Getting the Word Out, Hollywood Style
There is a definite hierarchy of elements in any piece of entertainment. Aristotle lists the hierarchy of a good drama as: Plot first, then characters, then theme, then dialogue, then music, and lastly, spectacle. When applying this to messaging, we can say that the story is the main thing. What is the story that this message needs to tell? What is my beginning, middle, and end? Then, immediately move to characters—who will be affected by this? How? Then, give attention to theme—what is the overall ideological principle underlying this communication? Then, give attention to specific wording. Then, ask yourself, what is the icing on the cake of this message? What is the entertainment value for the hearers?
The Two Key Rules of Hollywood/Messaging
The two biggest rules of Hollywood meetings, and also movies:
Don't bore me.
Don't waste my time.
It is possible to construct the foundation of a whole communication strategy from these two rules.
Don't bore me. You bore me when you tell me something that is irrelevant to me. Early on, every speech or communication needs to answer the question that is in the hearer's mind, namely, "Why do I care about this?" This is called setting the stakes. And the higher the stakes are, the more emotion you can expect to engender in the hearer. A message needs to connect with the hearer's fears or concerns.
So, every message should state the stakes early on: "This matters because it will mean you will lose sight of who you are." Or "This matters because it will distance you from God." Or, "This matters because we die without real love."
You bore me when you tell me something I already know. Every human being has the instinct to know. People want to learn some fact or hear some clever idea framed in a more memorable way. You bore me as soon as I figure out that you don't have anything to teach me. Every communication should have some product of the speaker's thought or research. The hearer will experience gratitude toward the speaker if they learn something from her.
You bore me when you repeat yourself. It is better to come across smarter than your hearer than insulting toward them. That is, it is better to speak in a more complex way than to sound like a third grade teacher. A good speaker makes the point. Then, if it isn't being absorbed, the point can be reframed using different language or a clearer analogy. If it still isn't being heard, drop it. There is nothing more boring than someone repeating the same phrases over and over like a dog gnawing on a piece of meat.
You bore me when you take too long to get to the point. A good message is clear, clever, and succinct. People who talk on and on in circles dilute the force of their point. When we are speaking of messaging, less is nearly always more. The main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing. Some set-up is absolutely needed, but too much set-up and the point gets lost.
You bore me when you don't have a point. Style is important, but in the end, it is only there to decorate the substance. A good message needs both style and substance. As Lincoln said, "Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." If you don't have something to say that is worth hearing, than don't speak. If you do speak, make sure you know what "the main thing" is. Don't lose it in your set-up and style or risk having your hearers turn up their lip the next time they see you coming.
Barbara Nicolosi is a screenwriter with an M.A. in Cinema from Northwestern University. She is currently writing Fatima, Miracle and Message for Origin Entertainment. She is an adjunct professor of cinema in the Seaver Graduate School at Pepperdine University and lectures on cinema and screenwriting at universities and conferences around the world.
Barbara was the Founding Director, and is now the Chair, Emeritus of the acclaimed Act One Program in Hollywood, CA. She is the co-editor of the 2006 Baker Books release Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith and Culture, and blogs at Church of the Masses.