How having a sense of audience impacts storytelling


How having a sense of audience impacts storytelling

Creating a story that your audience will actually care about is never easy. However, a professor from Columbia University’s School of Journalism named James G. Robinson has something to offer. He wrote about a concept called “sense of audience,” which is all about constantly considering the audience’s needs and shaping the story accordingly throughout the writing process to ensure that the story will resonate with its readers.

This idea of being audience-focused isn’t just for writers, but for every type of content creator—content marketers, influencers, filmmakers and even speakers. It’s easy to forget who the content is for when you’re too focused on the topic at hand, branding, SEO, clicks or even yourself as the content creator. When this happens, you become the biggest obstacle to your content’s potential.

Here’s how putting the audience first impacts storytelling.

How having a sense of audience impacts storytelling

It brings real value to your audience 

Being audience-focused isn’t new. The term “sense of audience” has been mentioned in books published in as early as the 1820s, meaning people have realized the importance of understanding their audience’s needs even before the age of internet metrics and audience insights dashboards.   

Let’s see how this impacts content marketing. One of the secrets to developing a successful content marketing campaign is using the audience-first approach, which entails painstakingly crafting the strategy with a good understanding of the audience’s needs and putting those first right from the get-go.  

 Part of the process is investigating people’s pain points. And while metrics and digital tools are very helpful in identifying the needs and pain points of today’s modern audience, a lot of it still has to do with empathy. I like how Linda Boff, Chief Marketing Officer of GE, puts it: “We never want to come across as corporate. We want to come across as human.” 

When done right, people walk away from good content marketing with something useful, helpful and valuable. They bring with them an unforgettable lesson, a fix, a new perspective or inspiration. 

I personally like the recipe videos from Tasty, especially during its early days. The problem with written recipes is that they leave much of the process to the reader’s imagination, and many times they’re intimidating and confusing. I think Tasty understood this and, turning to visual content, created eye-catching instructional videos that are mobile-first, grabbing the attention even of those who are not interested in cooking at all. In this way, the platform has made recipes (and maybe even cooking) not only less intimidating but also enticing. 

It keeps your audience at the edge of their seat 

Have you ever wondered what makes thriller movies, well, thrilling? Film producer and author Dr. Kenneth Atchity, who’s known for his thriller movies, with the most recent being The Meg, said that dramatic order is all that matters in screenwriting. He said, “That’s all the audience cares about. If you hook us properly, it doesn’t matter where we go in the story after that hook because we will figure it out. We will be so hooked that we’ll figure it out.”   

The opposite, however, would kill the thrill and make the audience tune out and leave. Atchity emphasized that great directors know how to please the audience because they know well what the audience is waiting for. People who don’t understand this would approach a story in a completely different way, and this is why we sometimes have movies or TV shows that are bland, boring and utterly predictable.  

I love Gone Girl—I think it’s one of the best thriller movies of all time! There are a lot of unknowns in the story that literally keep viewers at the edge of their seat as they beg for answers. There are also several elements that make it very gripping—discontentment, marital discord, cheating, a disappearance, psychopathy and, of course, murder—unfolding one after another throughout the story. 

It gives them something to experience 

Developing content with sense of audience transports people into an experience. It takes them on a journey. 

In the past year, I’ve signed up to lessons on publishing community Reedsy. One of my favorites is about the Show, Don’t Tell principle where I learned that storytelling should be a sensory experience. Apparently, that’s how a writer can effectively draw readers in and keep them engaged. Writers do it by using dialogues to reveal personalities, describing a setting or moment as the character feels it, using body language to show emotions and omitting details to imply something. For example, instead of simply writing, “The room was really dark,” try making comparisons or exploring how the darkness feels or what memories it gives. 

Here’s an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women, which demonstrates how the Show, Don’t Tell principle allows readers to feel the overall mood of the scene as well as the characters’ emotions as they speak: 

Something in his resolute tone made Jo look up quickly to find him looking down at her with an expression that assured her the dreaded moment had come, and made her put out her hand with an imploring, “No, Teddy, please, don’t!” 

“I will and you must hear me. It’s no use, Jo, we’ve got to have it out, and the sooner the better for both of us,” he answered, getting flushed and excited all at once. 

“Say what you like, then. I’ll listen,” said Jo, with a desperate sort of patience. 

Laurie was a young lover, but he was in earnest, and meant to “have it out,” if he died in the attempt, so he plunged into the subject with characteristic impetuosity, saying in a voice that would get choky now and then, in spite of manful efforts to keep it steady— 

“I’ve loved you ever since I’ve known you, Jo, couldn’t help it, you’ve been so good to me. I’ve tried to show it, but you wouldn’t let me; now I’m going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can’t go on so any longer.” 

 If you’ve realized you needed to put your audience first the next time you develop content, ask yourself these questions: “What do I want to achieve with this content? What is the purpose?”, “Am I using language that my audience could easily understand?”, “Am I reaching them through the right platform?”, “Will my content help my audience in any way?” or “Why would people care about this story?” 

The relationship between storytelling and the audience is a huge topic, and we’ve only just scratched the surface here. But just remember: When you care about your audience, you’d have a better chance of truly connecting with them.