Show Bites: Hook Your Audience With a Cold Open
Kate McKinnon was in the middle of her audition for SNL when senior cast member Bill Hader walked out of the room.
If you’re a performer of any kind, you know this is not usually a great sign. Even if you’re not a performer, you can probably imagine the crumbling feeling for an auditioner when an auditor leaves mid-performance. Hader’s reason for leaving, however, was much more positive.
You see, when senior cast members watch the new auditioners, Lorne Michaels gives them a very specific instruction: Don’t laugh. Sounds counterintuitive for a comedy program, but the idea, supposedly, is to test the auditioners’ confidence in their material. When Kate McKinnon (now well-known for her impressions of Hilary Clinton and Kellyanne Conway) auditioned, however, Hader just couldn’t control his giggles during her hilarious performance and was forced to exit.
Needless to say, it worked out well for McKinnon, who won an Emmy for her performances on SNL in 2015 and has gone on to make many a viewer double over with laughter in her numerous TV and film roles.
Now, you’re probably thinking: “Alright, that’s all well and good, and yes, Kate McKinnon is hilarious, but what does that have to do with showrunning?”
Well, my friend, what I’ve just presented you with is something called a cold open. A cold open is when the narrator or storyteller(s) jump right into a story without an introduction or credits. The technique is used in plenty of audio, visual, and written series and is famously used by SNL (if you Google “cold open,” you’ll find plenty of SNL video examples and even a screengrab from a McKinnon sketch headlining the Wikipedia definition), which is why I started this piece with a Kate McKinnnon story. #meta.
Why start with a cold open?
A cold open does a few things. Most notably, it hooks your audience within the first few minutes of your program, dissuading them from changing the channel (or re-browsing their streaming service, since it’s 2020 after all) or clicking on a different podcast. A cold open must be initially compelling, perhaps even surprising or unexpected, in order to grab your audience’s attention from the get-go and convince them to stay.
As huge volumes of media — from news clips to social media videos to binge-worth TV shows and podcasts to tweet storms — compete for our attention, grabbing audiences right away has never been more crucial to getting them to stick through to the end. That, ultimately, is really the most important thing we can do.
Because after all, as we’ve said time and time again and will continue to chant til the end of time: Great marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.
How to write an effective cold open
Cold opens have been around since the 1950s, and these days a lot of American TV shows feature them (think of how the gang from The Office used to get up to all kinds of standalone hijinks before the theme song came on, or how Breaking Bad unapologetically dropped viewers right smack into the middle of the action without recap or explanation). They’ve become quite the standard in podcasting as well — think of the number of shows you listen to that hit you with an anecdote before launching into the title or theme song and the host’s setup of the episode. Cold opens are fairly standard and expected in media, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely intuitive to create.
The first step is to decide which type of cold open you want to go with. Your options are: standalone, i.e., an anecdote that isn’t related to the actual episode but welcomes viewers and/or listeners into the world (like the SNL story example I gave above); a short intro that sets up what’s about to happen in the rest of the episode or show, like the famous Game of Thrones pilot (which, as disappointing as the payoff eventually was, ended in a pretty epic open loop); or a teaser that reveals snippets of events that will transpire later in the episode: The “stay tuned to see this in context” idea.
Once you decide which cold open best fits your show (or a particular episode of your show — you can feel free to mix these cold open types up), you have some classic storytelling tasks to put in place: figure out who your characters are, what they want, and how they’re going to go about getting what they want. (Kate McKinnon really wanted to get the SNL gig. But someone walked out in the middle of her audition — what happened? Oh, okay, it was a charming event born out of a genuine reaction to her talent. But I bet you were hooked by the drama those events set up, however brief.)
Ideally, your audience is hooked and excited about the rest of the episode to come. Of course, you still need to keep them invested for the next thirty minutes or so, but hopefully you have your unique vision, honest stories that are relevant to your customers’ values, and an engaging host prepared for this part.
It’s up to you whether your cold open fully relates to the rest of the episode or not. Personally, I always like when shows call back their cold open. It makes me feel like the host and I are in on something together (“Hey, remember that fun time when we shared this story experience?”) and feels like a little reward for continuing to listen. But as SNL proves, a callback to your cold open is certainly not necessary in order for it to be effective. As long as it sparks your audience’s attention and has something to do with the rest of the program, you’re golden.
Great marketing isn’t about who arrives, it’s about who stays. That’s part of what makes shows so powerful — the opportunity to deliver content that keeps enticing listeners and viewers to come back. But to get the chance to earn trust and love (aka, our jobs as marketers), to get the time investment from others required to develop that relationship, we first need to demonstrate to our audience why they should invest their time with us. Instead of starting with all kinds of boring housekeeping, six different calls-to-action and reminders, or five minutes of redundant summaries and explanations of the goodness to come, just start with the goodness. Don’t explain how great it’ll be. Make it great from the beginning.
If great marketing is about who stays, then in an ironic sort of way, how we start improves the chances people actually do.