New from the MySociety genii:, capsule the curiously-capitalised PlaceOpedia. Think Google Maps ? Wikipedia. Brilliant. Except that, as I write, all the links read


  1. Nice post and I agree with your points and might tweak future presentations (not shows, talks – generally held in church halls – explaining particular areas of research to a mixed-background audience who’ve raised the funds to pay for it).
    I’m often disappointed when someone at work sends round an email announcing a new venture, report or news piece without putting it in context. It’s a bit like the first time you see an advert (I may have blithered on about this before actually!) – unless it’s spectacular you probably forget it until the second time you see it at which point you’re able to go “oh I’ve seen that before”.
    Similarly I think nothing should be too new in a presentation which is why I’ve tended to rely on the “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em” idea, and why I like it when colleagues dripfeed me with bits of information heralding whatever new venture is incoming, so that when it arrives I’m up to speed with it.
    If I want to introduce my audience to a word or concept that might be new to them I want them to recognise it when it comes so I tend to sneak it in a bit earlier.
    This, of course, is all making perfect sense to me in my head though I may have (ironically) failed to communicate it as it’s about quarter past bedtime 😉
    Wanted to see your chum on Newsnight – a random tweet thread I followed suggested this could be on quite soon.

  2. magicians do it, and have fancy names for it. The Pledge, The Turn and The Prestige. Where the film [The Prestige] got it’s name.
    From Wikipedia: the three stages of magic. First, there is the setup, or the “pledge,” where the magician shows the audience something that appears ordinary but is probably not, making use of misdirection. Next is the performance, or the “turn,” where the magician makes the ordinary act extraordinary. Lastly, there is the “prestige,” where the effect of the illusion is produced.
    you can learn a lot from magicians

  3. John: Oh heck, yes. Science shows are very close cousins of magic shows. Also cookery programmes.
    Jo: Introducing vocabulary or concepts is another matter, really, but you’re right that it needs doing carefully. Or rather, it needs doing deliberately, and with purpose. I’ve lost count of the number of shows I’ve seen that introduce a piece of jargon with excessive care, only to use a colloquial expression for the rest of the show because ‘it’s more friendly.’ Ugh.

  4. Fascinating post Jonathan. I completely agree that the links between the routines in a science show are very important to the audience, but they are often ignored by the creators and presenters of these shows. I feel that this is partly due to our collective ignorance and partly due to the difficulty of crafting effective links. We need more discussions like this.
    In terms of controlling the attention of the audience I think that presenters and directors sometimes overestimate their influence. In reality part of our brain is constantly scanning all of the stimuli it receives from the environment looking for something more interesting or important to focus on. We’re hard-wired to find distractions in any situation. As a presenter, if you’re not the most interesting event in the environment, you’re in trouble. Our thoughts often get momentarily diverted as a reflection or memory is triggered by something the presenter says. This happens even when you are reasonably interested in the presentation. We can’t always control the kind of self-talk that you describe.
    So, I agree that we should always try to reduce the opportunity for *irrelevant* distractions (especially during transitions between demos), but perhaps we need to give ourselves a break and accept that we cannot absolutely control anyone’s attention for an extended period of time.
    Many teachers and informal educators I’ve spoken to about emotionally engaging their audience are uncomfortable about the notion of manipulating their emotions. In my mind all good communicators are emotion manipulators – movie directors; writers; advertising creatives; politicians; religious leaders; comedians; and yes … teachers. Provoking emotions is one of the most powerful ways of gaining and holding attention. That’s why the entertainment and advertising industries manipulate our emotions constantly.
    Emotions are a tool. They can be used for good or bad. Educators need to embrace this reality rather than act as manipulating emotions in some way degrades their integrity.

  5. Paul: Ah, but this is where signposting becomes really important. When the audience’s attention wanders, you need to give them routes back in to the flow of the show that are as clear and accessible as possible. Clarity of argument, back-references to how we got here, reminders of where we’re going, deliberate set-ups of reveals so we notice the key concept before it’s reinforced (hence rewarding our attention) – these are all access points. In interface parlance, they’re ‘affordances.’
    Your Catch-Hold-Reveal model has similar aims and utility, of course. There’s nothing prescriptive in any of this – none of this stuff is about ‘rules’ or rigid frameworks. These are all tools for helping to craft satisfying shows, which is, I hope, a goal shared by us all.

  6. Jonathan – don’t get me wrong – I agree with signposting and building in all of the ways back into the presentation you mentioned (which is why creative repetition, although unfashionable, is so important in any communication), it’s just that to hear some directors and writers talk it’s as if they dream of somehow being able to grab your attention from the first scene/sentence and keep a vice-like, relentless grip on it until you race through to the thrilling climax. I think this is an impossible standard to hold ourselves and our audiences to.
    Yep, what was your one rule of TV production – there are no rules?

  7. I wondered why you always had a reason to leave the meetings just as I got into full flow…
    Very well explained, and very interesting to read John Coombes’ post too. I’ve always liked the offset between science and magic – in fact I once tried (and failed) to persuade Jonathan to do a segment called “The science of magic, the magic of science”. Well it wasn’t very well thought through…
    I think the concept of signposting works at all levels. It can be as simple as saying “A bloke called….” rather than just introducing a name into the script. Equally I think the audience needs to feel comfortable with the overall direction of the narrative.
    The executive producer of Junkyard Wars had a very good take on it. He banned the word “meanwhile…” as in “meanwhile over with the red team…”, because it’s a meaningless joining word. At every stage he wanted the narrative of each team to be clear and connected. So you’d have to look for similarities: “The blue team have found just the right wheels for their mud-racer – but the big wheel on the reds still isn’t satisfied…” (Did I mention he liked puns too…?)

  8. I thought my one rule of TV production was “Where’s the tea?”

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