Predatory student loans. Net neutrality. Corruption at FIFA. Transparency and the Supreme Court. Paid family leave. In the years since Last Week Tonight with John Oliver debuted, it seems no issue is too sophisticated or obscure for the host and his clever team of writers to tackle. In fact, they seem to relish a challenge; the more nuanced or apathy-inducing the topic, the more he delights in turning the issue into must-watch, long-form viewing that drives public awareness and generates traction. Even dry topics like the role of science in the media are ripe for this unique phenomenon that I’ll dub, “John-splaining.”
Social impact brands, take note! While creating awareness and action around complex issues is an uphill slog in the short-attention span era, audiences still long for deep, meaningful engagement on topics that matter. In fact, one could argue that its absence from our smartphone-addicted lives makes it all the more desirable. From late night variety shows to social media, short-burst content is not going away. But with immersive reports from outfits like Vice and Vox, long-form is blossoming as well. And while nothing can duplicate the unique success Last Week Tonight has had in dissecting complex issues and making us care, there are lots of ways to adapt the tricks of their trade—especially online.
So how do they pluck an issue from obscurity and enshrine it in infamy? How does he get audiences to tune in and sit, captivated, for what amounts to an 18 minute soliloquy on the finer points of bail bond pricing—and then translate that to action? The show is remarkably consistent in its structure, and not unlike many of the issues he covers, it’s less complicated than it may seem at first glance.
Communicating The Complex Is As Easy As 1-2-3
Like any good drama, John-splaining relies on the time-tested three-act structure of exposition, confrontation, and resolution. After introducing the topic, he immediately disarms the audience with a mix of empathy and humor. Tonally, this is crucial; he’s not abusing the pulpit by lecturing, but acknowledging common perception, commiserating with the audience’s apathy, and inviting you to have a good laugh with him about it. Then, ever so gently, he shifts to the serious with a line like, “it may seem absurd, but this is actually hugely important—and here’s why.”
At this point, he’s given the audience a penny’s worth of entertainment, and earned a pound’s worth of their interest and time. He uses that equity to draw audiences deep into the first act, establishing the characters, their motivations, and the underlying relationships. He unpacks all of this with great efficiency, carefully balancing critical detail with overarching context as he passionately leads the audience further and further into the issue.
By the end of the first act, when the audience is firmly committed to the journey, he pivots to reveal the catalyst: some manner of systemic inequity or sinister injustice that cements the audience’s investment in the story. In his Bail Bond piece, this is the moment a poor individual is arrested, often through no fault of their own, which then triggers a series of harsh penalties and debilitating outcomes resulting in an inescapable cycle of incarceration. Through a confluence of intersecting plot lines and irreverent digressions, John spends this second act whipping the audience into such a frenzy of sympathy, disbelief, and outrage that even the most hardened skeptic cannot escape its emotional gravitas.
With that, he pauses, and pivots to the third act: rewarding the audience with some grand gesture of resolution. Sometimes, this takes the form of spectacle, as it did when Hamilton star Lin Manuel Miranda’s plea to address the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis. Other times, Oliver engages in a particularly committed form of pranksterism, as when he posed as mega-reverend to his legally incorporated church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, to draw attention to the unscrupulous practices of televangelists. Regardless of whether he’s making an honest plea or ridiculing relentlessly, it’s important to note that the catharsis is, by design, a half measure. The audience may get a taste of his acerbic brand of social justice, but he sets the clear expectation that he will rely on them—his newly minted army of fellow activists—to carry on with the mission.
And it works. Net neutrality had been a cause celebré for years, with staunch support from civil activists and silicon valley goliaths alike. But following John’s segment promoting net neutrality, the outpouring of support on the open commenting section of the FCC website actually crashed its servers, and dramatically shifted the trajectory of the proposed rules.
To be sure, some pressing social issues aren’t well suited to the John-splaining treatment. Not every sticky problem can, or should, be explained through satire. But to attribute the success of this format purely to its comedic style would do a tremendous disservice to the attention its creators have paid to the underlying structure and substance. Peel away the snark and it becomes clear that Oliver’s team has crafted a remarkably thoughtful and effective new paradigm in communicating complex issues, engaging and enlightening audiences with high-impact takeaways that can be directly applied to any complex issue or message, be it online, in print, or in person.
Top Takeaways for Mission-Driven Content Creators
With this in mind, here are my top eight takeaways for crafting long-form content on complex issues that spurs audiences to action:
- Long-form is the new short-form! Let’s face it: when you can’t tell whether a tweet has been penned by a person or a bot, the bar may be too low. The bar for long-form online content, on the other hand, is extraordinarily high. And the relative rarity of long-form content of quality creates differentiation, signals importance, and enhances desirability.
- Editorial discipline is paramount. Long-form publishing isn’t a license to ramble, and you shouldn’t expect audiences to tolerate it—especially online, where alternatives are but a click away. It’s crucial to balance simplicity and complexity and immerse audiences in the challenges without drowning them in detail.
- Strive for empathy. Messaging and communications design is all about meeting your audience where they are—both physically and intellectually. Establish a genuine, meaningful connection there, and you’ll earn trust you need to take them on your narrative journey.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Speaking of journey, pace your narrative! Start too fast out of the gate and your audiences will bail. Warm them up slowly, then accelerate into the second act to heighten the sense of drama and urgency.
- It’s easier when everyone knows the route. If you’ve seen his show once, you’ve seen it a thousand times; the subject may change, but the overall structure is remarkably consistent. And that’s a good thing, because it reduces cognitive load, enhances the accessibility of content, and creates a sense of anticipation for the inevitable twists and turns that audiences crave.
- Free to wander off from time to time. One of the best ways to reduce fatigue in long narratives is to allow your audience regular pit stops for the occasional analogy or digression. Not only do they reinforce our understanding and add perspective, they also allow audiences to escape the tedium of complex and challenging content.
- Don’t be afraid to stage a fight. Most great dramas feature a hero and a villain. While painting characters in black and white may often be an oversimplification, it draws contrast and elevates the underlying conflict by making it more accessible.
- Leave them wanting more. Next steps are crucial! By demonstrating your commitment to a cause and defining options that audiences can pursue themselves, you open-source action on an issue that is typically more impactful than anything one organization can achieve alone.
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