At Emmys time, when the US Academy of Television Arts & Sciences celebrates the best of prime time TV, it’s easy to overlook the precarious nature of TV drama. The annual process of renewal and cancellation by the TV networks grinds on for months. In this latest update, big shows like Homeland and Orange Is the New Black have reached the end of the road – most can only dream of lasting as long as they have.
It can be a brutal process. If your show isn’t finding or keeping its audience then you won’t stay in the schedules for long. But it’s focusing, isn’t it? Every season, the showrunners and writers have to work hard to keep their stories moving, keep them interesting, and find new things to say within the narratives they’ve created. Engagement narratives are just the same.
Having a strong, evolving company narrative is a must for engagement.
It’s non-negotiable. The challenge is to keep it fresh, interesting and relevant. Here are four essential disciplines in maintaining long-running stories that we can adopt from the demanding world of TV drama.
Don’t hold back. Getting noticed in the first place is half the battle for any story. Sleeper hits are far outnumbered by the fast failures. Same with your narrative: be bold and go big. Work hard on developing a story that’s strong and resonant. And make sure everyone knows that there’s something starting that’s not to be missed. You can be subtle later, when you’ve got everyone’s attention.
But be patient. Imagine a TV show that was essentially the same episode repeated week after week. Would you stick with it? Ask yourself the same question about how you’re getting your story out to people: is repeating the same message(s) over and over going to keep people informed and engaged? Probably not. Give people a reason to keep paying attention by not going with everything at the beginning. One of the great skills of storytelling is the unfolding of the narrative: what to reveal, when. Our brains can’t resist the desire to answer questions and explore new paths. Match the pace of the reveal to the need: long-term story benefits from slow reveal; short-term need prompt delivery.
Know who’s still paying attention and what’s working. Audience numbers and sentiment are tracked relentlessly in TV land. Are people tuning in? What do they make of the characters and storylines? Which time slots work best? Without the information everyone is flying blind. Make sure you have simple mechanisms to monitor engagement with your narrative. Surveys, conversations and polls should all be in the toolkit.
Review and refresh. Guided by the feedback you’re getting, keep the narrative in a cycle of review and refresh. Which storylines need to evolve? Have any of the main characters in this story changed? What is and isn’t resonating? Then build in the freshness without turning your narrative into a totally different story overnight. What you’re looking for is creative continuity.
Remember that narrative is a constantly evolving, living thing. Neglect it and it will die.
At Write the Talk we’ve mastered the science and craft of long-running narratives that change how people feel and behave, for the long term.
Want to be sure your people are tuned in? Get in touch.