Things June 2022: Lyric repetition, puzzle design, Outer Wilds

What just happened?

You may have noticed that Things posts/emails slowed in frequency over the years (from weekly to monthly to sporadic) and more recently had effectively stopped!

There’s a whole aspect of this that I plan to unpack later involving my levels of personal creativity and motivation. I posted in August 2021 that I would try to work around this by trying to focus on a post about a single Thing each time. Well, this has started to work, and I’m jumping off from that to a more traditional round up of things!

Beginnings and Endings in public performances (link)

In this post I examined the ways that different cultural forms (movies, gigs, puppet shows etc) signal to an audience the start and end of a performance, and why this is important.

While writing it, I realised that online talks/presentations, which have become much more prevalent during the pandemic, had not reached a good consensus on these difficult problems, and I set out my own list of suggestions of how to start and end them. Honestly, I’m not that satisfied with these and if anyone has any better suggestions I’d love to hear them. Read the whole thing here.

Why I love the ‘Up All Night’ music video (link)

Effectively a dramatically expanded paragraph from a normal issue of things (this one), I explained in some detail what I think is so good about this music video:

This fascinating short film seems weirdly underdiscussed on the internet, so again I’d be very happy to hear anyone else’s thoughts on it! Mine are here.

Repetition for emphasis in lyrics

When a particular word or phrase is sung repeatedly in a song, the meaning changes slightly: it starts to feel like something the singer really really desires.

This was my favourite feature of Frozen 2 (2019)‘s song “Into The Unknown”

Elsa hears a siren-like voice, and in the first verse sings about how she plans to ignore it, culminating in this:

I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you…
Into the unknown
Into the unknown
Into the unknown

‘Into the Unknown’, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

You can read it between the lines, but the repetition of ‘Into the unknown’ and the tone in which it is sung tell us that, deep down, Elsa really does want to follow the voice. This is then validated in the second verse which instead concludes

Don’t you know there’s a part of me that longs to go
Into the unknown?
Into the unknown
Into the unknown!

This device is really nicely exploited in The LEGO Movie 2 (2019) (another animated sequel from 2019, but which came out before Frozen 2). The protagonists encounter Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi who then goes into a musical number to explain that she is not evil, which brilliantly plays out exactly as you would hope from that premise:

Here the repetition is partly from the backing singers (denoted in brackets):

And if you make eye contact with me
I totally won’t have you executed immediately
‘Cause that’d be evil (evil)
Evil (evil)
Evil… and that’s so not me.

‘Not Evil’ by Jon Lajoie

The repetition of ‘evil’ reinforces the unconvincing negatives, giving the impression that she is, in fact, actually evil.

So anyway, all of this is an elaborate build-up to explain a problem I have with ‘Roxanne’ by The Police.

Sting sings earnestly about how much he loves Roxanne, a sex worker, and how he wants her to stop doing that and just be with him. It’s a little odd as there’s nothing in the song indicating that he would support her or that she could do really anything other than just belong to him, but perhaps that’s supposed to be implied.

Specifically he asks her to change by saying “You don’t have to put on the red light”, which is fine and a reasonably delicate turn of phrase. Where it gets weird is in the conclusion of the chorus, and especially the outro. Again denoting backing singers in brackets, this reads as follows:

(Roxanne) You don’t have to put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) You don’t have to put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light

‘Roxanne’ by Sting

So Sting sings two times that she doesn’t have to put on the red light, but then seemingly that she should put it on thirteen times, which for me always undermined what I assume was the intended sentiment.

Puzzle: Rice Cookers

Returning to the old tradition of puzzles in things: how do rice cookers work?

Now you can ask the internet for the answer to this, but I suggest this is worth figuring out on your own! If you’re not familiar with this excellent device, the key mystery is that you can add any amount of rice (up to some limit), then add 1.5x as much water, and switch the rice cooker on. You don’t have to tell it how much rice you are cooking, but it will cook it perfectly and then let you know when it’s ready. So how exactly does it know when the rice is done?

