the person who once told me off for using the word cognisant for this – he helped cure me of (some of my) verbal pretensions. No one likes a show off. Unless they really are paid to show off for a living…
  9. That said there’s nothing wrong with a bit of showmanship. While I am not suggesting you start every meeting with a tap dance routine and wave jazz hands at your clients, there is a uniformity of content and delivery across sectors that makes it hard for clients and customers to distinguish between firms.
  10. Move the action forward. This is my personal struggle in creative writing.  I write great individual scenes but struggle to move the plot forward to a conclusion.  So much financial and professional services content fails to deliver a call to action.  One comes away with the question “and what am I supposed to do with that information” oh so often.

As an industry we need to spend more time listening to what consumers actually do want and need, and how they express that to themselves and those around them. Like playwrights, we could usefully do well to look at our audience’s reaction to our work more often.

contact@acanthusconsulting.co.uk

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