One of the advantages those in interactive media have is that they go in knowing their interactive media is exactly that: interactive. They consider the experience and the desired outcomes. For example, at this point we want children to tap over here and swipe this part down. The children are an integral part of this thought process from day one because ultimately they are the ones who have to make the media work. If the children fail to understand it, if they fail to be motivated enough to continue being part of that experience, the entire endeavour fails.
What is so often missed by people in other forms of media is that, for young kids, it can all be interactive. It all should be interactive. The best content will make children a part of the experience. They are directly involved.
For this to happen, like in interactive media, you have to consider the experience and the desired outcomes. It is not as simple as: I will tell a story and the children will listen or watch. In reality that approach often becomes more about the “I”, the desires of the storyteller, than the actual audience. Audience awareness is everything.
So instead, this is about considering the effect of each part of your story/content/media. For example, at this point we want children to laugh but then listen to the next line, which is key to engaging them at a later part in our story. Rather than just writing a joke followed by your important line, you’re now thinking about the experience and you know you have to build in time, some other beat or even a direct request for the children to pay attention before that important line. You begin thinking about each individual element and the desired effect. If I set this scene in a playground, most children will be engaged by a familiar experience. If I set this scene on Ayer’s Rock, my audience doesn’t have a pre-existing frame of reference. Each decision is motivated not by what you want to make but by the experience you want the children to have.
Your content has to engage. It has to be simple, clear, entertaining and children should feel part of that experience.
So when you’re reviewing your work or scripts or storyboards that come in, don’t just picture the scenes playing out. Picture the audience. Picture their experience at each section. Are they paying attention? Are they laughing? Did they just jump off the sofa? Did they repeat a line back at the screen? Are they singing along? Most importantly, are they still a part of the experience?
Remember that it’s like interactive media: if the children fail to understand it, if they fail to be motivated enough to continue being part of that experience, the entire endeavour fails.
Whether you’re writing, directing, producing or any part of the process of making content, you will encounter difficulties. Some you see coming, others you don’t. Some are minor annoyances, others are catastrophes. They all have one thing in common: you don’t want any of them to negatively impact the finished product.
What you certainly don’t want is a big problem late in your production, when there are too many parts of the process finalised to go back a step and when any delay will push you well past your deadline. You must avoid a panic late in your project. Panic by definition involves a certain lack of control and this can happen so easily when a new problem hits just when you need it the least. Your aim must be to retain control. But can you really choose when problems will occur or reveal themselves?
Sure you can. You do this by making the decision to panic early instead. Get it out of the way.
Right at the start, work on the assumption that something will delay you. Take on that little moment of panic on day one. So now you can’t aim for on-time any more because, in reality, that will lead to you being late. Instead, you have to aim for early. That builds in a buffer for those problems that may arise (just like I suggested about writing in an earlier post). It also helps you get to those problems a little earlier which may well be just the extra time you need to deal with them.
Next: Call a crisis point the moment you get a feeling in your gut that something is not working. Declaring a crisis is not a negative. Quite the opposite. By recognising a problem as potentially damaging, it allows you to take the uncontrolled and form a strategy to control it. You can reassess your aims, you can pull apart your systems and rebuild them, you can shuffle your teams or replace people completely. Bottom line: you have to acknowledge the problem before you can deal with it. Don’t wait until that problem has snowballed and is out of control. This is as much a note to self as it is to anyone reading this because any time I have seen that happen it has bitten everyone involved in the ass every single time.
While carrying out both of these points, never assume it will all work itself out eventually. It never does. Problems must be dealt with head on.
And then: Enjoy a calmer ride to the finish line. If you got your panic out of the way right at the start, built in that extra time, tackled every problem recognising that you have a crisis on your hands, you will have saved yourself a whole lot of worry later in the process and will likely have a far better product as a result. It’s that age old homework comparison. If you leave it to the night before it’s due, you’re in for a night of panic and possibly scrappy work that you don’t have time to review. Do it early, on the other hand, and you’re relaxing that night as you pick off the last few typos on a great piece of work.
But… shouldn’t we all be aiming for processes and productions with no panic whatsoever? Sure. And that’s exactly what it looks like when you have taken control of your production and carry out these steps routinely.
1) Aim to deliver early. 2) Declare every crisis immediately. 3) Never assume it will work itself out. 4) Enjoy the ride.
So what’s Mooshku? Mooshku is a word created for children and now a company created for children. Our focus is fun, positive stories and activities across multiple platforms. Mooshku is part of a new phase, a new leap – those who have heard my talks know I value my leaps. A collaboration between Méabh Tammemagi (agency producer for Saatchi & Saatchi among a whole lot of other things) and myself, we’re aiming to give kids the best in a way that works with parents. Our bottom line: if it’s not good for kids, we don’t make it.
The great thing about being based here in Ireland is that we have many wonderful animation production studios and a large bank of talent. We are hoping this brings opportunities for lots of collaborations and we have a rather large ‘people we want to work with’ list already. Our main area is content itself: focusing the aims and making certain they work for a young audience with strength in character and story while utilising all the methods to boost engagement and effectiveness that come from years of experience and research. We produce in-house where content will benefit from that while also offering our expertise to those making their own media and content for children.