Puzzle Design

I know many things readers are not only interested in solving puzzles, but also setting them. I found Elyot Grant’s series of videos on the subject pretty fascinating, albeit a bit longer than they could have been (although this is the ‘extended’ version of his GDC talk).

I particularly appreciated some useful terminology he introduced me to for speaking about puzzles:

Fiero vs Eureka

Elyot likes the term ‘Eureka’ for the moment a core understanding of a puzzle kicks in, arguing this does better justice to it than the more prosaic term “aha moment”. In particular he calls it out as distinct from ‘Fiero’, which describes the warm feeling of accomplishment after you have achieved something difficult. Video games often end up falling back on creating Fiero; creating Eureka moments is harder to do but often more rewarding to experience in the end.


This refers to anything incorporated into a puzzle that isn’t essential to the design, but somehow makes it more attractive or pleasing than if it was the purest distillation of what is needed to provoke a Eureka moment. For example, a sliding block puzzle could be shaped like an animal that it already nearly resembles; or the words in a word puzzle could be thematically linked somehow. This all adds to the pleasing sense in which engaging with and solving a puzzle can feel like understanding a message from its creator.


Finally, ‘aporia’ is the term for when a puzzle seems to be impossible. Ideally, the setting and trust in the puzzle’s creator should be sufficient to convince you that there really is a solution, that this isn’t a mistake or a trick. This can make the sensation particularly fascinating: you know a solution exists, you’ve perhaps even proved it doesn’t, so you know there must be some gap in your logic – you just don’t know what it is. For me this happened repeatedly as I played Snakebird (Steam/iOS/Android; referenced in Things April 2017) and is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

Part 1 of the video series is here, and the YouTube description links you to parts 2 and 3:

Media I Recommend

A long time has passed since the last general Things round-up, which means there have been more chances for me to encounter some really excellent things that I recommend to Things readers.

Video game: The Outer Wilds

Available on PC (Steam), Playstation, Xbox

More than most other media, video games often have the problem that they are not at all accessible or engaging for someone not familiar with the form. So even though this is the strongest I’ve wanted to recommend something for a very long time, you do need to be comfortable navigating 3D environments to enjoy this game.

The Outer Wilds is a sci-fi time-loop mystery puzzle-game set in a kind of toy solar-system. That sounds cute, but I need to expand on that: it’s a really solid sci-fi, with the best-realised time-loop I’ve ever seen, a fantastically crafted mystery with brilliant diegetic puzzles set in an excellently designed toy solar-system that is obsessed with piquing and rewarding your curiosity and may make you think differently about death.

Referencing the puzzle terminology above, while it has its moments of Fiero, The Outer Wilds is particularly notable for being built around Eureka moments, with pleasingly diegetic hints to help you figure them out.

This may provide further context:
– Best Game of 2000-2009 according to me: Portal
– Best Game of 2010-2019 according to me: The Outer Wilds

So to be very clear, I recommend playing this game in the strongest possible terms if any of that sounds even remotely appealing to you.

Here’s a few notes that may help with your decision to play/finish it:

  • It takes ~15-25 hours to play
  • Note this wild game is called ‘The Outer Wilds’, and should not be confused with ‘The Outer Worlds’, a game that unfortunately came out around the same time
  • I recommend setting aside an hour for your first session
  • To get a bit cryptic, there are a few things that you may find annoying about it, but almost all of those things have ways to make them less annoying!
  • I personally recommend buying the base edition and then buying the DLC if you want more, rather than diving straight in to the complete ‘archaeologist edition’
  • There are moments late on that may test your patience, especially if you don’t work out some of the ways to make things less annoying – I was personally so invested I didn’t mind these at all, but I can appreciate that your mileage may vary. Still, if you enjoy it half as much as I did it will be well worth your time.

TV Series: Russian Doll

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll

As it happens, Russian Doll also involves a time loop, but much more of a magical-realism one than the sci-fi of The Outer Wilds. Its most notable feature is Natasha Lyonne as the protagonist Nadia, who has an approach to life not often seen on screen: a woman who says ‘yes’ to most decisions, especially the inadvisable ones, and is remarkably driven and selfish – but still humane. This makes her a particularly excellent protagonist for the time loop situation she finds herself in and I was gripped by this series all the way to the end.

