What else can you expect from a guy who directed a movie called Apocalypse Now?
The other night I was speed-walking in a darkened park in the middle of Mexico City, trying to look tough to would-be muggers (decked out in my dad shorts and a t-shirt…hey, I’m just trying to blend in with the local folks!) while listening to NPR’s Terry Gross interview Coppola. He was promoting his new book, The Godfather Notebook.
It was the standard NPR fare (“how did that make you feel?”) until Gross asked him how he keeps track of what each movie is about when making them . I chuckled to myself. C’mon Terry, it’s death! All death all the time! And weddings! And horseheads!
Even when I thought about it further, the question still seemed ridiculous.
Take The Godfather, for example; essential viewing for the post-40 male set whose worst crime is murdering a cake at midnight. The movie has multiple storylines, time-shifts and characters. Fairly complex. Summarize it? Pfft!
But Coppola says this is exactly what he does; summarizes every movie he makes into one word during the filming process.
The Godfather? “Succession”.
The Conversation? “Privacy.”
He said that if he’s ever stuck on whether a scene should stay or go (or clothing choices, dialogue, or anything else) he goes back to that one word and decides whether that element is true to it or not. If it’s true, it stays. If not? Adios.
Suddenly, it hit me. Everything. I ran up to the meanest-looking hombre in the park, who was walking his poodle, grabbed him by the shoulders, and yelled, “do you know what this means, amigo?” He threw down his wallet, fled into the bush while I screamed after him: “It means I’ve missed a step!”
Everything Coppola was saying about movies applied to speechwriting. And I was doing it wrong.
I was close. In my online speechwriting classes and in the speeches I write for executives, I always talk about the point of the speech being step one; the most important element (before introductions, structure, or otherwise).
I go even further. I tell my students to whittle that point into 140 characters (I use the excuse of Twitter, but it’s really about getting the focus as tight as possible). I’ve always thought as the point as the absolute starting point, the seed, the anchor (insert some moronic metaphor cribbed from a speech coach here).
But the point is step two, not step one!
Before beginning with the point of the speech, speechwriters should begin with a one-word summary of everything. One word to link it all.
Think of that one word as—wait for it—the Godfather of your speech. It’s the head from which everything flows.
Not a paragraph, not a sentence, not 140 characters, but one word.
I was so excited about my moment of clarity that I immediately sprinted for home, froggering my way across a 27-lane sidestreet, bypassing gangs of Mexican youth doing lines of well…homework…and put my theory to the test.
I reviewed some of the Great Speeches. The theory held up.
Reagan’s Challenger speech? Loss.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech? Well, “dream”.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? I’d go with “redemption”.
The point is that those speeches can be summarized by one word.
Perhaps you’re remembering the last corporate speech you heard and thinking “hah! That speech can’t be summarized by one word!”
I believe you. Because, let’s face it, most corporate speeches are shit.
They’re the Twilight of speeches, the Superman v. Batman of speeches, the anything-released-in-the-last-decade of speeches. Mind-numbing dialogue, useless tangents, and a storyline that makes a Harlequin Romance seem complex.
So What Does This Mean For Our Next Speeches?
Nobody is asking you to create the next Godfather, but before you begin writing your next speech, summarize what it should be about in one word.
Think of how this will improve upon what you’re doing now.
Instead of sitting in your next speechwriting meeting mumbling about goddamn “granular communications strategies” and “core objectives” get it into one word.
Now develop your point. If you’re wondering how to get one, ask the following question: “What’s the headline of this speech?”
In other words, if you were a reporter sitting in the audience, how would you summarize that entire speech in a short, punchy headline? Hint: expand your one-word theme!
Those Are The First Two Steps, Here’s What To Do Next
Got the point? Good, now develop your structure. I cover how to structure a speech extensively here, but what you’re doing is building your speech around the “how?” or “why?” of the point.
For example, if the point of your speech is: “Hollywood makes shitty movies”, the core of your speech should answer the question “why?” of that point. Do this three times for the classic speech structure.
Sound easy? Sure, but be careful. You’ll be tempted to veer off any time. That’s why the one-word theme is so valuable.
If you find yourself tempted by a tangent, ask yourself: “does this remain true to my theme word?” For example, if you were writing The Godfather, you’d ask yourself: “does Harry Potter really need to appear here?”
This rigorous devotion to theme word and point should also help you when it comes to the other essential elements of a speech: substance (the facts that support your speech) and storyline.
If you’re writing a budget speech, decided your theme is “profitability”, and you’re wondering if you should include the story about how your Uncle Bob got drunk last Thanksgiving and assaulted the turkey…well, you know the answer already.
The conclusion to your speech should also fall along these lines. If your theme word is clear, you want to get back to that. I don’t care how you do it, but go back to at least the idea of that theme. This is all stuff we cover in my online classes (which is pretty damn amazing, just read the testimonials), but it’s worth repeating here.
I Was Wrong, So What?
I wasn’t wrong, I’d just left out an essential first step. Learning new things, however, is the spice of life (all people who are wrong say things like that…just check Facebook).
Let’s review what we learned today.
Step 1. Figure out what you want to say in one word. The theme.
Step 2. Broaden this into your point. Try 140 characters. The headline.
Step 3. Develop a structure that asks the “how” or “why” of the point.
Step 4. Movies today in Hollywood are pretty much garbage.
Step 5. Make sure you tell a story that adheres to your theme/point.
Step 6. Make sure you have a conclusion that gets back to that theme/point.
What was once a five-step process is now six. So what? I have faith we can remember one more thing.
I have Francis Ford Coppola and Terry Gross to thank for setting me on the right path. Best of all? It gives me another excuse to get out and “exercise” (read: hit up all the great Mexican food stands).
Brent Kerrigan is an executive speechwriter and speechwriting trainer. Want a free 10-part speechwriting course that was not only recommended by Newsweek but by Mashable and Lifehacker as well? Check it out by clicking here.