Before you read any further: go and watch this video on the 10 greatest opening shots of all time. I wanted you to see how much the opening shot can do for a movie. How it can set the scene and open the story. How you literally can’t start the movie without it… just like you can’t start the case for your message without your opening shot.
I’ll save a deeper dive into how to open a presentation (or blog post or other content) for some other day, but for today, I want to talk about those situations where you need a good answer, a great opening shot, to the ever-present question: “What’s your big idea?”
Sometimes you get that question in conversation (like the National Speakers Association conference I attended recently where literally everyone asks, “So, what do you speak on?”). Sometimes you get it in writing, like in response to a question in a proposal or application (it certainly is the first question almost every TEDx application asks)… or even just responding to an email from your boss clarifying why you want a meeting.
Either way, as in a movie, you need a way to set the scene and open your story.
I mean, you can’t NOT answer someone’s question. Your opinion may differ, but it drives me nuts when I ask someone what they do and they give me some artfully concocted answer that doesn’t answer my question (e.g., “I’m a data gravedigger.”). What the…? Sigh.
I also feel like a jackass anytime I’ve ever attempted one of those fancy answers myself. So, while my friend and client Jennifer Iannolo is the one who originally dubbed me “the Idea Whisperer,” and it’s in my bio, *I* never call myself that, and certainly not when I’m talking face-to-face with another human. Because: jackass.
Instead, I’m a firm believer in giving people a straight, simple answer to their question and then seeing if they care to know more. For example, I’m MUCH more likely to answer the “What do you do?” question with the straight, simple answer of “I’m in business strategy” than anything longer. If they want to know more, they’ll ask. And I do THAT because the only thing that drives me nuttier than a fancy answer to that question is a three-minute elevator pitch where someone never even stops to take a breath or see if I still care.
But just like you can’t sustain a whole movie on just the opening shot, you can’t sustain interest with just a simple, straight answer. You need that… and something more. You can’t just satisfy curiosity, you also need to create it. You need an answer that gets people to want to know more, to keep asking questions, to keep reading, to keep listening.
Movies can give us inspiration for this, too. This past weekend, my two boys and I wanted to watch a movie. As we were looking through the options, one of them would invariably ask, “What’s it about?” (Yet another form of “What’s your big idea?,” by the way). To answer that, we did what you’d most likely do, too: we read the description. Depending on how “good” the movie sounded, the boys would give it a yes or no, or at least a “Can we watch the trailer?”
With movies, that description has a name. It’s called a “logline,” and great ones tell the story of the movie, usually in one sentence. They can also be how the movie gets sold in the first place — potential producers often decide from that line alone whether or not to green light a film (or, at the very least, a continued conversation).
For example, the logline of Die Hard would be “A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.” (This is an example Blake Snyder uses in his great book on screenwriting, Save the Cat [affiliate link])
Or for The Wizard of Oz: “Transported to a surrealist landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” (Yes, this one is real, and it makes me laugh every time.)
Notice one other thing about both of these loglines: they tell you what the movie is about AND make you want to know more. They make you want to see the trailer… and a good trailer makes you want to see the movie… A good movie makes you want to see the sequel (or the director’s / actors / etc. other films…) See how this works?
With your idea or message, there’s a simple way to do this, too: make sure that, after your short, simple answer, you one line gives people something they want and something they didn’t expect.
- “What do you do?”
- “I teach self-care.” [Straight, simple answer.]
- “How do you do that?”
- “I teach people the cognitive skills that allow them to take care of themselves the way they take care of others.” [one sentence logline, aka the Red Thread®]
Don’t you want to see (hear!) the trailer now?!
Given the power of that one simple sentence, it can be super tempting to start there and try to write it (or your tagline, or the “one word” you want to be known for first.)
But think about it: you can’t write the synopsis without knowing the whole story. You can’t figure out what the opening shot should be until you know where the story has to go from there.
So what do you do instead? You’ve probably already guessed: figure out your whole story, your whole case, first. You know from reading these posts that it’s not complicated (but neither is it easy!). But once you have that, you have all the raw material you need. In the parlance of the Red Thread®, that means figuring out the Red Thread Storyline first — the Goal, Problem, Truth, Change, and Actions.
Those, together, give you the “trailer.” Here’s Jason’s:
“So many people want to start taking care of themselves the way they take care of others in their lives [GOAL]. Despite the barriers we all know exist, the real problem lies in thinking ‘rules’ and habits are enough [PROBLEM]. Yet, when we realize our thoughts drive the rules we follow [TRUTH], we also realize that that’s where we have to start [CHANGE]. That’s why I teach people the cognitive skills that help them retrain their thoughts towards self-care, so their habits will follow….[ACTION]”
Then, to get the one sentence logline/Red Thread®, satisfy their curiosity with the GOAL they want to achieve, and then create curiosity by combining that goal with something they didn’t expect (whichever of the PROBLEM, TRUTH, or CHANGE is most unfamiliar):
“I teach people the cognitive skills [what they don’t expect] that allow them to take care of themselves the way they take care of others [something they want].”
Now let’s put it all together in a conversational package:
“What do you do?”
“I teach self-care.” [Straight, simple answer.]
“How do you do that?”
“I teach people the cognitive skills that allow them to take care of themselves the way they take care of others.” [One sentence logline, aka the Red Thread®, aka something people want via a means they didn’t expect.]
“And how do you do THAT?”
“Well, a lot of people want to know how to build the habits that help them close the gap between how they take care of themselves and how they care of others, their business, or their career. We often think of those habits in terms of mental ‘rules’ to follow, but really it’s our thoughts that drive those rules. That’s why working with people on new cognitive skills is so important. In the end, they start to see self-care as a skill to develop, not a destination to reach…. Would it help if I gave you an example?” [Modified Storyline that outlines the whole case from beginning to end, with an offer to tell a story.]
The example part is useful for those folks who are example learners (3/4 of people, by the way), as it makes the concepts you’ve just told them concrete. And yes, you can flip it with the Storyline, so it would go: Simple, straight answer > one-sentence Red Thread® > STORY OR EXAMPLE > Storyline. In that format, your Storyline serves as a kind of fable-style moral to your example story.
Useful? If so, let me know what you’ll use it on next. Or even better? Hit me with YOUR best opening shot. 😉You can't just satisfy curiosity, you also need to create it. Click To Tweet
Like this content? Be the first to get it delivered directly to your inbox every week (along with a lot of other great content, including my #swipefiles). Yes, please send me the Red Thread newsletter, exclusive information, and updates.