If this sounds appealing I recommend diving straight into it (it’s on Netflix), but if you need more convincing at the expense of slight spoiling, the trailer is here.

(There is now a second series in which she encounters a different magical-realist sci-fi situation, but I found her character a worse fit for it and I was not surprised and delighted in the same way. The first series can certainly stand alone.)

Film: Everything Everywhere All At Once

IMDb: 8.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%.

The above trailer looked very promising to me, and I sought out the very first screening I could; the amazing part is that I found the film entirely lives up to the trailer, even to the extent that each minute is almost exactly as intense. A mind-boggling experience that truly delivers on the idea of a multiverse (unlike other films I could mention), I found it so fascinating I saw it a second time at the cinema; I enjoyed it even more, and it has joined the ranks of my all-time favourite films.

At the time of writing you may even still be able to catch it in the cinema, which I strongly encourage you to do!

(If you’re interested, others on my ‘all-time favourites’ list include Speed Racer, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York, and Lilo and Stitch)

Song: Dan Deacon – Change Your Life

It seems music is more personal than other art forms, and I feel as if the more a particular piece speaks to someone, the less likely it is to work for most other people. With that in mind, I don’t expect many to find Dan Deacon (referenced a few times in past Things) particularly appealing, but if you only try one of his songs, I recommend ‘Change Your Life’ which really captures the frenetic optimism he achieves, and which is what I find most appealing:

Enormous ever-evolving IP: Star Wars

Since I last wrote about it (in September 2018!), a lot has happened in Star Wars, and as you might expect I have a lot of opinions about it. But that will have to be an entire Things in its own right. So, you can look forward to that. Or not.

Transmission ends


Why I love the ‘Up All Night’ music video

I previously wrote in passing about how the internet can encourage toxic discussion, partly because people are more likely to post about something when it makes them angry. A good way to respond to this observation is to march in the opposite direction: write about things you love!

To that end, let me tell you about one of my all-time favourite music videos. The song is Beck’s ‘Up All Night’, the video is by CANADA (the creative production company, not the country), and you should just watch the whole thing first:

Wow, so what was that! Let’s break it down. Note, I’ll be using the actor’s names, as character names are not given.

The opening

We begin in a hexagonal frame – a visual motif for Beck’s album, Colors – bringing us in to a party. Right away, we see this party is long past its peak: there’s an unsettling discordant strumming, and while our attention is on Pedro Attemborough falling into a drunken faint, we subconsciously pick up on someone stepping over debris, and on the right a woman forcefully pushes back a man after he draws uncomfortably close. We read the environment as inebriated and ambiently hostile, particularly for women.

The very first edit demands our attention. First, Pedro hits the ground with a strange metallic sound. Then, as soon as we register that as strange, we cut to Solene Rigot, and immediately understand that the sound was actually her kicking a street sign. Further kicks are synchronised with the credits, and then in a dreamlike transition that skips what must surely be a difficult process, Solene is now walking off with the sign as an ersatz shield.

Having drawn our attention to the synchronisation of image and sound, we enter an eerie silence as she marches into the night, right into the path of a tall man(?) dressed as Snow White, smoking, staggering, clearly leaving the party we just saw. Perhaps expecting a woman to defer to his path, he is surprised as she off-handedly clips past him – and that exact moment of conflict is punctuated with the opening guitar stabs of the song, finally kicking in, 30 seconds into the video.

So tacitly we identify with Solene, familiar as we all are with the rudeness of those that won’t even slightly move to let us by, the music telling us to feel triumphant that she came out the better from the borderline violent exchange.

Now perhaps it seems like I’m digging into too much detail here, but I think it’s important to appreciate that this quiet introduction has been packed with synaesthetic interest and detail, setting the stage for a conflict, and getting us to root for our protagonist – all with no dialogue. There’s a party, a man in trouble (we assume she’s headed for him), a vaguely misogynistic atmosphere, and a woman fully prepared to plunge into it to get what she wants.

The approach

A brief cut back to Pedro confirms him as her destination, then we return to Solene approaching the next level of the patriarchal gauntlet: a group of young men chatting and laughing. Superficially benevolent, it doesn’t take much life experience to recognise this as a potential threat to a young woman alone at night. This fear is immediately subverted as Solene again takes the role of aggressor: without breaking stride she grabs a bag off a shoulder, sharply unzips it, does – something? – then throws the bag off the walkway. The strange tension of wondering what she did with the bag is then resolved with a cut to her holding a doughnut in her mouth, before her hand reaches up to yank it out as she takes a bite, still marching.

To be clear, this is kind of a dick move, and the fact it inverts the patterns of a society that routinely disempowers women does not make it okay – but as Drew McWeeny noted in the 3rd episode of Voir, a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable for us to care about them or be invested in their journey. This simply tells us she will do whatever it takes to see this ambiguous mission through.

She pauses a moment as Beck’s lyrics tell her to “pull yourself together” and “it’s time to go”. She pulls out an inhaler and takes an assisted breath (a sudden moment of vulnerability) and we cut to Pedro apparently leaking urine, kind of disgusting, but raising the stakes of the quest: he needs her help.

In the video’s first moment of magical realism, Solene pivots on the spot, and with nothing but a simple cut is now armoured; we understand she has quite literally steeled herself.

She discards the inhaler, another dick move, but hey – armour doesn’t have pockets. She starts running, and eight cuts at different angles (timed to hand-claps) build the tension to the next key moment: the song bursts into the chorus and she bursts into the party itself.

The party

Through a few quick shots in slow motion we see the party as we feared: debauched, uncomfortably packed, hazardous to human health. Solene’s progress seems almost miraculously smooth, but at this point we’re not surprised.

As she makes it from the red-lit room to the orange, the stakes rise: a fight between men dressed as nuns (a scene I have, bizarrely, personally witnessed at a stag do on the streets of Portsmouth), and an unfortunate collision between Solene and a woman triggers the moment of male aggression we feared would come.

Instantly enraged, the man flings a bottle at our protagonist; her first response is to grab a hookah (why?), before turning to deflect the shattering bottle with Chekhov’s shield, and smoothly using that turn as a wind-up to lob the hookah back. We are taken aback – she has been a bit rude so far, sure, but this violent response doesn’t seem right – only to find that it’s simply to knock the cans off a comatose man’s forehead. Weird but delightful!

She knocks the door down to the kitchen: drug central. Wilfully destroying the drug paraphernalia as she progresses, it seems the hookah throw wasn’t an afterthought; she appears to actively despise drugs and all they stand for.

If we were in any doubt as to how bad this party has become, the surprise sheep lets us know.

Things now take a turn for the weird as trophies in a red-lit room tremble in Solene’s presence; she notes it but appears to move on, as a roller-blading blonde in hot-pants twirls to punctuate the moment. This is notable as the only part of the video that veers towards the male gaze, which otherwise has been surprisingly avoided, particularly in our protagonist’s outfits – although perhaps the shot is there to make that contrast clear?

She steps more carefully through the heavy petting room, affection and love more worthy of her respect, but the weirdness returns as a necklace rises towards her inexplicably. Matching the rhythm of the syncopated vocals, metal objects attach themselves to her armour. Something is wrong.

Perhaps there’s a clever metaphor I’m missing here, but it seems that our protagonist has become too emotionally ‘charged’ by the events so far to pass through unscathed. If she’s to make it to the heart of the party, she must shed the part of herself that is holding her back.

In what reads like a time-twist, it seems as if she did in fact enter that red room with the trophies, and we now flash back to it, to discover her smoking and preparing some kind of cocktail. Having previously seen her antipathy towards intoxicants, this seems strange. Perhaps the party life was once hers, and her attitude is not that of a pious outsider, but rather one who has been through her own struggles, but emerged on the other side. Perhaps she wants to save Pedro as she once was saved (or as seems more likely, saved herself), and accepts as the price that she must, with care, use an aspect of herself that she had previously closed off.

