Tell vs Compel: A lesson from 3,000 kids and 1 masterful director in Carnegie Hall

When creating immersive content for an HMD, we are generally concerned with how to tell the story to a single person in a headset that’s confined to a chair. Our struggle frequently centers around how to convey a story when the audience can look anywhere at any time in 360 degrees.

Now imagine your audience is a kid between the ages of 10-12. Wait, let’s make that 3,000 kids. Under the age of 11. Bouncing, shouting balls of energy. All in the same place, at the same time.

That’s the scene on weekday mornings at Carnegie Hall, where a series called “The Orchestra Rocks” brings children from all over New York City to the legendary venue to experience a full orchestra, which I had the privilege to experience first-hand. Throughout the program, I was mesmerized by the interactions between the host, the orchestra, and the throbbing, hyper crowd of youngsters. The director of the series, Susan Fenichell, masterfully moves thousands of kids from screaming banshees to recorder-playing orchestra members to a silent, captive audience – and back again. Without sets or props or special effects.

I was watching the show like a magician’s trick, trying to find her slight of hand – how does she do it? What makes this show work so well?


As is often the case, the one of the keys to this effective, invisible hand became apparent in a moment when it didn’t work.

Daniel Bernard Romain was electrifying the stage, shredding the violin like it was an electric guitar. He had the entire pre-teen audience at Carnegie Hall on their feet, cheering. And then came the moment when he wanted to tell the kids something. He wanted to talk to them. First, he told them to be quiet. (I have empirical evidence from my own 8 year old that that does not seem to work with this particular demographic.) He would shush them and repeated that he has something to say. But the buzz of energy could not be contained. Daniel then negotiated with them to listen… Ultimately he moved on to what he wanted to say, but without full cooperation from his audience.

Why wouldn’t they settle down and listen? What was he doing differently than the rest of the show?

I realized that while Daniel was trying to tell the kids to be quiet, Susan’s directorial choices would compel them to be quiet… She would not explicitly tell them what to do, instead she would allow for decision making process that trusted the audience to follow: a projection with words to sing, a near-silent orchestration choice, or moments of audience interactions. Think about it. If thousands of kids are singing along, it’s its own powerful tool of persuasion to compel other kids to participate. If a bold orchestra suddenly drops to pianissimo, the kids shush each other so they can hear. And the interactions where kids get to chose what’s next allow for the thought of “what if that was me”. Choices like this moved the kids to participate naturally rather than telling them what to do.

Sure, when we are putting HMDs on the head of someone who has never experienced VR, we have to tell our audiences how the technology functions. But once they are inside an immersive experience, let’s compel, not tell, our audiences and trust that they will naturally follow. It’s a much better experience for everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *