Attention please.

My dad told me a story recently about when he was courting my mother in the 1950’s. (Mum passed away in 2017). They’d go to the movies, the lights would go down and by the end of the newsreel she’d be fast asleep just as the Queen was riding across the screen on her white horse, the National Anthem had blared and it was time for James Stuart or Cary Grant to do their thing. Mum would wake up as the credits were playing at the end of the film and pretend she’d seen the movie. Dad would pretend she hadn’t slumbered throughout the entire thing. It was a Saturday night ritual. Westerns occasionally brought her to for a moment during a gun battle, but she’d be in the Land of Nod again by the time John Wayne was back on his horse. My mother could be extremely difficult, but it’s a very cute story. Dad spent many shillings over the years for her to have a nice kip at the Tivoli.

Apart from my father’s bottomless patience with my mother (which was to span nearly 60 years), what struck me in his telling of the tale was the significance of the newsreel. You could, in fact, pay a few bob to go into designated movie theatres JUST to see the newsreels. In the day-to-day of the era, the majority of facts about world happenings came to people through newspapers and radio. That paper landing on the front porch was a lifeline to local and world events.

the conversation.com Photo credit AAP/Alan Porritt

Not only did people rely on the paper for their news. They relied on the written word for entertainment. If Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor weren’t starring on the silver screen on date night (or there wasn’t a great radio play scheduled on the ‘wireless’) people read…… BOOKS. Sometimes big thick ones with lots and lots of words. Even in 1956, with the advent of early television in Australia, there were a mere four channels on offer. For those that remember, until the mid to late 1970’s the test pattern turned up around midnight. If you couldn’t sleep it was time to whip out a novel.

Things have progressed, but I still like a good book. Because I am old.

I am elderly and read things with no pictures.
(Slow clap for the nerd in the glasses).

Journalists from back in the day to now have always faced the challenge of how to grab their audience. Once grabbing them, the next hurdle is to keep the reader engaged until the end of the piece. What do we first see as readers? A headline, and possibly an image that punctuates that headline. If we’re attracted by that, we will scan down and read the first few lines (or lede). Then we either stick with it or we don’t. Do we WANT to know what ScoMo said today? Is climate change a reality? And in hard hitting news…. can we be lured to spend three minutes reading about how Jen Anniston still loves Brad?

The basic technique of article structure is generally referred to as the ‘Inverted Pyramid’. An academic way of saying upside down triangle, but that is somewhat less impressive sounding. ‘I wrote this great piece on Brexit. Of course I employed the use of the upside down triangle’. Not as convincing.

conversation uplift.com Neal Cole credit : IPTC

It is fairly self explanatory. The important, attention grabbing stuff comes first; followed by other not quite as important bits and then filler at the end. This becomes vital in the editing process, as editing happens from the bottom up. If the article is too long it’s chopped in an ascending fashion.

The history behind the Inverted Pyramid is slightly unclear. Some believe it came into being with the invention of the telegraph, as sending things by wire was costly and information was prioritised depending on budget. Others believe it began during the Civil War; when there was no guarantee information would get back to the journalists waiting at home. Wires could fail and things could be intercepted. So text was sent in instalments with the most important going out first to guarantee the news arrived and the story was written.

The science of editing aside, the upside down triangle … (pardon me, ‘Inverted Pyramid’) ……. faces new challenges in 2019. In the days of my mother snoring through ‘North by Northwest’, the population mostly devoured what they were given. Newspapers, magazines, books. They were read cover to cover, and interesting parts were re read over the dinner table. In ye olden days what we had was ATTENTION SPAN. When Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..”, he fully expected his readers to stick at it for another 135,408 words. A well written, thick book meant disappearing into an exciting world via those pages for a satisfying amount of time.

These days we barely make it through a two minute read. Movies are getting shorter, television series episodes and segments are trimming down. Short, sharp and shiny entertainment is flooding our world. If we’re not immediately gripped we simply flick to another Netflix option, a different internet article or turn to the next page of the paper or magazine. I should probably say scroll rather than turn. (My joy at holding a paper or mag in my hands is making me somewhat of a dinosaur with every passing day).
I am determined not to conclude here by saying, ‘it was better in the old days’. I do deplore the lack of attention span of the young; but then I also deplore the use of the word ‘peeps’ and want to tell teenagers to actually converse with one another instead of staring at their smartphones.

It’s not just later generations. We’re all getting less and less adept at being held by anything. When was the last time I read Dickens???? The challenge for writers today is to create content that will hold their reader from the top of that upside down triangle to the pointy bottom. What we can hope is that, along with the disadvantages, we’ll be extra motivated. Inspired to create articles and pieces that will draw in an audience that is hard to hold. As a result, we’ll be better writers.

Naturally you’ll all read every word I ever write from opening sentence to conclusion. Because you love me. 😉

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