Two quick scenes that follow endorse this idea. In blue light (read: earlier) she struggles to evade the most potent patriarchal symbol yet: a drunken football team. Then in red – presumably after imbibing – she is crowd-surfing an otherwise impassably packed corridor, the party accepting her as one of their own.

Fighting through plants (a cannabis farm?), bleary, she is perhaps paying the price for this power. But now flashing back again to the red room, we learn something more powerful took place there: magical realism escalating, the chrome drink coats her insides and appears to transform her armoured form into a chrome ’73 Corvette C3 Stingray: impeccably cool and worthy of respect from the revellers. Also it makes no sense! But that’s fine!

The climax

She finally reaches her goal: Pedro, even now having toothpaste applied to his comatose form by a man in an ill-fitting tiger onesie, representing the pure Freudian id of Tigger.

In a perfectly acted moment, Solene sighs – a combination of relief, disappointment, and simultaneously anger, crystallising into action.

The Corvette burns intimidating doughnuts, and she is left alone by Tigger and the revellers to save Pedro.

In an image that sums up the whole story, the still-armoured Solene emerges from smoke, carrying Pedro, gazing upon him with a combination of relief and love. The song is over.

But there’s one final, surreal twist. In the early morning light we see Pedro surfing atop the chrome Corvette (driverless of course, because it is in fact Solene). We quietly hear what sounds like an outtake from the string section used on the track, and the hexagon closes us out as they drive, presumably, towards a better future.

The dynamic at play here, though, is uncomfortable. Pedro affects an unearned coolness, literally riding atop Solene’s efforts as if he were the hero. How does she feel about this? Where is their relationship really headed? It feels to me like the default patriarchal order is being reasserted, and from what we’ve seen, she will not tolerate this for long. What she has gained from this ordeal is not a partner, but confidence and strength. That will last.

I don’t think Pedro will.


For me, the video evokes my time back at university: the parties, the intensity of every experience, and the romantic idea of being “Up all night with you” – but also of realising that you don’t have to conform, that these relationships may not last, and most importantly your own character is coming into focus.

And that’s why it’s one of my favourite music videos.

Transmission ends


Beginnings and Endings in public performances

Knowing how to start and stop

If you have to give a public performance of some kind – from a wedding speech, to a presentation at work, all the way up to a play or musical performance – I would suggest that starting and stopping are the very hardest bits to get right.

It sounds simple in theory, but there’s really a lot going on!


The beginning is the most important part of the work.


The ritual of starting a public performance of any kind has two challenges: people turning up late, and drawing attention to the starting moment. This applies to a speech or presentation, but also to a gig or play, a sporting performance, or even a pre-recorded work such as a film at the cinema.


For the ‘turning up late’ problem, the default strategy is to deploy some form of less consequential entertainment, for a duration in proportion to how late people are likely to be.

With scheduled TV programming (which is still apparently a thing), people are likely to be pretty much on time, so a 30s-60s opening sequence works just great. It has a distinctive soundtrack so other people in the house who might want to watch can also hear it starting and rush to the sofa.

For a film at the cinema, people have to travel to get there so are likely to arrive later than planned, and then realise they really need the toilet, or find the queue for the popcorn is longer than they anticipated. So there’s quite a margin of error; a 15-25 minute period of adverts and trailers is about right, and of course has other benefits to the theatre.

For a gig, the calculus gets blurrier still: the venue wants to make money from drinks, and the performers want a full, warmed-up crowd, so a warm-up act of some kind about an hour before the main performance is perfect.

There are two areas where I feel like society has not happened upon an adequate solution. First, attending a theatrical performance has the same challenges as the cinema, but I’ve never seen that liminal time between arrival and performance filled well. Second, and of more direct interest to me, in a work presentation – and especially an online one – there’s an awkward period of 2-5 minutes between the first arrivals and the latecomers.

Back when we still went in to offices, I solved this problem for a particular weekly meeting by using the TV method: I played a ‘theme tune’. This had the nice effect of raising the energy level, and also signalling to those elsewhere in the office that the meeting was about to start so they should get a move on – precisely the same benefits as a TV show, but a 2-3 minute song is about right instead of 30s-60s.

