Talking heads and the art of anticipation

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Stop making sense

Last night, I watched talking the band Talking Heads’ 1984 concert movie Stop Making Sense. I’ve never been a big Talking Heads fan but I was pretty bowled over by this performance.It starts with the singer, David Byrne, walking on stage, wearing a white suit and carrying a boombox. The stage is sparsely dressed, you can see behind the scenes, the rigging and a few members of the crew wandering about. The lighting is flat and it looks more like a sound check than a concert but David Byrne launches into a solo acoustic version of of their hit songs, Psycho Killer.

The band’s bassist, Tina Weymouth joins him for the second song, after which, the drums are wheeled on and the band’s drummer joins in on song three. With each successive song, a new instrument and band member are added whilst the stage is slowly dressed and lit. until by song six, there are nine people on stage playing another hit “Burning down the house” and the stage looks like a proper concert. The surprises don’t stop there, there are costume changes, interesting lighting effects and props, culminating in David Byrne returning to the stage wearing a ridiculous giant padded suit.

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Why am I telling you this?

I think it’s a perfect example of creating anticipation. Writers are great at this, as are the producers of TV box sets – they create a sense of something about to happen, they introduce new characters, they throw in bonkers unexpected twists. It’s captivating to watch.

Anticipation is something I don’t think we see enough of in comms and marketing. Campaigns tend to spring up and disappear. Publishing a lazy tweet with “Coming soon” on it isn’t enough.

Apple is one of the masters of creating anticipation around their product launches. They send out vague invitations to their launch events, suggestively teasing the products that they’ve been keeping under wraps for months.

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By keeping their products secret during development, they create a huge sense of anticipation – people spend huge amounts of time, predicting and pontificating on what the next cool bit of tech will be.

Creating anticipation when you’re a smaller company is hard because there’s no expectation on you, however, there are ways round this. Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary and irreplaceable, and any that are not should be removed.

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.— Anton Chekhov

Get a Ferrari and dangle a one tonne weight over the top. Point a webcam at a patch of ice on a busy street and wait. Set up a tightrope walking contest at a beer festival – there is an inevitability to what’s going to happen but the viewer won’t be able to stop watching until they see how it pans out. 

BlogColin Cather