What makes a good Hollywood movie? Exactly the same elements that makes a good speech. Why? Imagine that you have unlimited resources to design a speech that will make you the hottest commodity on the market. Where would you go to get the best, highest-priced writers and directors in the world?
The bad news is that you probably don’t have unlimited resources to hire all those professionals. The good news is you can still use seven basic Hollywood techniques to increase the impact of your keynote speeches and business presentations.
1. Start with a Great Story.
Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says, “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience.” We all love stories because, unlike real life, they have a purpose, a beginning-middle-end, and a dramatic lesson learned.
Identify your main theme or purpose–your plot–and any subplots. For example, I worked with a Gap executive I’ll call “John.” He was recently promoted and now was speaking to 500 young store managers. His topic was a program to get employees to contribute money-saving ideas. His subtext was, “I deserved to get this promotion.”
In 8 minutes, he had to create support and excitement for the money-saving program. If he was successful and inspired every Gap manager to go back to inspire all their employees, the impact could be incredible.
I suggested John walk on stage, look at the audience, and say, “We are here to talk about heroes.” In seven words, he proved that this is not another dull, corporate speech. “We are here to talk about heroes. They may be sitting in front of you. They may be sitting behind you. They may be YOU. In the trenches GAP heroes!'”
Then I asked John “Can you give me a story about someone who saved the company money?” He showed me statistics! I told him “Numbers are numbing. We need to make the statistics sexy. Where’s the drama of a made-for-television movie in the situation?” We phoned the Accounting Department to get the stories behind the statistics.
One was about a young man in the shipping department who noticed that he was FedExing seven Gap newsletters to the same location on the same day in separate FedEx packets. This mailroom hero asked if he could package them together with a note requesting distribution the other end. This worked so well, that he urged his colleagues to question similar duplications. “We own stock in the Gap, not Fed-Ex!” he told them. That year his idea saved the Gap $200,000. I challenged John to relate the money to something specific we could relate to and “see.” He included in his speech “$200,000 is 18 miles of shelving, another jean size we have not created, or a month of showing our “Gap swings” ads. That is what I call making statistics sexy!
To close his speech, John challenged his audience: “As Gap employees, you have good ideas all the time. Do you write them up and submit them so they can be evaluated? Or do you say, ‘What’s in it for me?'” This is where John talked about cash rewards. He concluded by playing David Bowie’s Heroes, which tied the opening into the close in a perfect circle.
2. Begin with a Flavor Scene
Good movies open with what is called a “flavor scene,” grabbing attention and positioning the audience for what is to come. I relate the first three pages of a movie script to the first thirty seconds of your speech.
Mike Powell, when he was a senior scientist at Genentech, grabbed the interest of a Continental Breakfast Club audience by beginning: “Being a scientist is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, in a snow storm…at night…when you don’t have all the pieces…or the picture you are trying to create.” Everyone sat up and paid attention, they realized that they could understand and relate to the challenges and frustration of a scientist. That immediately proved it would not be a technical presentation.
Your flavor scene doesn’t necessarily have to lead where the audience expects it to, but it should make an impact, and it must tie in to what follows.
3. Create Captivating Characters
Gone with the Wind doesn’t begin with historical background on the Civil War. Instead, we find Scarlett O’Hara sulking that impending conflict might interfere with her social life. Immediately, we observe her frivolous, shallow, fun-loving personality. Characters also establish themselves by their decisions and actions. Rocky Balboa agrees to fight Apollo Creed. Elle Woods of Legally Blonde resolves to go to Harvard. The sooner this happens, the sooner the audience gets emotionally involved.
One of my audiences was made up of government employees. Like their counterparts in corporate America, many were feeling under-appreciated. “The best thing about a commitment to performance excellence on the job,” I said, “is that you take it home, and it affects your family life.” Then I told them about Bobby Lewis, an everyday hero like themselves and a proud father who took his two boys to play miniature golf.
“How much to get in?” he asked the ticket taker.
“$3 for adults and kids over six. Younger kids are free.”
“Well, Mikey is 3 and Jimmy is 7, so here’s $6.”
“Hey, mister,” the attendant sneered. “You like throwing your money away? You could have told me the big one was only 6. I wouldn’t have known the difference.”
“Yes,” Bobby replied, “but my children would have.”
The 2000 people in that audience broke into spontaneous applause. Why? Because that simple story told with dialogue and a dramatic lesson learned, represented their values: that it’s not what you say you believe that counts. It’s what you model, encourage, reward, and let happen.
Count how many characters appear in your speeches. They are what make a Hollywood production–flesh and blood personalities that the audience can relate to.
4. Construct Vivid Dialogue
Notice the conversation I described above between my friend Bobby Lewis and the ticket seller. Your stories come alive when you can use actual dialogue between your characters.
5. Use Scene Changes
Early in nearly every movie, the lead character licks one challenge and runs smack into another. This involves scene changes. The movie literally moves from point to point, maintaining interest by changing settings, focal points, emotions, and energy levels. The biggest enemy of a speaker, no matter how good, is “sameness” or lack of variety. Each time you move from story to story or example to example, this is a scene change. Use variety to keep your audience interested.
6. Provide a Lesson Learned
Legendary Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn said, “If I want to send a message, I’ll use a telegram.” Yet, all great films–and speeches–have a message. Explosions and car chases are exciting, but at the end, the audience may be left with a big “so what?” However, when action and thrills serve a compelling story with a message and finish up with a heart-tugging or eye-opening conclusion, we’re talking unforgettable
7. Consider Collaborating
Collaboration is mandatory in Hollywood, and it can work for professional speakers and business presenters too. I often brainstorm with copywriting genius David Garfinkel and (when he was alive) John Cantu, the San Francisco comedy legend. At one session, John was just out of the hospital after serious cancer surgery. We asked him to describe his experiences. In a few minutes, we were laughing so hard that I ran and got a recorder. When we finished, we had the foundation for a speech called, “Laughing All the Way to the Hospital.” It was full of human interest, funny and poignant.
By the way, John Cantu lived five more exciting, vibrant years and contributed many more great ideas to our mutual brainstorming sessions as well as his clients and audiences. Darren LaCroix the 2001Toastmasters International World Champion of Public Speaking and I constantly collaborate in Story and Structure Seminars and Speech Coaching Camps. He sees the humor and drama in our attendee’s speeches and I see the structure and points of wisdom. Remember, when creating a masterpiece of a business presentation or keynote speech it is very difficult to be creative in isolation…just like in Hollywood.
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