One of the most difficult tasks for a movie director is to take hundreds of hours of scenes, and cut them down to a 2-hour movie. Typically, there are many hours of great material. The challenge is to determine what goes in the movie, and what ends up on the cutting room floor.
What makes this a difficult task is that there are some scenes a director absolutely loves, yet, they still end up on that floor. Why would the director leave out favorite scenes?
If the director is focused on the paying customer, s/he will ask two important questions:
1) Does this scene support the overall direction of the movie?
2) Does the scene keep the movie moving forward?
These are the ‘acid tests’ for any scene. Great directors are able to separate their emotions and leave only the material that best supports these two questions.
This is the same challenge faced when you develop a story. Far too often, speakers fall in love with a particular ‘scene’ and try to force it upon their audiences, even when that story is confusing, and doesn’t help the audience understand the main message.
Ask me how I know!
One of my own favorite speeches is called ‘Cornfield Wisdom. The theme of this speech is to keep an open mind to new and unexpected opportunities. The central story reveals how I learned this lesson when I asked my girlfriend Linda to marry me… in a cornfield.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t my intention to get engaged in a cornfield. My carefully laid out plans for the day had gone awry, and it was almost out of desperation I asked her in a cornfield. Her response “Of course I’ll marry you” didn’t change the fact that I felt bad – embarrassed – that I had proposed to her in a cornfield. I told her “I wanted the perfect proposal, and that didn’t happen.”
Her response changed my perspective. “Michael, you don’t understand. I love cornfields and spontaneity, and you. It IS the perfect proposal.” Her reply reminded me about the importance of being open to new and unexpected opportunities.
That story resonates with audiences. What didn’t resonate, and caused confusion, was the twist to the story.
In early versions, I told about being painfully shy and afraid of girls in high school. So much so that I never said two words to a girl I had a huge crush on in my junior year. After high school, I lost touch with her. We had gone on with our lives and never seen one another again.
Fast forward 30 years. I re-connected with the girl from high school. We became good friends. So much so, that she was the woman who said “Of course I’ll marry you” in the cornfield.
I LOVE that twist to the story. And so did many audience members. However, I consistently received feedback that the twist was confusing people…they weren’t sure how it related to the main theme. I moved the twist into different parts of the story, trying anything to make it work. I got the same feedback.
I had to face facts…I was in denial. That part of the story wasn’t working; it was hurting the speech.
Reluctantly, with a heavy heart, and a tear in my eye, I cut out the twist. It still pains me because I have such affection for it. But, I have to practice what I preach. My story and my message are not for me, they are for the audience. To paraphrase attorney Johnny Cochran, “If the story doesn’t fit, you must omit”.
If you want to become better at cutting extraneous parts of your story, try these 2 activities:
1) Get a copy of one of your favorite movies on DVD, with bonus extras. Make sure it offers scenes that were cut from the final movie. Study those scenes and judge for yourself – were the scenes confusing, and were they moving the story forward?
2) Get feedback on your story. Ask others which parts may be confusing, or simply slowing the story down. If you do this with an open mind, your story will become much more impactful on the audience.
Go through these exercises and you’ll have a hint of what directors feel when they leave some of their best [and favorite] work on the cutting room floor. And you’ll create a story which is a far better experience for your audience.
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