Mooshku was featured in the Sunday Business Post here in Ireland at the weekend along with the April issue of Kidscreen magazine and the response has been incredibly positive. So thank you to everyone who got in touch with kind words. It seems expectations are high! Don’t worry – you know I like a challenge and I don’t intend to disappoint an audience.
If you haven’t visited already, check out the Mooshku website. The background patterns offer a sneak peek into some of what we have brewing (shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) and the site will let you know who we are and what we can do. If you know someone who might be interested, please spread the word. Also we’re on Twitter HERE.
So what of this little site? It will be business as usual here. This remains my personal site sharing content and knowledge, stories, tips and whatever else you might ask for. Of course, if you’re curious I can let you know what Mooshku is up to from time to time.
Thanks as always for visiting! See you back here next week.
I was asked a little while ago about how to approach writing a blog. My first thought was, well, you just think of an idea for a post and then you write it. But there is more to it than that and I realised the strategy for writing my little blog is not just about writing a blog. It’s about writing, be it posts, articles or TV episodes. So here is my little guide to writing:
1) Set a deadline
I always post here on a Wednesday. So I know for the rest of the week that, one way or another, I need a post ready for Wednesday. It must be posted. The same is true on TV shows or delivering content – productions are expensive and delays can cost serious money so you have to deliver on time if you’re going to remain working. Deadlines must be respected. Once you realise this, you will deliver. So there is nothing like a deadline to cure writer’s block. Just set one and then stick to it.
2) Jot down every idea
Ideas come and go so quickly. They’re like sparks. So don’t assume you’ll remember a good one and don’t judge a bad one too harshly early on. Note every idea down and come back to them later. This is especially important when writing on a series, where you often have to come up with a large amount of stories. When it comes to that next script, you’ll need a bank of ideas to draw upon. So create that bank – jot down all ideas as they come.
3) Search for ideas
Yes, many ideas just come to us but it’s not always that easy. There are times we have to actively search for them. How do we do that? Depends on what we’re writing. For blog posts, I often go through the process of what I do and I ask myself, is there something interesting here? Is there something I have learned that might help others? I write keywords and see if anything leads somewhere. For stories and shows, I take a similar approach writing lists of activities, places, events and seeing if they form together to become a story. If I get stuck, I’ll start doodling scenes. Often seeing your characters visually can lead to a moment that leads to a whole story.
Yes, you actually have to write. People write at different times of day. I tend to work best in very quiet places in regular hours free from interruptions, leaving the evenings free to clear my head but I know some people are night owls and do their best writing at night. Whatever works for you is fine as long as you do the writing.
It is rarely right first time (for me, it’s never right first time). Whether just a little blog post or a feature script, it’s going to need another pass. It could need several. If you’re on a regular schedule, this is important to factor in when getting close to your deadline – you don’t want to be clicking ‘post’ as soon as you hit that last word. Give it time so you can come back to it and do another pass.
6) Build in a buffer
I never deliver late and I feel uncomfortable even coming close. I want to deliver early or, if something goes wrong, at least on time. To do that, you have to factor in the unexpected. Something can delay you, stop you working when you need to work or you may actually really face a hideous case of writer’s block. So how do you still deliver on time? You build in a buffer. Write more than you need when you can. On my shows, I wrote furiously at the start so I was always a few episodes ahead of schedule each time. That way, if I needed to take a week off for any reason, I had scripts ready to go into the system and nobody was held up. Same is true for blog posts. Have a few sitting there ready to go in case you need them.
And that is how to write. Seems so simple. Of course the challenge is often not how to write, but how to write well. That is a whole other topic but the best way to get to a point where you’re writing well is to keep writing. So write!
Young kids like structure. You’ll hear it about parenting and it is true for content too.
Hollywood movies are generally very structured and they usually follow the same format you will read about in any number of scriptwriting books. Most regular adult viewers won’t be able to identify it consciously but ask someone 20 minutes before the end of a movie how long there is before the credits roll and most will be pretty good at guessing correctly. That is because they know where they are in the familiar traditional structure, having seen it play out in movies over and over across a lifetime.
When you are in the area of preschool content, your audience doesn’t yet have a clear preconception of how structure works. And they want to know. They certainly want to know when the story ends. It can be jarring for children when the end credits roll and it is a surprise to them – they didn’t quite think the story was finished. So you need to help them out with that.
This is one reason circular stories are great in preschool. End as you began but now with a new realisation or a key change. Bringing it back to the beginning can tie your story up very neatly and kids like that. It is also why a very clear format can help children. Dora the Explorer has the “We Did It” song towards the end of every single episode. As soon as kids hear that, they know the episode is coming to an end and they feel satisfied knowing they got the full story. Many other shows (including my own Planet Cosmo) now use similar song endings or key phrases that appear at the end of every episode. Many Peppa episodes end with the family falling over laughing or jumping in muddy puddles. That tells kids, okay now we’re done. Kids don’t want stories left in a limbo. They like their stories neatly packed away, as happens literally in the end sequence of Yo Gabba Gabba.
So no matter what form you are working in, when making content for preschool children try to signal your ending. End neatly and clearly. Leave them satisfied. Don’t leave them hanging.
One word of caution: don’t signal your ending too early. Once kids get it into their heads that the story is finished, they can disengage and go looking for the next story and your lovely warm epilogue will be drowned out by the argument of what to watch next.