June 14th, 2012
7 Strategy Tips From the World of Screenwriting
Entering the agency world as a strategist instead of a creative seemed an odd choice at first, as I came from the world of screenwriting and documentary filmmaking. My storytelling background, I thought, would be a better fit in copywriting or creative work. Now that I’ve been at it for a few years, I think a background in film/writing makes as much if not more sense in strategy: strategists, it turns out, are storytellers at every level. Selling an idea is the ultimate form of storytelling, as is presenting, as is mapping a user journey. While they tend to lack snappy dialogue and sweet montages, they do draw on the same storytelling part of the brain.
Here are seven things screenwriting taught me that I apply to my strategy work daily.
1. Get a Logline
Good ideas are simple. Hollywood’s known this for a long time. To pitch a movie, you need to be able to express its essence in two sentences. It really isn’t that different for a great marketing strategy. A strong campaign idea or strategy can usually be expressed as a logline. Taking a few from recent memory, “A father uses Google Chrome to share memories with his daughter as she grows up” or “Chrysler and Eminem explain why they’re Imported From Detroit.” Some even follow the Hollywood “X Meets Y” formula. Just as Cloverfield was essentially “Blair Witch Project Meets Godzilla”, you could dub Jameson’s latest campaign, “Dos Equis Man meets HBO’s John Adams.”
Try boiling your strategy down to a logline – one that can be expressed in a thirty-second elevator pitch. Once you’ve found its essence, rebuild it from there.
2. High Concept
Of course, whittling an idea down to a logline doesn’t necessarily make it a great idea. If a script’s going to get sold, its logline usually needs to be High Concept, meaning it’s a story based on a striking and easily communicated plot or idea. The story’s potential needs to be obvious, and it needs to pique the audience’s curiosity.
A few examples:
“A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again.”
“Because of a birthday wish, an attorney can’t tell any lies for 24 hours.”
“A suicidal family man is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.”
There’s a lot of promise in each premise – and a strong campaign logline is no different. In both cases, it makes you hungry to see the execution. We see loglines in tweets and Facebook posts constantly. The day Honda unveiled its Super Bowl teaser clip, my Facebook Wall was filled with different versions of this logline: “Ferris Bueller takes another day off – this time, from adulthood.”
3. Plot vs. Story
Plot is a series of events – cause and effect played out over and over again. It can make for an exciting movie, but leaves you with a feeling of “so what?” at the end. Plot needs Story. Story is what the plot is ‘really’ about – in a movie it reveals the hero’s need, their flaw, and how they face their flaw – all of which is tied to the Theme.
It helps to think about your campaign in terms of Plot and Story. On the Plot level, what is your brand campaign’s big idea or logline? On the Story level, what is it really ultimately about? Plot-wise, our Skittles Experience the Rainbow campaign was a series of unexpected one-liners and WTF images delivered daily. But the Story was about meeting and getting to know The Rainbow – Skittles’ mascot, which fans were introduced to and continue interacting with across social media channels.
4. Hero: Want vs Need
Every story involves a character who wants something – that’s creative writing 101. Yet, a good story balances a hero’s external Want with their internal Need – which is usually related to the hero’s Flaw. For example, Marty McFly wants his parents to meet, so that they can eventually give birth to him. But what he actually needs is to fix his Flaw – his lack of confidence and courage.
I find that this applies best when exploring your audience. We always ask ourselves what our brand’s fans want – a want we usually paint in aspirational tones. It might help to balance it with what they realistically “need”. Disney’s Facebook strategy provides a good example. When asked, their audience might list plenty of aspirational wants out of the brand’s FB page – but realistically, when they’re scrolling their walls, it seems what they “need” is a tiny dose of nostalgia or humor – a signature moment from their favorite Disney movies captured in an image and a few words. At least, that’s what Disney’s through-the-roof engagement tells us.
When writing a screenplay or crafting a presentation, structure is king. A Hollywood screenplay is generally broken up into three acts. Each act is made up of a few sequences, which in turn are made up of scenes. Each scene is made up of beats – the smallest atomic unit in a script or story, which represents an exchange of action and reaction, a mini-resolution of conflict. There is a rhythm to each different unit and ultimately each one builds to a climax and has an arc.
I find that breaking up a presentation into its component parts and shuffling them around until you’ve found the rhythm, the climaxes (or aha moments) and the arc helps ensure that the best possible story is being told through it. As our own Mark Pollard says, a three-act structure makes your presentation stronger and more compelling. I would add that every presentation should have an arc – dramatic action that rises to a climax, and the conflict and suspense that come with it. Bonus points if sub-sections in your presentation have their own smaller arcs, leading up to the major climax.
Most narratives have a startlingly similar structure. Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces (a controversial screenwriter favorite) maintains that most stories, myths and legends share fundamental structures and stages at their core. Which is to say, from Gilgamesh to the Bible to Spider-Man, most involve a hero venturing to another world (metaphorically a lot of the time), where they fight their nemesis, defeat them, and return more powerful than before. Campbell dubs this The Monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey.
Looking at the diagram above, it’s not hard to imagine how a presentation might follow this structure. Your hero could be your strategy, idea, or in some cases, your brand. They may not go mano-a-mano with some invented nemesis in another world, but you can structure it so that your problem is your antagonist. The Call to Adventure states the problem, the Challenges and Temptations might explore the audience’s behaviors and needs, and the Revelation is your aha moment, leading to your audience or brand’s Transformation. It might not work for all presentations, but it’s helped structure more than one of mine.
7. Focus On Your Outline
The most useful habit I picked up from writing movies is fighting the urge to fire up Keynote (or Powerpoint) until I’ve spent a lot of time honing and sculpting and polishing that outline. Unlike writing a novel, screenwriters are generally advised to spend weeks or months focused on the outline of their script – hammering out those beats, focusing on structure, and making sure the rhythm is just right – before they write a word of dialogue.
The same holds true when creating a strategic presentation. Lay out all your ideas on notecards – shuffle, reshuffle, rearrange, step back, test and toy with them until you think they really convey your idea in the strongest possible way. The actual look and feel of the presentation is icing on the cake. Make sure you’re telling the strongest story possible before worrying about looks.
For more about the screenwriting process and how it helps craft better stories, check out my presentation, below.