“The simplest questions are the best”

How does movie producer Brian Grazer—he’s “in the feelings business,” remember—get to the heart of an idea?

In his book, A Curious Mind, he offers three questions. As you might have guessed from the title of this post, they’re simple questions. And I agree with Grazer: the simpler the question, the better.

“What kind of movie is Grinch?”

Obviously we’re adapting this question. Most companies are not in the business of making movies—especially not movies about the beloved children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But every time you stand in front of an audience to speak, every time you sit down at your keyboard to write, you’ve got to be clear about what kind of message you want to deliver. Is it celebratory? Somber? Informative? Inspirational? Your answer to the “what kind of” question will shape your theme.

“What story are we telling?”

Make no mistake about it: Everything is a story. Stories are the basic units of how we make sense of the world.

If you don’t present your thoughts as a story, your listeners will shape them into one. And their story may be very different than yours. I suspect that’s not what you want.

“What feeling are we trying to convey, especially when the audience is going to arrive with their own set of feelings about the story?”

I almost truncated that last question to “What feeling are we trying to convey?” After all, people aren’t going to enter your business meeting with an attachment to your story that stretches back to when they were a sleepy tot in footie PJs. (Probably.) But don’t assume they’re completely blank slates, either. No one is.

Say you’re rebranding and as part of that you’re going to change your logo. You’ll have people who hate the existing logo, so they’ll be happy. You have people who love the existing logo so much they’ve had it tattooed on their arms. Happy? Not so much. And people will have the same reactions to the new logo—some will love it, some will hate it, some may see it as eating up a good chunk of earnings that could have gone into their bonus check. Even people who just joined your organization that very day will walk in with their own feelings—maybe the old logo was what drew their attention to your company in the first place.

The point is, no one is a blank slate—about anything. But if you go in knowing that, your speech is not just going to be a celebratory “Ta-da! here’s our new logo!” Instead you’ll make it a persuasive “Who we are today is [insert adjectives of your choice]. This new logo is the visual representation of that.”

Three simple questions to help you shape a powerful message.

And if you’re interested in learning more about storytelling, I’d be happy to send you my free e-book, What’s the Story?

[snappy title to come]

Every piece you write—whether it’s a speech or a magazine article—should have one main idea. You might be able to hang a few secondary ideas on it, like ornaments on an exceedingly sparse Christmas tree. But, and this is especially true for a speech: The more you say, the less they’ll remember.

So—one idea. And I find the best way to keep me focused on that one idea as I write is to give my work a title. You will not find me writing a Commencement speech called “Things I’ve Learned in My Career.” That’s a mess just waiting to happen. What “things”? What are the two or three stories that stand out most for you in your career, especially as you think about talking to the kind of audience that listens to a commencement speech? What theme connects these stories? Dig deep enough and you’ll find it.

Everything I write gets a title. Even if it’s never going to be published, even if it’s for the most internal of internal audiences, I give it a title. “Springing into Action: A report to the Board on our 2nd Quarter Performance”—a CEO would never read that at the start of a Board presentation. But the title helps me shape the material I have to work with into a cohesive whole.

And if the theme of the piece hasn’t made itself apparent to me before I start writing? Then I start with “[snappy title to come]”—which manages to be amusing and reassuring at the same time. So far, it’s worked. Once I plunge in and start rooting around in the material, I always manage to find a theme waiting for me to discover it.