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5 Hollywood Lessons to Tell Better Stories

Without good stories, you've already lost the pitch. Without good stories, your presentation will fall flat, your interview will be a flop, and you will never connect with people on an emotional level. This past Friday, I spoke on "5 Ways Hollywood Tells Better Stories," at the Marketing Partner Forum hosted by Thompson Reuter's Legal Education Institute in Dana Point, California. Here were the major points that I shared to help great lawyers, marketers, and leaders become more influential through storytelling.

morpheus

Lesson 1: Hook the Audience

Great movies start with great hooks. The hook is the inciting action. Think Luke Skywalker returning to his home to find his aunt and uncle killed, sending him across the galaxy on a great adventure. Think Neo in the Matrix choosing the red pill, breaking him free of the imaginary Matrix and landing him in the cold, uncomfortable, and dangerous real world. Movies start with great hooks out of necessity. They need to give you a reason to sit still for 2-3 hours watching the story they are about to tell. Every presentation, pitch or talk we give requires a great hook Otherwise, why should people put away their cell phones and pay attention to your message?

Lesson 2: Create the Hero's Journey 

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Remember in the Lion King when Scar convinces Mufasa to leave Pride Rock forever after believing to have killed his own father? That was the beginning of his journey. Or Bilbo Baggins when he leaves the Shire with Gandalf and the dwarves?  The classic hero's journey is that of Odysseus traveling for ten years to return home after the battle of Troy in Homer's The Odyssey. I could give you hundreds of other examples in the Old Testament and almost every major religious text. This is a pattern in storytelling that is as old as mankind. Joseph Campbell, a famous American Professor and Mythologist, discovered this same pattern throughout all tribes and cultures stretching back thousands of years. Why is it so common? Because this is the essence of the human condition: mankind struggling against great odds and through great sacrifices to emerge not unscathed, but challenged, almost defeated and completely transformed in the end.

There is this great quote in the film The Hobbit where the leader of the dwarves says to Gandalf regarding Bilbo "I cannot guarantee his safety," then he continues, "Nor will I be responsible for his fate." The hero's journey is fraught with peril and uncertainty, and that's why we can't look away. The hero's journey connects us all. That's why we love to watch great movies and hear great stories, and also why we are attracted to heroes who pay the price to return home.

Lesson 3: Don't Be Boring

The number one enemy of all pitches and presentations is boredom. Can you imagine listening to three pitches and then choosing the most boring one? Never! Hollywood knows how to keep you from getting bored, and it comes down to one element that you'll find in every movie and every story: intrigue.

Robert Mckee, famous screenwriter and author of the book Story talks about it like this: You place a man (or woman) in the forest. He is lost, doesn't know where he is, has no pack, no food, and the clothes on his back. How will he get back home? This creates intrigue. Then what comes next? You raise the stakes. It starts to rain. The rain turns to snow. You get the idea. You keep raising the stakes building greater and greater suspense and intrigue. So how do you do the same in a presentation? Tell part of a story, then leave it on a cliffhanger only to return to it later on in the presentation.

The secret to keeping the attention of your audience is using elements of hot cognition instead of cold cognition according to Oren Klaff, author of Pitch Anything. Hot cognition elements included: trends, dangers, the path to safety, risks and opportunity.  Cold cognition includes stats, charts, graphs, rational arguments. Think cold-blooded. Rational thought is a great tool, but it's also very boring. Telling stories that combine the rational with the elements of hot cognition will never be boring and will create a far more convincing presentation.

Lesson 4: Choose Your Hero Wisely

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A mistake professionals often make in their branding and their storytelling is who they choose to play the hero. Think about movies like Karate Kid, Back to the Future and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. The heroes win in the end, but not without the help of their guides or mentors along the way. Daniel-San wouldn't have gotten very far without Mr. Miyagi. The guides are almost always virtuous, unselfish and good. Stop trying to be the hero; instead be the guide. People don't want to hire the hero, they want to be the hero. Choose to be their guide and you will position yourself to close the deal.

Lesson 5: The Big Finish

How many movies start out great and then fizzle? They know how to hook you, but then can't quite wrap it up? Or even worse, the credits roll and you are like, "what the crap just happened?' The most common error in pitches or presentations is for the conclusion to be slow and uninteresting followed by, "are there any questions?" It's kind of embarrassing when someone has spoken for 30 minutes to an hour and there are no questions. It seems the speaker may have just wasted everybody's time.

Instead, what I learned from my speaker's coach Victoria Labalme is to take questions before the big finish. You may have a lot of questions; you may only have a few, but it doesn't matter if you are in control of the audience's emotions as your presentation ends. I like to finish the story I started at the beginning or tell another story that hits home so that people remember what they've heard. Victoria always says "people remember the first and final" more than anything else, so make sure they count.

Conclusion

As I've thought about stories for the last two weeks in preparing for my presentation, I couldn't help but think, "how am I creating new stories?" When life is comfortable and easy, when it is free of conflict, we don't grow. When we lose our job, go broke, have to move, or face fatal illnesses we are propelled into a new story. My biggest takeaway was not only to use better storytelling in my presentations, but to embrace the big challenges and the great journeys that in the end will the only path to becoming stronger and living better.

Adrian Dayton is the Founder of Clearview Social, an internationally recognized speaker on social media for business development and author of multiple books and white papers including most recently the strategy guide, “10X Your Website Traffic.” 

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