An Open Letter to Christian Producers, Publishers, and Writers in four parts
1. INSPIRE OR EXPIRE
As a producer, publisher and distributor of media products I am constantly approached by authors, artists and their representatives to assist them in either producing, publishing or distributing their products.
In the last week I have been approached by five of these well-meaning individuals. One wanted me to make a movie about his idea, another wanted me to sell her music CD, a publisher wanted me to sell their book, and two others wanted me to produce videos to compliment their books. I have turned down all. One reason is that I have limited resources and cannot be engaged with everything that comes my way. But most of the time the idea is not good enough to engage customers so that the effort will turn a profit—a necessary “evil” in order to create jobs, support human dignity, and fund charitable efforts.
Notice I did not say the message was inferior, but that the presentation was not worth the effort of time and money. It goes back to the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a noise?” The answer to that question, for a publisher, distributor, producer and the talented individuals that create media, should be – “NO. It made no noise whatsoever.”
Although such efforts can inspire. For instance the books that I received for review have “inspired” me to write this. “Inspired” is in quotes because although the topics of the three books meet fundamental needs in society and are well-written they are emotionally (visually) unappealing. Yet, all three books supposedly target the lay reader or general public. Two of the three have attractive covers. But as soon as the books are cracked we are inundated with dry, long, explanations that only philosophers and theologians might appreciate. They are void of visual appeal and emotional engagement. In short there is no entertainment value.
It is very sad and frustrating to come upon great ideas (such as these books represent) that are so poorly executed by their publishers. You must be both inspired in the creation of your works (products) and you must also inspire the products’ use. If you don’t, your efforts and your work will expire without effect.
2. DESIGN TO EMOTIONALIZE
Something needs to be said about the state of most religious products that are “designed” to educate. They don’t. Well meaning intentions are not sufficient, just like prayer is no substitute for talent or effort. As a Christian, in addition to inspiration (from the Holy Spirit or otherwise), you need both talent (natural or acquired) and effort (passion plus perseverance) to accomplish something good. Prayer alone results only in religious mediocrity. The mind must partner with the body — the spiritual and psychological must be fully engaged with the physical realm. The WHOLE person must be involved in creating the product and in using the product. Anything less is just that — less.
Now in religious circles (especially orthodox Catholic and Christian circles) the term “entertainment” is nearly an anathema. There is this connotation that anything that entertains is probably evil. Well, folks, get over that misconception. You need to understand what “entertainment” is really about at both the cognitive and subconscious levels. Yes, it can be mindless enjoyment or escape. But remember this when you’re thinking that, the “mindless” fun WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR A LIFETIME.
Does that give you a hint at what you may be missing as a communicator and educator of ideas? You want people to remember things (and perhaps practice those things) for a lifetime. To do that you need to create an adrenalin rush that burns your brain’s synapses in a pattern that allows later recall. Without that emotional participation of the body, your audience will never remember a thing.
A simple way of explaining that is this: The user MUST first BE INTERESTED in the product for purposes of achieving a PERSONAL GOAL. In all successful stories the protagonist must have a physical goal or the story is lost on the audience. (c.f. FOOTNOTE: www.moralpremise.com) That is also true of our personal stories, our lives. People without goals becomes useless if not dangerous to society. In our publications and mass media efforts such a goal related interest must be evident to the reader on the surface of a product for a person to even consider it. But it must run much deeper for them to buy it and continually use it and not let it sit on the shelf. Below is a slide from one of my workshops. It’s the Alison Fisher Purchase Funnel. We use it in story structure to explain romantic comedies. But it was conceived to help marketers and producers understand the buyer’s perspective of the purchasing process.
For many marketers just the exchange of money for product is the producer’s main goal. Whether they use the product is of a lesser concern. But for religious educators the physical purchase is not nearly as important as the internal application. So, if you’re selling a book that you hope will change how a person relates to their spouse, you will not be satisfied unless a changed life results. Actual acquisition of the book is only one step to your end goal. So for religious publishers the “PURCHASE” in the funnel above has a deeper meaning. “Buyer commitment” means use and application.
