Patrick – frequenter of the comments herein and previously an Executive Producer of some of my shows – was the guy who drilled the word ‘signposting’ into my head. Almost literally, at times, in that every script review meeting we had seemed to revolve around the word, its syllables spinning around the room and boring their way into my brain. It’s probably safe to admit now, a decade on, that I usually ‘escaped’ those meetings rather than ‘concluded’ them, and that frequently I had no idea what he was talking about.

Yet here I am, writing a screed about signposting in popular science shows.

Yesterday I was at a science visitor centre which shall remain nameless, watching one of their shows. It wasn’t bad, actually, in that I quite enjoyed it, and the rest of the audience seemed to be… well, ‘rapt’ might be taking it too far, but certainly ‘interested’ and ‘engaged,’ and occasionally ‘amused.’ It was an OK little show.

But the signposting was terrible.

What that means is slightly more difficult to explain than it is to assert.

At any stage in a story, the audience should know how they got there, and why they’re there specifically rather than, say, somewhere slightly different. Nothing can be arbitrary – or at least, it can’t appear arbitrary. The moment somebody asks ‘Wait – what’s this bit about?’, they’ve broken the flow, stepped out of the traffic, lost their place on the page, and sundry related metaphors.

The standard advice on giving a presentation goes:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you’ve told them.

This is, frankly, terrible advice. It leads inexorably to interminable business presentations with heart-sinking introductions that simply scream ‘incipient repetition’ and, usually, ‘overloaded Powerpoint slides read out verbatim by some arse who thinks he’s $DEITY’s gift to marketing.’


The core idea, however, is sound, though it’s perhaps better phrased as something like:

  1. Set the scene: give context and background, define a mood and tone.
  2. Describe your argument / pitch / narrative : point-by-point.
  3. Reveal or reinforce the key points you want people to take away.

What’s often ignored is that this sort of model applies at every level of the presentation, and not merely to the overview.

Public science shows tend to be fairly loosely-linked progressions of demonstrations. Sometimes too loosely-linked to make any narrative sense, but that’s another issue. Structure is interesting because each demo – each section of the show – should fit a similar sort of scaffolding to that above. So a demo goes something like:

  1. Approach: set a context for the demo. What are we investigating? What’s the experimental test we’re making? What phenomenon are we introducing? What’s the problem we’re addressing?

  2. Demo: Make the point. Is it a reveal? Counter-intuitive? Confirmation? Validation?
    What emotional response are you expecting from the audience? Should they be surprised, intrigued, smug, aghast, …? Having set up that expectation in the approach, you pay it off here.

  3. Outro: reinforce the key thought, then link to the next section. How does what we’ve just seen advance the overall narrative? Or are we making a clean break, parking this thought to one side ahead of the next section, before re-introducing it later as part of our finale?

Either way, make the progression clear to the audience.

I get the impression that, often, writing the script of a science show involves sweating over the demos, agonising about how to set them up, and perhaps – if the writer is unusually good – ensuring a key point is made. However, I haven’t seen many shows which pay much attention to the linking thought: the segue from one demo to the next.

Yet these are key moments. If the audience’s attention is going to wander, it’s here – they’ve just seen something impressive, or encountered a big thought on which they’d like to dwell. The script has to recognise their needs, allowing them time for reflection whilst simultaneously steering their attention to the next waypoint in the overall story.

Very few shows I’ve seen in centres do this well. It’s a level of production to which they don’t, usually, aspire. But astonishingly, the bail-out alternatives – the cheapskate all-purpose links one deploys in extremis – are so well-established they’re even self-parodying:

‘Another thing that…’
‘This is like…’
‘Similarly, …’
Anything with a pun.

For a cracking – deliberate – example, see Ben Craven’s intro to the kite aerial photography demo Flossie and I did at BIG this year. It’s right at the beginning of that film.

The fact that the audience – a large crowd of professional science communicators, many of whom write shows – laughed at the dreadful segue tells us that we recognise a cliché when we hear one. Yet, we use equivalent structures – heck, precisely the same structure – routinely.

Not. Good. Enough.

If you want your audience to be amazed, you set them up for amazement; then you amaze them; then you let them be amazed; then you turn that amazement to the next point in your story. This isn’t manipulative, it’s what constructing a show is all about: leading the audience on a journey, with a clear destination, and a carefully-considered route for getting them there.

At least, this is what I’ve come to understand Patrick meant by ‘signposting.’ With a bit of luck, he’ll pop up in the comments and set me straight.

8 thoughts on “Signposting”

  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…?)

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