In the first line of the first chapter in Alan Alda’s latest book he writes, “A couple of decades ago, a letter came in the mail that set me on a path that would not only bring me to a deeper understanding of that day with the dentist, but would actually change the direction of my life.” Reading this at my desk a few months back, one of us (Nancee) looked up and thought, “What a great first line!”
I wanted to know more about that letter. What was happening at the dentist’s office? How could this tiny event be so pivotal? I was fully invested only one sentence in.
A good beginning is a powerful thing. If you can grab your audience, pull them in with a headline and hook their interest from the top, the audience is on your side. There’s suspense in the air. Anticipation. Establishing that right away and sustaining it throughout puts you in an ideal place as a communicator. Fail to do so and you’ll likely find yourself spending all your energy fighting to win your audience back.
A good ending can be even more powerful. Often the end is all someone in the audience remembers, so they become, in many ways, the chief purpose of any powerful beginning. It is an opportunity to give meaning and context. It is a place for the memorable, even the emotional. It is your last chance to impact your audience.
But saying it’s important to start and end with power is one thing. Doing it is another.
Audiences are not interchangeable. What may be powerful for one audience may alienate another, especially within the context of communicating science. Consider the use of fear to communicate the immediacy of climate change: natural disasters or species extinction. Vivid and striking? Certainly. Maybe even emotionally charged. Some audiences might be motivated by this. Others might feel hopeless or overwhelmed. Still others might feel attacked.
Good communication takes skills, and skills require regular exercise.
The new direction of The Flame Challenge in 2018 expands the challenge from a simple competition to a more comprehensive training experience. Chief among the changes this year are training videos produced by The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, each targeting a common communication obstacles scientists face: knowing your audience, using clear and conversational language, starting and ending with power.
In our latest Flame Challenge training video, “Make it Snap,” we are introducing a game to help scientists strengthen their skills in crafting a snappy start and finish to their entry, based on what they know about their 11-year-old audience. Visit flamechallenge.org to play and see if you can come up with a hook that—like Alan’s first line—fills your audience with anticipation. See if you can craft an ending that is striking and memorable, because, in Alan’s own words, “why tell them something we think is important if we don’t want them to remember it?”
Watch and play “Make it Snap” here.