Last week I spoke at Social Media Marketing World about building audiences. After my presentation, I had a hallway conversation with a content marketer for a B2B technology company. He asked how to create great content for an audience when the main goal is to relay a bunch of facts. “Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to get out some data or research. How do you make that a good story?”
I asked him if he’d ever heard of the pope in the pool. He had not.
Just about every story comes to a point where it needs to deliver some exposition for people to have a basic understanding of where you’re taking them. When it’s done poorly, people are bored, as in this scene from Matrix Reloaded when Neo meets The Architect. It’s nearly four minutes of pure explanation.
In my storytelling workshop, I talk about Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat. For screenwriters, it has become one of the most popular books on how to tell great stories in film. In it, Snyder talks about a technique that writers use to relay great amounts of exposition in an entertaining way. The key is to have two things going on at the same time: (1) exposition and (2) something entertaining that distracts the audience from noticing that they are being fed exposition.
Snyder calls it the pope-in-the-pool technique. The name comes from a script called The Plot to Kill the Pope. In the screenplay, the writer developed a scene where the pope swims laps while his representatives share a bunch of information. The audience is so taken with watching the pope swim that they don’t notice that they are being fed facts.
Movies are full of examples. The Big Short used this technique overtly. The story was filled with obscure, difficult-to-understand financial concepts, so the director used the pope-in-the-pool technique extensively. For example, in this scene, Anthony Bourdain teaches the audience about what a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) is. Another example is in Jurassic Park. Director Steven Spielberg needed the audience to understand what DNA replication meant. So instead of having a character explain it – which could be clunky – he put the main characters on the Jurassic Park Ride. As they entertainingly make fun of the information, the audience learns about DNA.
I use the pope-in-the-pool technique in one part of my workshop presentation. In the introduction where I introduce CMI’s research, instead of just going through the numbers, I’ve wrapped the research in a story about Frank, the struggling content marketer who is trying to get his business to invest more in the approach. As I tell the story of Frank, the audience (hopefully) is entertained while I relay a bunch of research data.
So I suggested that my conference colleague imagine something entertaining in which he could wrap his facts: a scenario, a story, an interesting interface. In short, I asked him to find his pope in the pool.
From time to time, you may find it handy to do the same. It’s the difference between relaying the facts and creating something engaging.
It’s your story. Tell it well.