Show Bites: Keep Your Audience Hooked with Open Loops
Creating shows to build passionate audiences provides brands undeniable benefits: we hold attention, gain trust, and both increase the lifetime value of our existing audience while decreasing customer acquisition costs thanks to word-of-mouth. However, this stuff can feel like a total mess of parts and pieces. Show Bites is our series of quick-hitting posts where we snap off a tiny piece of the overall work, rethink it, and try to rapidly improve.
In the spring of 2018, I attended a party that changed my life.
I’m a pretty ridiculously social person, and you’d be hard pressed to find me turning down an invitation to anything. But I almost did say no to this event, because I felt especially out of my comfort zone. I was worried I’d say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people, or that someone would find out my secret.
You see, I was invited to a party full of influencers. Not social media influencers peddling stomach-slimming tea on the Internet, but people who had somehow made a major impact in their field and (no pressure) in their community or the world at large. Everyone at the party was going to be in the top echelon of whatever they did, and it felt like a total fluke that I had received an invite.
How did I, a content marketing intern/freelance writer/freelance cellist and folk musician whom no one had ever heard of end up at a three-story lower east side penthouse apartment, sipping what was surely the most expensive champagne I’d ever been offered and pretending my thrifted dress came from a store in the meatpacking district? My boss at the time, Shane Snow, had been invited to speak about his new book, Dream Teams (since he is an actual influencer in his field), and he invited a couple of employees who had worked especially hard to help promote the publication. As part thank you, part social experiment, another nobody and I from the company did our best to step into the red-soled shoes of those around us. (I pretended I had not biked over the Williamsburg Bridge and grabbed a dollar slice of pizza on my way, for example).
The best part of the party, and perhaps the only reason I was able to get away with my imposter syndrome, was that the party had one main rule: Guests were not allowed to ask each other “What do you do?” We could ask what people were interested in, what they did for fun, where they were from and the like, but we were not allowed to ask how they made a living. The idea was to connect with people, not just network with them, under the assumption that we were all talented and interesting anyway.
With that rule in mind, you’ll never guess who I spent most of the evening talking to, and what I walked away with as a result.
Teasing Our Need for Closure
Hello again. It’s me, Tallie here, taking a step back from my epic party story to talk to you about showrunning. What I just did there was present you with an “open loop.”
Open loops are teasers that keep audiences interested and engaged. At the end of that anecdote, I bet you were left wondering who I talked to, and perhaps whether I made a fool of myself. Did I drink too much out of nerves and say something totally stupid to someone incredibly famous? Did I realize halfway through the night that I’d torn my dress whilst biking over? Or on the flip side, did I end up with a bit part in a Blockbuster movie or some other wild opportunity thanks to the interaction? The point of that open loop was to hopefully hook your attention, get you asking these questions, and make you feel the need to read to the end of this article to find out.
As Ira Glass put it for Jessica Abel in Out On the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, “I want to find the thing where, it pulls you in and you can’t not listen to it. You hear minute one, and then you can’t miss minute two.”
Open loops are essential in storytelling, and especially in audio storytelling. You need to give your audiences reasons to keep listening from the get go, so they can help you achieve the golden rule of podcasting (i.e., get them to the end). No matter how prolific your guest is or how interesting your topic might be, listeners need little moments to grab onto along the way to keep them excited to hear more. And we are creatures of closure — so when you don’t give us the immediate satisfaction of an ending, we’ll grip tightly until we get a resolution.
Creatures of Closure
A group of academics was sharing some food and beer, as academics are wont to do, in 1927 when they noticed something peculiar (as academics are especially wont to do). The server waiting on them perfectly remembered everyone’s orders without writing anything down. After he had delivered the meals, though, something interesting happened: he couldn’t remember who had ordered what.
Bluma Zeigarnik was among the diners in the group and became especially fascinated by this lapse of memory, going on to study the phenomenon in further experiments. What she found became known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Essentially, it posits that our brains glom onto uncompleted tasks when we don’t receive closure. Once he had completed his task and achieved closure, the server’s brain no longer needed to remember who had ordered what.
In a nutshell, our brains are hardwired to seek closure. When we’re presented with an open loop at any point in a story, we’ll want to stick around until the loop is closed, because something in our brains will go a little berzerk if we’re never given that closure. There’s always the chance your audience might not stay until the end even given the most enticing open loops — but they’ll likely be plagued with a nagging feeling that something is missing and bugging them. Darn Zeigarnik Effect!
Closing the Loop
Because we showrunners are (generally) not monsters, the audience has to trust that we will eventually close our loops. To reward them for sticking in and listening, watching, or reading, and in order to tell a complete, good story, we must offer a satisfying moment of closure.
As I got used to asking people “Do you like to travel?” and “How do you spend your weekends?” at the party, I became more and more comfortable answering similar questions with “I like to play folk music and write poetry for fun. No, I’ve never been to Greece, but I’d love to one day.”
Somehow, I ended up talking with a slightly older gentleman about love. (Not in a creepy way, I promise.) We were talking about the craziest risks we’ve ever taken (Me: quit my restaurant job to pursue writing full time without a full-time writing job, him: followed the love of his life to photograph her across Australia). As he was telling one of the most epic love tales I’d heard in a long time, his eyes still full of that hope and promise that only a first love can inspire, his story started to sound familiar. Wait, I thought, isn’t this the plot of a recent Adam Driver movie? It was — he was recalling the exact sequence of events of Tracks, a drama from 2013.
Either this man was totally bullshitting me and passing off a film he’d probably assumed I’d never seen as his own love story, or Adam Driver played this man in a movie. Based on how earnest and vulnerable he seemed while telling it, I was willing to bet the latter.
“I’m sorry,” I said, after he finished his story, “What was your first name again?”
“Rick,” he said.
After thanking him for sharing his story and excusing myself to run to the spotless marble restroom, a quick Google search confirmed that I had been talking with famed National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, whom Adam Driver had most certainly played in a major motion picture.
Before I left that night, Mr. Smolan admitted that he did “like to take photographs” and insisted that I leave with a copy of A Day in the Life of America, one of his 1986 collections. It sits proudly and lovingly among the collection of art books I’m trying to amass.
But what I took away more than a moving story or a beautiful book of photos was the magic that can happen when we stop ultimately wondering what we can get from someone thanks to who they are–their expertise, fame, connections, etc– and focus on what we have in common or what stories we can bond over. After all, isn’t that why you’re looking to create a show in the first place? To offer your audience something more meaningful from your brand that keeps them thinking of you and coming back?
I thought so. And in order to do that, open loops are your friend. Now go forth and get us hooked with your suspense.