From the Big Screen to the Conference Table
A screenplay probably looks like a strange piece of work from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with how scripts are written. The text is in widely-spaced blocks of varying widths, some words and lines are in all capital letters, and most of the pages look pretty sparse compared to the average essay or book.
But screenplays are actually written with some very simple and specific objectives in mind that are applicable in any form of writing. Every word has purpose and meaning, and every line tells a story. Indeed, whatever the point you're trying to make or the context you're trying to make it in, the things that make good scripts can be applied to your benefit.
The "About Us" on your businesses website will probably have fewer car chases than a lot of films, and the PowerPoint you're putting together for that next seminar isn't likely to have a cameo from an Oscar winner, but the techniques for writing for film and TV can be applied to anything that you hope others will read or hear. So, without making you sit through years of college classes on screenwriting or the countless hours of typing up scripts that I have, here are the key concepts from writing for film or television that will help you keep the story of your presentation, essay, or company as streamlined and engaging as possible.
“Come in late.” A common saying in screenwriting that refers to a simple way to keep a scene short and interesting. For example, if you've written a long scene that starts with a character entering a room, cut out the part where they enter. Just start with them already there. It saves time and draws the audience in, forcing them to pay closer attention because they feel like they need to catch up. Maybe start your presentation with a relevant but entertaining anecdote before you explain your overall point. Or begin a written piece about your company with the tale of one of your big successes before you lay out what it is you do.
Trim the proverbial fat. A general rule in screenwriting is that each page you write translates to a minute on film, and those minutes add up quickly. The same idea goes for a pitch or presentation, even if the page-to-minute ratio is different. Take every line, every image, every slide, etc, and assess whether it's essential to getting your point across in an engaging way. Sometimes you'll have an idea that you love, but when you examine it up close it is only adding time without improving the story. Even a clever idea can be distracting for an audience if it doesn’t fit with everything else you’re saying. And you can always try to fit it into your next project.
Tie things together. If someone finishes reading a script you've written and says "I liked it, but what ever happened to...?" you've definitely made a mistake. Everything in a good story should be linked and related to the overall point, though not necessarily all at once. But there should be clear ties between all the points you make, metaphors you use, or ideas you explain. The more everything flows together, the better you will keep the undivided attention of the audience.
Don't over-explain. One of the dirtiest words in the world of screenwriting is "exposition." “Show, don’t tell” as my professor always said. Of course, that’s much harder to do when you’re writing something like a pitch or lecture. Still, it should be kept in mind that it’s always best to make the points and present the examples you need to without being too wordy or repetitive. Be descriptive and tell your story, but keep the scene moving.
“Leave early.” The second half to the saying behind my first point, and the reason is much the same. Always finish once you've said all you need to say. End what you're writing or saying before you start to bore people. Better to finish with your listeners/readers wanting to hear/read more from you than feeling like they've heard/read too much.
As has been pointed out on this blog before, a good way to make any idea, pitch, or message memorable is to think of it as a story you're telling. A screenplay is a story written to read as quickly and clearly as possible while still containing all the vital information needed to tell it. The same criteria should apply to whatever you’re writing, whether it will wind up acted out for an audience of millions or as a small screening for your board members. doing so, you'll make what you write understandable and intriguing to the people reading it long before someone calls "Action!"
Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. Follow some of his writing on Task & Purpose as well as some of his antics on Brocast News.