Now that these meetings take place remotely, we still have that same space of time, but a theme tune does not work well at all. There’s no ambient way of reminding those who haven’t joined yet, and the music would stifle any conversation between early attendees. I still don’t know how to solve this. My very partial solution is to set my video background to something I’ve been interested recently as a soft cue for small talk!

Calling attention for the start of the performance

Since we have a gap between the early arrivals and the latecomers, we then have the second problem: signalling the true start of the main performance.

Indoor public venues have a great cue for this: lighting. Dimming the lights is instantly noticeable and clearly signifies the audience to pay attention to the stage. At the Brussels Puppet Theatre I saw a particularly powerful version of this idea: you hear three quick, sharp knocks (which quickly silences almost all of the audience), followed by three slower knocks, each of which is precisely synchronised with some, then most, then all of the house lights going out. Attention is rapidly and tightly focused!

Cinemas have a harder time deploying the lighting trick as they have generally already engaged ‘movie mode’ to show the adverts and trailers. Some will transition from partial house lights to darkness (not a particularly dramatic change), and in some European cinemas an automatic curtain draws closed over the screen and then re-opens to mark the change – kind of pointless, but effective! In other cinemas, more notably, they play a very distinctive and loud descending run of three chimes, reminiscent of the puppet theatre’s three taps.

Without those tricks, the opening moments of the film itself can also do the job. In the UK at least, after the near-continual sound from the trailers, the moment of silence while the age certification is displayed forms part of the ‘things are starting’ signal. The animated logos of production companies do the final part of focusing attention, especially when accompanied by significant sounds – 20th Century Fox’s fanfare being particularly effective.

Occasionally films may deviate from the logo pattern, at their own risk. Dancer in the Dark (2000) was intended to open with the Overture playing while curtains remained drawn across the screen; in the UK and US, where auditoriums generally lack such curtains, it instead plays out over a black screen, to the confusion of the audience.

(Side-note: for Things readers interested in all things ‘meta’, Dancer in the Dark is notable for tacitly inviting the audience to leave before the film ends. Although I consider it an excellent film, I fear everyone will experience some form of regret whichever choice they make.)

More recently Dune (2021) forces audiences to sit up and pay attention by opening immediately with a (subtitled) quote in an alien tongue; very effective in the screening I attended because the volume was so loud!

Returning to the office setting, cueing the start is another problematic area. There is at least a well-defined approach for a more formal presentation, in which a host of some sort introduces the speaker, but there is one crucial rule such hosts must know: audiences are primed to clap after hearing a name. A successful introduction therefore follows the pattern: “Please welcome serial victim, unknown assailant, and universal stand-in, the enigmatic… John Doe” <applause>.

I frequently see hosts destroy this moment simply by reversing the order: “Please welcome John Doe” <scattered uncertain claps>, “who needs no introduction” <disconcerted silence>.

For a single presenter, there does not seem to be a universal method of kicking things off, which is unfortunate. They simply have to try interrupting everyone with a generic opening remark like “May I have your attention please”.

In less formal and more raucous settings, I was introduced to a fantastically effective alternative by – I think – Tim Sheppard: you say “If you can hear me, clap” – and then you clap. You repeat this a second time, and now roughly half the audience should join you in the clap. This gets the attention of the rest of the audience, so on the third repetition, everyone joins in, and is instantly giving you their full attention. I note this also echoes the rule-of-three seen earlier with the puppet theatre’s knocks, or the cinema’s chimes.


The end is important in all things

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

Endings are a little easier: there’s only problem to address and that is the ambiguity of whether or not the show is over. But perhaps because it is less problematic, this can end up less decisive in many contexts.

In film and TV, the end-credits can make this very clear – although this is currently opening up into a battleground for new norms, as streaming services lean in to automatic credit-skipping (to the delight of some and horror of others), and as the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular is normalising the idea of the mid- or post-credits scene.

The theatre can make wonderful use of their curtain, and there’s a delight to be had in the ritual of the actors coming out to take a bow – but after that, the audience and actors both have the difficult problem of judging whether continued applause can or should be deployed to bring on further rounds of bows.

