Time to think like a movie director

Mar 01, 2022

Can you make your next presentation more like a movie? Not with dramatic car chases, or steamy moments. But can you build your next presentation so the structure is more like the structure of a movie, or a book, or any well-told story?

Think of any movie that sticks in your mind. How would you draw it on a graph, where the vertical axis was ‘impact’ and the horizontal axis was ‘time’.

It would probably start half way up the impact scale. Let’s face it, if it started at the bottom you probably wouldn’t have remembered it. And if it started at the top, you’d know that you seen the best of the action and the next 90 minutes would be downhill and unmemorable.

Let me share my graph of any good piece of storytelling (above). 

It starts strongly, to get you leaning forward in your seat. There’s a car chase, or a body is found, or a swimmer disappears on a seemingly peaceful beach.

Then the tension eases a little, because you have to get to know the characters and the geography. The director has to establish the relationships and maybe the motivations of the characters. Without a bit of context, you’d struggle to make sense of the plot as it unfolds. But not too much, because that might be boring.

Then the movie gets into its stride. Things start to happen. Obstacles are encountered - and overcome. And each obstacle and each overcoming is bigger than its predecessor. In other words, you are in the world of ‘rising action’. 

Then - BOOM - you are at the climax. The villain is defeated, the world is saved, the hero gets the girl. 

Finally, the loose ends are neatly tied up. And the stars walk hand in hand away from the camera into the sunset.

So why can’t your next presentation be more like that?

Elevate the impact of your opening. How would you feel in the movie theatre if the first thing you saw was an on-camera appearance by the director, saying “In the course of this movie I will touch on a number of interesting points.” 

But isn’t that how a lot of presentations start? With an agenda slide, a screenful of bullet points listing all the points to be covered. 

Or they start with the context. Before you have settled in your seat, you are up to your neck in historical facts and figures. In the right place, context is essential. But too much context can soon begin to feel like a history lesson, and people start to look around, or check their phones.

And how often can you discern rising action in a presentation? More likely, it patters along as a kind of flat line - which at least is better than going steadily downhill.

The unfolding of your arguments - the rising action - is a great place to tell short, appropriate stories and anecdotes, especially if they reflect the overcoming of some obstacles. And you keep building towards your destination in this journey that you are taking your audience on. 

Finally, you reward your audience for their time by delivering a powerful conclusion, a heartfelt message, a compelling call to action. You’ve set out the data, the evidence, and now you are asking them to work, or think, or behave differently. You are asking for change of some sort.

So next time you are planning a presentation, think about the structure of a movie. Help the audience enjoy the experience. You’ll help them remember your content. And you'll increase the chances of them responding well to your call to action.