NYC Design
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NYC Design

How to tell a compelling story in 6 seconds.

The 8-second attention span has met its match.

A few years ago, at every digital marketing and advertising conference, at least one of the speakers would tout the statistic that the American attention span had declined to a mere 8 seconds — bested by the common goldfish whose attention span was measured at a comparably awe-inspiring 9 seconds. Admittedly, I used that statistic myself in a talk I was giving at an insurance marketing conference, only to see it presented three more times by fellow speakers.

Anyway, to be fair (to us, not the goldfish), it is likely that instead of being evidence of our increasingly dim-witted nature, this statistic is probably more indicative of the fact that we are, collectively, simply getting better at triaging and filtering cultural noise. It’s less an attention deficit than an increasingly effective B.S. detector. If some sensory input doesn’t engage in a meaningful way within the 8-second limit, we will, quite unceremoniously, dismiss it and move on. To combat this emerging defense mechanism, YouTube/Google has been encouraging marketers to explore Bumper Ads, a new six-second pre-roll ad format.

So, can you really tell a story in six seconds?

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, but how far along the purchasing path that story may take a buyer depends on how considered the ultimate purchase is. Can you fully entice a consumer to try a new brand of soft drink, with no other media, within six seconds? It’s certainly possible. Can you convince the head of a fortune 500 company to switch management consulting firms in six seconds? Less likely. But, if you’re smart about it, you may be able to open their minds to the idea. What should you consider as you evaluate this new vehicle, or, more importantly, how can you craft a compelling story once you’re committed to it? Here are a few bits of advice and points to consider.

1. Don’t explain it. Live it.

Being headquartered in Chicago, we cannot talk about storytelling without invoking our local experts at The Second City. If you have ever seen the best improvisational comedy performers work their craft, you’ll notice one very specific skill — the ability to establish the relationship between characters and the issue to be solved within the first few seconds of dialogue. No set. No props. They are unapologetic about starting a story in the middle, at the point of greatest tension or conflict. They know from experience that the audience fill in whatever extraneous details they need to place the presented conversation in some meaningful context. How the characters arrived at the situation is less relevant than how they will get out of it.

It’s a smart way to approach storytelling in the temporally constrained world of the six-second bumper ad. Envision a single line of dialogue that encompasses the greatest issues facing your customer, followed by a logo and your tagline, with a clickable link to your dedicated campaign landing page. It’s basic problem/solution narrative. Compressed into six seconds.

2. Remember, reading is faster than listening.

Humans, on average can read about 200–300 words per minute. When read to, they can comprehend about 150 to 160 words per minute. If you want to maximize the amount of information transmitted in a brief interaction, use animated type. If you want to push things even further, there are rapid-fire, single-word visual presentation techniques employed by a number of speed reading apps like ReadQuick that, when incorporated into your video, could increase the information density by as much as four times. Of course, it’s still on you to write something compelling and engaging enough to read, even at increased speeds, for those six seconds.

3. Appeal to universal human emotions.

This is good advice whether you have six seconds or six hours to get your point across. The point is, that as much as technology has changed in the past few decades, human nature has remained functionally consistent for all of recorded history. You may not be able to tell the tale of Homer’s Odysseus in six seconds, but the emotions and motivations that drove the narrative of the Odyssey remain as poignant today as they were in the 8th century, B.C. If you can’t clearly point to what basic emotion or motivation your six-second story exploits, you are likely wasting your production and media dollars.

4. Think in images.

Always remember the oft-quoted and variously attributed adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Instead of creating a text-based outline of your script, start asking how you could tell the entire story in images alone. Then, use text or voiceover to enhance or punctuate your messaging. Apply this process and you’ll likely be surprised at how complex of a story you can tell.

5. Limit the takeaway.

This should be a requirement of any piece of creative. But it’s infinitely more important when you have a mere six seconds to make your case. One idea. That’s it. With a clear call to action.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

The truth is, all of the above advice could easily (and does) apply to longer format storytelling. The difference here is that the compression of time creates pressures on execution that increase inversely and geometrically as the time available is reduced. Now. Every. Single. Moment. Counts.

Originally featured on

Written by Justin Daab, President @ Magnani




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Justin Daab

Justin Daab

Innovator. Design Thinker. Composer. Tinkerer.

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