Considering the Audience

August 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Historia de un Letrero (The Story of a Sign) won best short film at Cannes. The director is Alonso Alvarez Barreda. It’s hard to talk about this video without spoiling it. Take the four and half minutes to watch it (six minutes if you sit through all the credits)

(A two-minute knock-off version is here.)

I think it has a lesson for teaching. It’s the same lesson I get from a story Nora Ephron tells about the teacher in her high school journalism class. The problem for the class was to come up with the lead (or as we say nowadays, the lede) for a story in the school newspaper.
He dictated a set of facts that went something like, “The principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento, Thursday, for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, and two other people.”

So we all sat down at our typewriters, and we all kind of inverted that and wrote, “Margaret Mead and X and Y will address the faculty in Sacramento . . ..” Something like that.

We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave it to Mr. Simms, and he just riffled through them and tore them into tiny bits and threw them in the trash, and he said, “The lead to this story is: There will be no school Thursday!
The challenge is not just to present the relevant facts, or in a sociology class the relevant data and ideas. The problem is to present them so that your audience immediately grasps their relevance. Both the ad man (or whatever he is) in the film and the journalism teacher come up with the brilliant lede by asking not, “How does this look to me?” but “How does this look to the audience?”

Fortunately, as teachers we do not depend so utterly on the response of our audience. We’re not begging, and some teachers get away with ignoring the audience altogether. But a department facing a decline in majors may not be so different from a newspaper struggling to maintain its circulation.

I think I want the dude in the shades and pink necktie to go over my lesson plans.

1 comment:

brandsinger said...

Hey, Jay - Nice job. Great short film and well analyzed. I didn't understand the language (a Romance language obviously) but caught the ad man saying "mismo" -- the same. He said he wrote the same thing in different words... Well, obviously different words matter.