What is instructive about the funnel for a creator of products is that the deeper you drill down into the funnel, the more emotionally involved you need the buyer to be. And I’m suggesting that emotional involvement means “entertainment value” and that means “SENSUAL.”
“Sensual” — ah, another anathema term in Christian publishing. Well, let me properly (not popularly) define it for you. Human beings are fundamentally sentient beings. “Sentience” is the ability to feel or perceive. We do that through our senses. Can you name all SIX of them. Yes, humans have SIX physical senses. The more of them you employ in your products as a communicator, the better you will communicate — especially with men who need both ears and both eyes to connect their left and right brains. (That was not a slam, it’s true.) Okay, what are the SIX senses: Seeing, Hearing, Feeling, Smelling, Tasting …. and Balancing (most of us have an inner ear that allows us to stand, sit, walk and climb.) It’s important to include this kinesthetic sense (which includes not just the inner-ear but the thousands of nerve endings that control our muscles to orient our body in space) because it is that ACTIVE sense which allows us to physically participate and do the good works God calls us to. It’s also a lot harder to fall asleep when you’re walking, running or jumping — although I manage to have nearly perfected it as of late.
In real life all those senses are used, which is why “experience” is the best teacher. I like movies a lot because they involve many of the senses all at once, and can come close to simulating real life. In the Catholic Mass, Communion is the ultimate communication method. It requires the use of all six senses. Books create a special challenge because they are mostly passive. (The iPad and its derivatives are changing that.) But how does a book entertain, or emotionally engage? Here is a shorthanded list of what a good book can do to emotionally engage the reader:
1. Content – Relevant, Readable, Witty
2. Visuals – Bold, Colorful, Frequent
3. Layout – Logical, Varied, Spaced
4. Typography – Structured, Variety, Characterized
5. Binding – Secure, Easy, Protective
So, with that long introduction, here’s my point…
4. FIRST ENTERTAIN
There’s an adage in Hollywood, and similar industries, that says: “FIRST ENTERTAIN.”
Successful entertainment, to me, is defined as emotionally engaging audiences so that they’re willing to buy a ticket.
For me, the term “entertain” has an emotional element and a training element. (I’m sure this is NOT the word’s etymology, but humor me.) Successful entertainment always emotionally engages your audience, AND it passes onto them some true moral message usually hidden in the subtext. (For the girl on the rollercoaster that truth is “Never, ever believe your mom when she says, ‘Trust me, you’ll love it.'”)
So, we have something that is emotional (E) and we have a training element (TRAIN). That gives us E-TRAIN. Also there is the idea that both the emotional and the training enter into the person’s consciousness and become ingrained. The key word there is ENTER.
So successful entertainment ENTERS into a person EMOTIONALLY and TRAINS them about something true. First ENTERTAIN.
Okay, Okay, so TRAIN and TAIN are not the same. Let me s t r e t c h it for ya. TAIN rhymes with STAIN, and good entertainment leaves behind a stain…. no, no, you potty head… a stain in your brain—a memory. (Geez! I can’t take you anywhere.) Another way to understand it is that ENTER-TAIN is a lot like INNER-TRAIN. That is, something is “entertaining” because it has the ability to train our memories. The reverse is also true: if we want to train our memories there must be some emotional involvement, some entertainment. Memories do not “stick” without adrenalin burning some synapses together in our brain.
The long of this short post is that successful communication has three components. It must ENTERTAIN, and for it to do that it must be MORALLY TRUE (at a psychological, spiritual, or subliminal level), and it must EMOTIONALLY ENGAGE (it must be be a visceral simulation of life).
That is what stories do better than a thrill ride at an amusement park, and what stories do almost as good as real life experiences (life’s best teacher), but without the physical danger.
(And you can believe the little girl above would feel a lot safer at the movies. Real life does have its drawbacks, especially when your mother is C R A Z Y!)
(© 2011 Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D)