Sesame Street, Nudists, and Your Unintended Audience


Ever worry that the wrong people are reading your stories?

“You know you can turn off Sesame Street when you put the baby to bed?” my husband reminded me.  

“But it’s witty and helps me write.”

After not seeing Sesame Street in the last 35 years, I was newly obsessed. I caught up on all HBO’s classic episodes and moved onto documentaries like I am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story.

Scouring Wikipedia, I had to find answers:

  • Why did Big Bird, not Kermit, sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at Jim Henson’s funeral?

  • How old was Gordon now? Luis? Maria?

  • Why was Maria always working? She could really use a break.

  • When did Zoe and Rosita first appear?

  • Was Terrence Howard stoned on that segment with Elmo? He looked real, real relaxed.

Sesame Street doesn’t talk down to kids,” I remember my father telling my mother, “and that’s why adults find it engaging.”  

He was right. I could never imagine dedicating this much time as an adult to that purple guy.

Sesame Street may appeal to children and adults alike, but adults were never Sesame Street’s ideal audience. So how has this long running show not only captured the interest of children since 1968, but their parents’ interest, too?

Should you appeal only to your ideal reader? Can you have a secondary audience?

The answer is: by ignoring them. (At least, at first.)

They don’t need us adults.

Sesame Street knows its audience and that audience is children. Not some made-up audience of kids, but the kind where the writers step into the shoes of real kiddos. 

Take that other example of children’s programming. You know who.

Yes, the purple guy. Barney.

When I see his show, I picture some exec with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, saying, “just stick some purple dinosaur on TV and give ‘em a song and dance routine.”  

It feels forced. Could you ever imagine watching that show as an adult?  

Sesame Street never has this problem. Now in its 49th season, the show’s writers have expanded their approach to include a secondary audience. Parents. But never at the expense of the primary audience—children.

How does this work?  

Think about the Sesame Street spoofs on Mad Men and True Blood. They’re created from a kid’s perspective. Mad men becomes men who actually get angry. Or True Mud, the homonym of the show’s title. The emphasis is on how a child would see these shows, all while learning basic literacy and numerical concepts. But those spoofs are pretty entertaining for us, too. So, we get roped into the deal.

Fine by me.

It’s not unlike the time I got a whole bunch of interest on my blog from a group of nudists. I’m so not joking!  

Be more naked in your writing.

My original website was entitled Be More Naked. A double entendre that satirized my time as a burlesque performer, while emphasizing the importance of real writing.

I noticed I’d pick up a follower here and there that was an actual nudist. 

I won’t lie, the fringe group offended me at first. Not because they were naked people but because I thought they had taken my blog title too literally. My site was humorous, a tongue-in-cheek take on authenticity. A way to turn things like openness and vulnerability into a metaphor while also playing off my background. I worried the nudists didn’t get that.

Then it hit me. Maybe I wasn’t getting it. What if being more naked was their way to be more naked? They were still people who had an interesting perspective on life. And who isn’t more authentic than nudists? Am I right?

Even though I’ve changed direction, specifically targeting writers now at The Naked Page, I’ll forever be grateful for my unintended audience of nudists. They were a loyal fan base who chimed in with the most relevant comments during those years. I’m talking thoughtful stuff that applied to life and the writing process. So, if you happen to be here as a nudist, thank you. You’ve opened my eyes to the beauty of acquiring an unintended audience.

But how do you maintain your conversation with your ideal reader if you’re getting noticed by an unintended audience? Do you just ignore them?

No, not exactly.

Just pivot.

Even Sesame Street learned how to include their unintended audience over time. At some point they realized if kids are watching, their parents will be, too. But pulling in the parents wasn’t a first priority.  Sesame Street worked purely on the kid angle for years. Until recently, when they decided to pivot. 

What do I mean by pivot?

When I was a theatre major, I learned this tiny trick on stage that helped me stay visible. It even became a technique I started using in social situations.

You know the acting rule, right? No backs to the audience. 

In order for the audience to see you perform, you have to make sure you’re turned to face them. They don’t have to get you dead center, but you can’t close them off at any time. So, you’re allowed a range of about 180 degrees rotation, profile to profile, without cutting them out of your performance.

But what happens when another actor shows up on stage and you need to face her, too? She’s not sitting in the audience. Or what if you’re in a scene surrounded by 3 or 4 other actors? Now who do you face? Who gets your attention?

It’s as simple as a pivot.

Just move your body ever so slightly, so at least some of your face is revealed to everyone on stage and in the audience. They may not get every bit of you, but even a piece of your profile counts.

This is a wildly effective way to show up for everyone.

Ever go to a party and walk up to a small gathering where that one person keeps their back to you and continues talking to someone else? Rude. Feel excluded much? (Rami Malek, you deserve that Oscar just for putting up with that crap at the Golden Globes.) If this happens to you, remind yourself these party people have zero theatrical training (okay, whatever, they’re drunk).

Still, I’m usually screaming inside, “just pivot, you fool!”