Musical performances such as a gig are very neatly divided into individual songs; the ambiguity then becomes about judging which song is the last. The level of enthusiasm an audience is likely to display is also a little too much for a band to feel comfortable standing there and accepting. Both these problems are resolved with the odd but completely accepted ritual of the band leaving the stage, then after judging the performatively correct length of applause, returning for an encore. Any real ambiguity is ultimately resolved by the raising of the house lights, which signals the ‘true end’.

I have seen this defied just once, in Björk’s 2016 performance at the Royal Albert Hall (written up nicely here). Despite performing the standard encore ritual with a radically re-worked version of Pluto, the crowd was not satisfied, I suspect because unlike other London performances, at no time had Björk addressed the crowd directly.

Despite the universal signal of house lights returning, the applause continued, and from the stalls the crowd began to sing the repeated, unresolving five-note refrain from Pluto, the song they had just heard. The singing spread through the crowd and sustained, as the Uncut article notes, “a demonstration so overwhelming that it forces Björk back out of her dressing room to offer further benedictions and thanks.”

Ending a talk or presentation, like beginning one, is much more difficult. Just as introducing a speaker by name creates a perfect moment for an audience to welcome them with applause, the audience is similarly primed to applaud at the end – but the cues are far less well-defined.

One obvious pattern to avoid: do not smoothly segue into a Q&A section. By explicitly asking the audience for something other than applause, you deny almost any chance of it!

The guiding principle to end satisfyingly is simply to ensure the audience is confident you have reached the end. If you can pull that off, and have performed well enough, a small silence while maintaining eye-contact can cue the applause. My favourite way to signify the end is to make a callback to something you mentioned at the very start; that and other ideas are nicely summarised here.

A much more overt method is to symbolically bringing your own hands together, as you deliver your concluding remark, as if clapping yourself. I saw this used by a guest-speaker in a talk about giving talks (a meta-talk); the second guest-speaker completely destroyed the applause-cueing effect by launching into a question before the applause could begin! (That guest-speaker received their comeuppance at the end of their own talk, when the first speaker vindictively deployed the very same trick).

Finally, in an online presentation, as with beginnings, endings are even more difficult than the real-life version, notably because applause simply does not function. The audience is deprived of that cathartic acknowledgement. I’m not sure there can be any substitute for it, so you must instead figure out how to reasonably wrap up and cue the audience to leave the call. Even this is not trivial to do well.

In a Google Meet call, I had some success with a radical method: since participants can kick one another off the call, I invited everyone to play an impromptu form of battle royale by kicking off as many other participants as they could, until only one remained. Precise rules and their enforcement are difficult in such a game, but it seems to work well enough – the only problem is I fear it’s so intense and interesting in its own right that the participant’s feelings about the talk itself risk being lost entirely.

Conclusions for online presentations

Despite not being my intention when I started to gather these thoughts, this leads me to a very significant conclusion: in an age where remote work seems likely to become the new norm, we really need to solve the problems of beginning and ending in online presentations!

So I’m going to propose some ideas, inspired by what works elsewhere, and will try them out myself when the opportunity next arises. I suspect that over time manual solutions will emerge, and that these will ultimately be implemented by the platforms that host online calls themselves.

Waiting for latecomers in an online presentation

While one could deploy a song or video at this point, the way it eliminates any chance for banter among early arrivals is a big problem. But I’ve not seen group call service that can neatly accommodate multiple people talking at once, so you really have to lean into that.

