Chatting up viewers

Making a powerful first impression

Neil Strauss, author of The Game

A few years ago, Neil Strauss’s bestseller, The Game: Penetrating the Secret World of Pick-up Artists told the story of men who used carefully honed conversational techniques to chat up women in clubs. It was a peculiar story in a way – somewhat unsavoury – but many of the skills seem appropriate to the way television programmes attract an audience.

Bars can be brutal places for meeting new people.  Initial appearance counts for a lot and rejection is likely. We all look across a crowded room and come to snap judgements about who we might want to talk to.  It’s the same with TV programmes parading themselves, and being switched off – or not even tried OUT. (I know, because I’ve always felt that way about Nick Knowles and never given him a chance. I then discovered the other night that DIY SOS was actually quite good).

And it’s about the very first approach, and most normal people find it way too intimidating.  What Strauss found worked best were the following five techniques:

1. Be confident and warm – it’s infectious.  As the Smashing Pumpkins said, disarm them with a smile (but don’t do what they said next).  For TV programmes, try to look approachable and easy to try out.

2. Wear an outlandish hat or an unfeasibly bright shirt.  This can break the ice and show confidence – a peacock attitude is impressive.  Audiences have such fixed impressions of what a documentary programme, or a game show are like.  Either go along with it in a BIG way or subvert it

3. Social proof works.  If you want to appeal to an attractive woman turn up with one, so that your target is curious to know what you have they she can’t see.  It’s surprising how few programme are ever promoted on the basis of who the viewers are – even though personal recommendations are so valued.  Talk about who is watching the programme, or show them in some way, to reassure potential viewers that you’re a good thing.

4. Start by engaging the person’s imagination and their desire to learn about themselves.

Strauss’s pick-up artists would promise to tell the women they were trying to pick up something deep and insightful about themselves with just a few questions.

OK. Imagine a desert. Now imagine a cube in this desert.
How large is it?
What colour?
Is it see-through?

Let’s try it here now:

Imagine you see a cube in the desert.

Think about it for a moment, its size and colour.

(Seriously, stop reading and give it a go)

OK, how large is it.

And what colour?  Can you see through it?

And where are you in relation to it?

The size of the cube tells you how self-confident you are.  The colour tells you about your personality – how outgoing.  And the opacity helps define how open you are.

Paris Hilton, chatted up by a Pick-Up Artist using this technique, said that the cube was the size of a hotel, that it was pink and that you could see through it.  Which translated as she is super self-confident (with a connection to hotels…), bright and energetic, and open, so good at connecting with people.

You can imagine how impressive such a conversational line would be (unless your target chose a sugar cube-sized cube with the property of a black hole…)

It’s easy to imagine when making a TV programme that it’s all about the work itself.  But an audience member has a motivation which is about their own needs (into which the programme is placed).  This might be:  to feel part of a group, or to learn something to help them make sense of the world, or to get a sense of self-worth. Take Leaving, the ITV drama about a middle-aged women having an affair.  Our decision to watch and our response will reflect our image of ourselves and our relationships, of family and friendship and escape and love.  Our response to the news will reflect our self-confidence, our relationship with society, the shape of ‘our world’ and so on.  Popular TV programmes will make the audience feel that they are both comfortable, but also developing a little.

Our needs will change by time of day and day of week.  And the trick for writers is to keep the audience engaged throughout – telling a story by teasing a little. (Actually in news the guideline for headlines is ‘tease don’t tell’ to keep the audience watching, rather than giving away the whole story, but really it’s not one or the other).

A ‘neg’: ‘You remind me a little of Geri, my favourite of the Spice Girls’. Sounds like a compliment but is unsettling too. Also works with Sporty.  For middle aged men, try Chris Evans.

5. Deploy a technique called a ‘neg’.  A ‘neg’ is a conversation line which sounds like a compliment but leaves the person feeling unsure of themselves. So, from The Game (except for the last one, which I have created on my own):

I like your hair, is it your real hair colour?

I like the way your nose wrinkles when you laugh

Normally I’m not turned on by big teeth but on you they work

It’s funny, but my guilty secret used to be the Spice Girls, and you remind me of my favourite, Geri (or Sporty)

Television programmes can benefit if their audience feels slightly unsure about themselves in some areas and keeps them coming back to work through this feeling.  For instance, I know I can’t cook like the chefs in Masterchef, but can I taste food like the judges?  I need to keep checking.

I may not really want to watch Newsnight tonight, but if I don’t bother, will I miss one of those occasional live gems?  I might never know what I’ve missed.

Am I as cultured and as intelligent as I have always thought? Hmm, better watch Perspectives or the news.

Fear of missing out and the need to prove something to ourselves keep us coming back to particular programmes.


Finally: The Pick-Up Artist techniques seem more pertinent to the situation that TV programmes face than the more long-term ‘attracting a man’ dating approach found in ‘The Rules‘.  But in the end  once you have caught someone’s attention, if you want the relationship to continue, it’s about the quality of the content.


Disclaimer: I am not personally someone who hangs around in singles bars.

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