Suddenly, the light bulb went on


In an age of diminishing attention spans, communicators must deliver the gist of the message in a flash. Images offer one way to penetrate the brain. And as I learned from a student in a feature writing class that I’m supposedly teaching, television theme songs, like the one from Gilligan’s Island, introduce audiences to a premise. Could spoofs and false mythologies be another arrow in the quiver of eyeball-hunters?

The two lightbulbs above were used to illustrate a Fast Company magazine article about the energy-saving potential of compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Here’s a snippet that gets to the point:

“Compact fluorescents emit the same light as classic incandescents but use 75% or 80% less electricity … if every one of 110 million American households bought just one … and screwed it in the place of an ordinary 60-watt bulb, the energy saved would be enough to power a city of 1.5 million people … In terms of oil not burned, or greenhouse gases not exhausted into the atmosphere, one bulb is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the roads.”

If doing your little bit to combat global warming isn’t enough, you’ll also save money, which is why I made the switch in my house. But that’s not my message. I’m thinking outloud about how to build audiences, and what medium has been better at that than television. Which is why I perked up my ears last night when a student in my class gave me back a better explanation for the “nut graf” or thesis statement of a feature story than any I’ve ever come across.

The nut graf, he said, echoing an interview he had heard, is the theme song from Gilligan’s Island :

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful trip.
That started from this tropic port,
aboard this tiny ship.”

So that’s a clever trick that worked in the era of three-network television. That ditty was drilled into millions of heads of my generation (and perhaps more through reruns). The song says: here’s what you’re gonna get by tuning in.

But that was three decades ago. We’ve already evolved beyond the 500 channels of cable television to 5 million channels of video over the World Wide Web.

How do we build audiences in that chaos of competing signals?

Perhaps by making audience building into a game through attention-getting tricks that trigger their curiosity? (To be continued.)