Can You Tell a Story?

By Dick Orkin

Big question.

When are radio commercials—and the people who make them—going to get down to work and finally do better work? I mean work that will grab attention, with content that gets heard by head as well as heart; that fascinatingly informs, or even electrifies, or that produces smiles and chuckles and, most importantly, gets indelibly remembered?

Does it matter? Yes. So don’t raise the “hooray for radio” flag too high yet Bunky, because the diminishment of the radio audience as one that seriously counts for advertisers, may be nearer then you think.

Mellifluous voices and snappy jingles that lie to the audience with those “we are wonderful” slogans are okay, but for heaven’s sake, stop lying through your gums to one another. Except for a few spots that show up like a once-in-a-while bright star flaming in the night sky, the vast majority of radio messages are duller as all hell.

Why? Easy answer. No story, no drama. Tepid bath water draining out of the tub is more interesting. Stare at the water a few seconds as it sucks out through the drain, and you’ll see and hear what I mean, I promise.

I am talking about those spots that you had a hand in crafting with cliché phrases and overused words because your loopy logic told you that they’d work just fine. And it became loopy logic because the truth is closer to the likely fact that you’re on a tight schedule. And you’re convinced that audiences are your captives, and they’ll listen to anything you put out there. Even your personal laundry list.

An audience that will listen to anything: They won’t. They don’t. They never will.

Why? Because the communication is totally absent of a good story—told well with drama, emotionality and most often, with humor. A good story—even a half-good story as the only personal message device—hands down, that can assure communications effectiveness. And that means whether it’s to a mass audience on the radio, a room filled with an audience of 40 for a presentation, or a one-to-one conversation in a bar or café.

So what’s the problem? How did this self-deception baloney come about? The fact is that most people responsible for writing radio spots can’t recognize the seeds of a story if they sprouted legs and were crawling up their leg. And moreover, these same people absolutely don’t know how to tell a story.

An audience will listen to anything? They won’t, they don’t, they never will.

I must amend my cocksure previous assertion: most people do know how to tell a good story. They were hard-wired with that ability at birth. The problem is they can’t distinguish between their natural storytelling ability called upon almost everyday in their daily life and the same storytelling ability when it comes to a radio spot or a room full of people.

So what’s the difference?

The natural ability is called upon when the storyteller has a personal interest in the story. They either lived it or knew well someonewho did. It’s a story that so overwhelms their psyche (with its humor or horror), they have got to share it with someone. More than that, it’s a psychological-social need that compels them to win over the admiration and approval of the recipient. It grows out of the theory of the great psychologist Alfred Adler who developed the idea of the “inferiority complex.” He said, “As human creatures, we can’t live a satisfactory life of self-esteem if we are seen as inferior in some way, as opposed to superior or at least equal to our peers.”

With that idea hanging-out in our emotional storage room, ready for immediate use when needed, we can begin to understand why some can tell a great story in personal situations but are story-dry in advertising or public presentations.

“Your mother and I were up all night. There’s a damn cricket in the apartment.” My dad with the blood-shot eyes had a broom in one hand and a can of insecticide in the other. “We looked everywhere but ‘chirp, chirp, chirp’ all night long, over and over. Don’t crickets sleep? It drove us crazy. I’m exhausted,” said my weary mother, appealing for their oldest son’s help.

I listened for a few minutes. Found a 2-step stool, climbed on it, opened the small fire-smoke warning device on the ceiling, and removed the battery. What a boy!! He looked, he hunted, and with a few heroic moves, the oldest son destroyed the big, bad cricket in 30 seconds.

My parents spent the rest of the day laughing at their foolishness, and the next four months telling the story over and over again,

What do you, the radio writer, really know about the product or service? Not what the client’s technical brief tells you, but what do you know as a potential user in plain non-advertising language? I mean really know, because you researched it, compared it to similar products or services, and talked to people who used it and found it made a difference in their life? You did, didn’t you?

And have you ever been in a situation where you or someone you know well might have used the product or service or, in fact, did use it? And if it or something like it didn’t exist, what terrible or funny things might have happened?

And here’s the point of the story with my parents or anyone close to you: what would my father—a man with a most distinctive personality—say about the product if telling a friend about it? And what if he didn’t want the product? How would my mother—with a most distinctive personality—argue with my father about the need for the product?.

Immerse, immerse, immerse both in the product or service. Observe, observe, observe the people around you. If you take these products and services and people you know into your life, your natural storytelling ability has something it can use to build a story upon.

In radio advertising, the objective is to dramatize a benefit, not tell about it. Telling about a product is not dramatizing (and certainly not selling). But it will never happen if you don’t have a clear notion of what the benefit really is. Do you?

In Media UK (Mediauk.com) they said, “a lot of local and regional advertising can be product and price-based, and if people don’t know they should spend less on something, there’s no hope for them. But we can still dramatize the message: don’t tell people, show them in some dramatic and memorable way.”

Comments (1)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

The genius has spoken. This is what makes many locally produced
radio station ads (not ALL, but an awful lot to be sure) instant tune
out versus tune in. I TOTALLY get when an account executive says:
"I can sell that!" But when "that" is sold to a client who's hoping an
audience will listen to it--and they don't--maybe it's time to start writing
for listeners rather than your fellow radio folks. Movie critics often write
for OTHER movie critics. Any wonder why that movie you liked got nothing
but push back in the cinema review section? You can "add urgency"
until the veins are popping out of your neck and your face could pass
as a color palette for a beet poster. Of course, there'll always be a
place for that style and I'm not suggesting scrapping it completely.
But I suspect the approach Mr. Orkin's suggesting is that it shouldn't
be seen as an instant "go to" strategy. Some clients, of course,
might (and will) object. But it's been my experience (over 30 years to
be exact)...

The genius has spoken. This is what makes many locally produced
radio station ads (not ALL, but an awful lot to be sure) instant tune
out versus tune in. I TOTALLY get when an account executive says:
"I can sell that!" But when "that" is sold to a client who's hoping an
audience will listen to it--and they don't--maybe it's time to start writing
for listeners rather than your fellow radio folks. Movie critics often write
for OTHER movie critics. Any wonder why that movie you liked got nothing
but push back in the cinema review section? You can "add urgency"
until the veins are popping out of your neck and your face could pass
as a color palette for a beet poster. Of course, there'll always be a
place for that style and I'm not suggesting scrapping it completely.
But I suspect the approach Mr. Orkin's suggesting is that it shouldn't
be seen as an instant "go to" strategy. Some clients, of course,
might (and will) object. But it's been my experience (over 30 years to
be exact) when presenting ads done to the discipline Mr. Orkin suggests
some (of course, NOT all) of those business owners you thought you knew
after completing the mandatory customer needs analysis can (and will)
be pleasantly and grudgingly (or vice versa) more open than you think.
You've taken your share of rejection with the "tried and true". Why not
give plan B a shot from time to time. It's not like your ego hasn't taken
a beating up to that point. And if the guy who's suggesting this radical
approach could charge $10k for a single radio ad, I always figured
maybe it's worth looking into.

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Kurt Kaniewski
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