Show, don’t tell

Successful films have less dialogue (for our purposes think less text). We believe what we see, not what we hear – or read.  Instead, be visual: use pictures or video and infographics for more complex information.

Get into the scene as late as possible and out as early as possible

Cut out the preamble and get straight to the point. As soon as your point is made, cut to the next scene. The audience fills in the gaps, which keeps them alert and makes them feel good. Your readers will do the same.

For example, in US drama Breaking Bad, straight-laced chemistry teacher Walter White and his former pupil Jesse find a deserted location in which to make crystal meths. The scene starts with Walt’s motorhome already parked in a secluded place, while Jesse reports from a vantage point that there’s no one around. Finding the pair already on site is so much more expedient than showing them driving out of the city, gradually reaching more and more remote countryside, turning off main roads onto ever more minor roads and eventually finding the right location. The audience has figured out that this has taken place and doesn’t need to see it.

Breaking Bad

Throw away your first reel

This is an adage for filmmakers rather than screenwriters, but it fits in with the theme so let’s go with it. In creative writing, the equivalent is ‘kill your darlings’. In marketing or business communication, your first attempt is your first draft and should probably be binned. It takes a while to get it right and it also takes real honesty to admit that your first draft just isn’t good enough.

Good writing should be both good and original

The pithy quote “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good” is attributed to Samuel Johnson. The corollary for content is ‘Don’t copy other people’s work’ – be original. Only you, as the business owner or founder, can speak about your business, so start with your words. As for being good, if you just can’t get them to flow properly in the right register for the audience, use a copywriter or get help from someone you know who is good with words.

Dramatise your exposition

In films and TV programmes, the screenwriter often has to communicate some essential plot information to the audience. This is called exposition and it can sometimes come across as being clunky and out of place. Take the CSI series as an example – in just about every episode, one forensics expert explains to another as they examine a critical piece of evidence from the scene exactly what the particular procedure they are carrying out will do, whereas in real life both experts would already know and they would never need to have that conversation.

If you have to give information, make it interesting – use video, infographics, before/after pictures or descriptions. If you have no option but to get technical, at least flag it to your reader so they can skip it if they don’t want or need to know.

The story is about the audience, not the characters

Characters should be accessible. For characters, read features, products, concepts. The audience has to experience things they can relate to themselves. Spend more time addressing your readers’ fears, problems and interests than listing your product’s features and your company’s ethos.

Pity, fear, catharsis

Use Aristotle’s story arc. He suggested the audience should experience pity, fear and finally catharsis. This ties in with the concept of the old (or reptilian) brain (see Renvoisé and Morin’s book on the subject Neuromarketing) which is programmed to respond to pain and fear as the avoidance or overcoming of these emotions is closely related to survival. Address your target market’s source of pain and fear and you will have their attention.

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