I make sure I use the pivot technique anytime I’m in a social gathering as not to leave anyone out. If a new person joins us, I do the slightest body movement so I’m also open to the joiner. It’s a tiny gesture, but a welcoming one.

That first person still gets my full frontal—I’m kidding, but look at the title, would ya? I don’t stop my original conversation, so the initial person will get most of my primary focus, but I’m not cutting anybody off from the group. 

If you’re flailing about, worried you’ve got multiple people to address in your writing, you can also pivot.

Identify your one ideal reader and talk directly to that person. Aim your attention to that main audience member. Throughout your rough draft and into revisions, you should be clearly focused on that one reader.

Throw in an aside.

But if something small comes to mind that would appeal to a secondary audience, you can throw it in as an aside. Add in little quips of information, but don’t go off on some long tangent. Just make it quick, like a wink or a nod and get back to your topic.

This goes for creative writing, copywriting, sales calls, and webinars.

Your online writing should still target one ideal reader. But if someone else shows up to the party who doesn’t fit the qualifications, don’t chase them off. Just say hi and and continue your conversation.

What about in memoir writing?

You’ve probably got a primary audience to help you focus your story. But if you find tidbits on topic material that would appeal to people outside that one reader, you can introduce it briefly. Just make sure you aren’t spiraling out into some wild subplot that buries your main idea. Malcom Gladwell does this well in his nonfiction writing. He’s forever providing little breakthrough points, but then he jumps right back to his main subject matter.

In memoir, these asides would be like lines of your thinking that other characters can’t hear. Remember Ally McBeal? Her thoughts would come to life, interrupt the action, and the story would continue. Same concept.

Keep going in one clear direction.

The goal here is to keep going in one clear direction. Don’t start identifying multiple ideal readers who may throw off your laser focus. Just do a tiny pivot towards your unintended readers and offer them a little token of something unexpected.

I’ll give you an example.  

My main audience is mom writers who have a sense of humor. 

That’s clear enough, right? 

But I cut my teeth doing burlesque in gay nightclubs. From time to time in my blog posts, I may drop a joke that only my gay BFF will get. Does that mean I expect the cast of Rupaul’s Drag Race to run over and sign up for my How to Write Your Birth Story workshop? Not today, Satan! But I won’t discourage someone who isn’t my ideal reader away from my writing.

Plus, my tiny asides set up who I am as a storyteller. If someone isn’t down with my snarky drag queen humor, maybe they aren’t my ideal reader after all. I did say mom writers with a sense of humor!

Spice up your writing.

The pivot may feel slightly awkward at first. And trust me, I don’t advise using it in a story if it doesn’t work to move your narrative forward. But sometimes these little bits of information can spice up your work and make your writing more relevant.  

Stepping out of the frame for a second and adding in some side knowledge, gives the reader more bang for her buck. And also, the reader better understands you, the writer.

If the reader and writer are truly engaged in a conversation, it should flow and stay on topic (mostly). But what conversation never has any interruptions or never evokes an ah-ha moment? Monotone monologues. Bueller? Bueller?

Interjecting a tiny nugget of thought can make your writing feel more real, more alive. Your content doesn’t have to be formulaic or boring. You aren’t writing an academic paper here. You’re giving us YOU on the page.

If you spend 100% of your time focused purely on the needs of your ideal reader, we lose you. I’ve seen writers create material so focused on addressing a primary audience—so void of the self—that the material sits like the driest turkey leg on your Thanksgiving dinner plate.

Never forget: it’s your story!

Find balance in all the things I suggest. Don’t go so far in the direction of your ideal reader that you have no personality on the page. Sure, it’s great to narrow your focus down so you can inspire, motivate, or resolve some problem. But don’t do this at the expense of your storytelling. Nobody wants to read a bunch of stats or a preachy how-to manual.

It’s still a story and it’s your story!

A shout out to your unintended audience will give your writing more authenticity.

You may swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the next in your early writing. But know that you’ll eventually begin to use all these tools like a chef uses seasoning—sparingly and with your own flair. 

After growing up in the Deep South, I moved to Kansas. I had to carry around a mini bottle of Tabasco just to offset the bland food. Don’t let your story turn into Kansas steak. Your audience can’t smother your story in hot sauce if it’s dull. They’ll just close your book.

Find your ideal reader—you don’t have to know what she ate for breakfast. Just get an overview of her basic stats. Gender, age range, socio-economic status, marital status, likes and dislikes, career, and hobby. And talk directly to that person. Not in some weird, stiff way. Have a genuine conversation.

If an idea arises that breaks up your train of thought or isn’t an exact fit for your ideal reader, take it as something that an unintended reader might find interesting—or god forbid, you add something because it appeals to you. Some mystery may even provoke your ideal readers to reader further.

Do it to it. 

Keep spicing things up in different ways. You can even enlist some beta readers to see if your ideas work or if you’re losing your audience.

More on beta readers next week!

For now, what bits of information have you been tempted to add to your writing, but have left out? Can you experiment a little?