  • Welcome each new joiner (even if you’ve already started!)
  • Engage arrivals in some light banter. This is of course the default option, but can be hard to pull off, especially for a less confident or outgoing presenter. So…
  • … you could explicitly have someone with a suitable personality act as the host, welcoming everyone in, leading the conversation, and cuing the main presenter when the time comes
  • … or you can use my trick of setting your background to something interesting to deliberately provoke small-talk
  • More radical options: you could tell a story one word at a time; each new arrival must add a new word, and everyone can give a recap of the story so far by saying their own words in turn. Sounds fun, but probably doesn’t work at small or large scales… and possibly nowhere in between either?
  • Challenge arrivals to name something (e.g. an animal that begins with ‘P’) that nobody else has so far said. This tacitly encourages early arrival and penalises latecomers, possibly a good thing. Again, may not work at small or large scales, but a middle-ground where this works is a bit more plausible.
  • Hold an informal vote on something low-stakes and binary; ask each member their vote as they arrive and keep a tally (e.g. “Cats vs dogs” or “Time is endless vs Time is finite”)
  • Sing a song that works in rounds; each new participant can join in at the right moment. Probably requires a very specific group of people for this to work, but perhaps if you established it as a routine…
  • Somehow have people arrive directly into small break-out rooms; then with a timed warning bring them back to the main room and begin!

Signalling the start of an online presentation

Depending on which method was chosen above, this may become easier… or harder. Given the way attention is divided, I think an audio cue is most likely to work.

  • Deploy the rule of three. Clapping or knocking seems too aggressive; playing a recorded three-note chime could work (like this). Judging the volume level correctly may be a challenge, but perhaps you test that out with the very first arrivals?
  • A more elaborate version of this would be to deploy an actual (brief) musical intro, probably more in the style of a Radio Jingle. This again has the volume challenge, and also requires more manual preparation – but perhaps for a meeting that repeats every week it could work well
  • You could deploy a ‘manual jingle’ – by singing something sweet and short! Sure to gain attention, but not an approach that would work for everyone.
  • Try to replicate the ‘if you can hear me, clap’ trick… replicating it exactly may or may not work; perhaps something more like ‘if you can hear me, touch your nose’ would be better? It depends on the default visual layout of the call, I suppose.
  • Failing all these, one could perhaps develop a very specific introductory sentence, long enough that any excess banter could be shut down, but banal enough that it doesn’t matter if you miss the first half of it. I’m not sure there’s a way to do this that wouldn’t come across as rude though. Perhaps something like “I’m going to begin the presentation in 8 seconds, in 7 seconds, in 6 seconds, in 5 seconds I’m going to begin the presentation, 3, 2, 1, now. Hello!”

Signalling the end of an online presentation

Other than notes on how to end a talk in general, the key problems here are to replace applause, and to cue the final end of the call.

  • If you started with a short musical cue, perhaps you could also signal the end the same way
  • “So, if you learned something from this presentation, please show that by waving at the camera – but if you’re still wondering about something I said, instead please stroke your chin and say ‘hmmmm'” (this gives a ritualised group activity and also segues nicely into Q&A)
  • Lean into the format and just say “mike drop!” and leave the call abruptly – either by walking off, or hanging up. Maybe re-join 5 seconds later for Q&A.
  • “That’s the end! Please show your appreciation by rapidly turning your video feed on and off”
  • Not repeatable, but for fun you could look off to one side and say “that looks like smoke…” under your breath, then deliver your final line in a slightly hurried way with an unconvinced smile before running off camera.

Closing notes

Ed pointed out to me that streamers address these problems online in a few interesting ways – running other videos as warm-up entertainment, or conducting text-based games for the waiting/arriving audience. However, these are quite specific to the streaming set-up, and I don’t think they can easily be used for the online work meetings I’m trying to solve for.

A new and much harder the challenge is also becoming more common: presentations where the audience a mix of those physically present and others joining online. In the absence of good online solutions, I don’t know where to start with solving the start and end of these meetings.

Finally, a side observation: arriving late to online meetings doesn’t feel as bad as arriving later to a physical one. However, the irritation at someone arriving late to your meeting is just as bad either way.

Consider arriving for online meetings early!

Transmission ends


One Thing at a Time

This blog began as an email newsletter, collecting a few links to things I found interesting that week. As my commentary on these links lengthened, it made more sense as a blog (as well as a newsletter).

Like a fantasy author in the late stages of a series of books, updates are getting both longer and further apart, and now that 2 years have passed since the last update, it’s clearly time for a change.

So, a simple rule: from now on, One Thing at a Time.

After a (currently undefined) period of time or number of Things, I’ll aggregate them in a newsletter for the usual recipients and possibly a post. Let’s see how that goes!