Sex or Pastrami?

In a world where we are inundated with so many advertising messages, which ones are we more likely to pay attention to? A simple improv game may offer some answers.

I was sitting between two animated people. On my left, a woman was telling me about a hazy, drunken one-night stand. On my right, a man spoke about The. Most. Amazing. Pastrami. Sandwich. Ever.
“He pulled off my dress as . . . the deli man piled these incredible, glistening slices of meat onto homemade rye and . . . we fell naked onto my futon . . . “

Since it’s impossible to listen to two people at the same time, I had to choose: sex with a stranger vs. delicious smoked meats? Hmmm. Both stories were compelling. Both had lots of fleshy adjectives.
In the end, the pastrami won. It was lunchtime. Plus, the woman’s sex account lacked sincerity and the dirty details to make it believable. She was making it up. Which was OK because it was part of an exercise in my improv comedy class.
The exercise, or “game” as it’s called in the improv world, was Simultaneous Stories. The rules are simple: two people tell a story at the exact same time, and the person whose story gets the most attention from the audience “wins.”
Winning is difficult. You never know what shocking experience your competition is going to call up, and usually you discover that your charming tale about “the time you threw up at the bowling alley” is just not that compelling to anyone other than your old roommate.
I often think of Simultaneous Stories while writing radio commercials because the challenge is the same: How do I get people to pay attention to what I’m saying? Let’s take a closer look at the improv game to see which techniques worked and which did not when you’re trying to catch someone’s ear.
What worked:

A great opening: Start with a bang. Literally. Have a gun go off at the beginning of every radio spot you write. OK, not really, but stories that started off with a surprise and piqued the audience’s curiosity were most effective. Look at the first line of any great novel or movie. It’s never something like “Greg took off his socks.” The first line of the movie Stand by Me is “I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.” I want to watch that movie.

Something unexpected: Shocking information, a startling moment of silence, stories that veer in the opposite direction — they’re all good. Had the deli guy in the pastrami story cut off his finger, I really would have paid attention.
The Christopher Walken technique: It’s rumored that the actor removes all punctuation from scripts so that his delivery becomes more surprising and arresting. In the improv game, the people who broke the typical and expected rhythms of storytelling triumphed. Change up the tempo. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when you’re directing talent to read a 60-second pharmaceutical spot. Or just get Christopher Walken to read it.

What didn’t work:
Fakery: The woman’s story about her one-night stand sounded made up. Humans, like dogs, can smell fear and lying. How does this translate to advertising? Try to avoid dialogue that no one in real life would say, e.g., “Mary, I finally found a doctor-recommended laxative in the convenience of a once-daily tablet.” And I was so interested until “doctor-recommended.”
TMI: Some storytellers hit us with lots of information to create “excitement.” With too many important facts, nothing is important. Keep the message simple. Besides, the client’s Web site can handle all the extra info. Apologies to the client’s Web designer.
Yelling: Sorry car dealers, it seemed that the louder someone yelled at me, the more I listened to the person whispering on the other side of the room. Yelling is actually a great strategy if you’re playing a game where the goal is to lose your audience.