I Want To Tell You A Story

“I want to tell you a story.”  Like many comedians, Max Bygraves understood the power of the story to attract and keep an audience’s attention.

I discovered recently, having been involved in marketing a new shop, that the best window dressers describe their displays as ‘stories’.  Put simply, it’s that the colours, the props and the products themselves should work together to create an idea in customers’ minds.  This might be that certain dresses and accessories will go well together on a night out or perhaps ‘You can make your mum happy on Mother’s Day’.

In the marketing of entertainment, we too need to tell a story in order to sell tickets.  Fliers, posters or brochure covers communicate in the colours, the style and the words what the show or venue is about.  Bright colours put across fun and excitement- check out Grease’s signature pink.  Black and white suggest something sexy and sophisticated-  think of the consistent effectiveness of Chicago’s marketing even after all these years.

Then there’s the image.  As the old Chinese proverb says, ‘one picture is worth a thousand words’.  (Actually the saying was coined in the 1920s by Fred Barnard, an American PR man, who said it was an ancient proverb to give it more cachet.   Marketing people, eh?)

Love Me Do

We work in show business so we know how much appearance helps.    Brian Epstein took The Beatles out of their jeans and leather jackets and put them in suits and ties.  The story was, we may be revolutionary but we’re loveable and family-friendly too.

Pictures must tell the story of the show. I’m worked on a show called Tango! Tango!   The main publicity photo was a sensuous shot of an entwined couple, not on the dance floor but isolated in a cavernous space with one shaft of light picking them out.  It says everything about the all consuming passion of the dance in an otherwise cold world.

How pictures and text are arranged makes a big difference.  This is sometimes called design—  a concept apparently unknown to some promoters and venues!  In a good design, the eye will move around the advertisement in a journey that will keep the attention, focus it on the key message.  Most importantly, like those shop displays, the images will work together to say something about the show or venue.  The ‘story’ suggests to the customer what they will get out of it accompanied by the information about where and when it can be seen.

The most obvious way of telling a story is through words- whether in a press release, in brochure copy or in a mailing. They offer an excellent opportunity to talk at length about not only the plot but the backgrounds of the stars and what the customer will experience.   It needn’t take 200 words.  It can be done in an advertising slogan.  ‘Lie, Cheat, Steal… all in a day’s work’ said the poster for Glengarry Glen Ross, and that says it all.

‘Feel The Magic’ was a phrase I used.  It didn’t merit serious analysis for its meaning but ‘feel’ and ‘magic’ conjured up for the audience the appeal of going to the theatre.  OK, that’s a very short story.

Like Max’s stories, your words and images must grab the attention, keep them interested and lead to a punch-line, which in our case is another ticket sold.  That’s a good idea, son!

Your Life Your Style or Your Wife’s Store Trial?

From pop song lyrics to customer complaints, it’s easy for us to mishear what’s being said

For years I thought Jimi Hendrix in the song Purple Haze said, ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ when in fact it was the much less obvious ‘while I kiss the sky.’ I’m not alone- a survey last year showed that this was the second most misheard song lyric. The first being from REM’s Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight. You probably thought Michael Stipe sings ‘Calling Jamaica’- I know I did- whereas in fact he says very quickly ‘Call me when you try to wake her.’

By the way, did you know the Sidewinder referred to in the song is an old fashioned telephone, so called because it has a coiled cord like a Sidewinder snake? Probably not. Since none of us knew what the song was about anyway, I don’t think we can be blamed for getting the words wrong.

When you’re in business, clarity is vital, as it’s very easy to upset a customer with a wrong impression. I remember when I worked at a theatre, I received a complaint from a customer about the bad language used by the Fairy Godmother in apparently criticising the orchestra. I was puzzled, so I took a further look at the pantomime and heard the Fairy actually say, ‘What a funky band!’

It’s so easy to mishear what someone says. I still cringe at the time I was on the phone to my health insurance company about my hernia. ‘What size is it?’ said the woman on the other end of the phone. My mind raced over possibilities like a golf ball (too big) or a marble (too small) when the image of a quail’s egg popped into my head. I have no idea why- I don’t eat or even like quail’s eggs- and as soon as I said it I realised I sounded like the most pretentious snob. All the worse when she responded, ‘No, what side is it?’

These thoughts about mishearing came to me because of yet another thing I misheard last week. To give a bit of background, Winchester, where we are located, has a few problems with late night drunkenness, which is bad for our image and can be a physical threat to late night revellers. The presence of adults is known to calm situations down.

So I was pleased when one of our young employees at Your Life Your Style told me how she came out of a club late one night to be offered a cup of tea by some Christians. I thought she added ‘And Jews had coffee.’ Before I dwelt too long on the prospect of some wonderful multi-faith activity in which perhaps the Muslims were there too handing out cocoa, I realised she actually said, ‘and juice and coffee.’

It reminds me of a humorous greetings card I saw in which the wife is saying, ‘You only hear what you want to hear’ to which the husband responds, ‘Thanks I’ll have a beer.’

This article first appeared on the Southern Daily Echo website also at blogger.com

I’m A Celebrity, Steiff Bears & Record Theatre Audiences

Last week London’s West End reported an attendance of over 14 million in 2010, missing last year’s record by a whisker. A BBC report desribed a ‘golden age of theatre’.

So why are we living in this golden age? Partly it’s the quality. If you provide cheap production values and lazy content, audiences stay home. By contrast, last year’s West End’s hits are challenging plays and intelligent musicals. But the main reason is, I think, to do with it being live. We’re all aware nowadays of how packaged and mass produced so much of what we consume is, including entertainment. Consequently, there’s an appetite for things that are or appear to be authentic.

At one end of the spectrum, you see it in the popularity of ‘reality’ TV shows and a desire to see behind the celebrity masks. Elsewhere it’s the trend towards naturally produced food or, as I see in my shop Your Life Your Style, the demand for handmade products like Steiff bears and Dartington Glass. A theatrical performance, where we join a live audience to share in the real emotion communicated by actual people, is the organic wholemeal loaf of entertainment.

Whatever the reason for this golden age, it may soon be over. Cuts to arts funding are threatening many great producing theatres, local and national. So, enjoy it while you can.

This post also appeared on Blogger and in an extended version on the Daily Echo website

Paul Lewis owns the shop and online retailer Your Life Your Style