Motivation, Hollywood style

Lots of my favorite movies illustrate motivation principles. Runaway JuryA Civil Action, The Insider,  The Rainmaker, Quiz Show. Among documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and Sicko.

Runaway Jury explores jury tampering. Near the climax, John Cusack’s character encourages an ex-Marine opposing him on the jury to express his view. He knows that stifling the guy’s opinion will make it stronger. So he eggs the guy on, until he’s left out on a limb and alienated from the rest of the jurors. If Cusack had directly confronted the idea, the opponent would have won the argument. And so it is when we are trying to persuade: if we foster an authentic airing of the issue, we gain power for the idea we are advocating.

This is not easy, because giving strength to the opponent can damage us, too. With The Insider and The Rainmaker, the heroes can’t win until they allow themselves to be sacrificial victims. There’s something attractive about a person who is willing to risk everything for his beliefs. That’s what these movies illustrate.

In A Civil Action, the hero never actually wins. He loses because the powerful attorney played by Robert Duvall conspires to keep the truth from reaching the jury.

And with Quiz Show, there are no heroes. Television wins, and continues to control the dialog process by holding contrary views off the air. The “communication cataclysm” that has now hit the PR/advertising world is a direct result of the failure of that kind of media power, and the ascendancy of audience power in its place.

In the documentary realm, lots of major films tend not to be good motivators.

Think back to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Though I loved the film and agreed with it, many of my conservative friends (yes, I try to get along with Cs and Ls!) just laughed it off. I believe the reasons are two-fold: (1) by letting the director make the movie into a personal crusade, Al made it easy for conservatives to dismiss. (2) When the facts were flowing, contrary ideas were ignored or even ridiculed.

If Al had stripped out the intimate personal reflections, and instead brought in other authorities to champion his ideas, he would have sidestepped the personality issue. And if he had aired and then rebutted the contrary “evidence” with facts and logic, his movie would have packed a lot more truth, and been a lot more inconvenient to his opponents.

Michael Moore tends to make similar mistakes. In my view Sicko worked the best of any of his movies to date, because he kept his own personality out of the first half of the film. By then, the audience was bonding to those heroes of 9/11 who couldn’t get health insurance. But then the humorous stunts, the in-your-face trips to France and Cuba, ate away at the persuasive capital he had built . I didn’t mind… but my hunch is many viewers were offended. The approach dishonored the audience. Is anyone watching Sicko now, during the current health care debate? I doubt it — even though it has a lot of good things to say.

To motivate with integrity, make even one-way presentations feel like a dialog!

How to motivate with video 2: Six ways to inform the mind

Here are 6 tips on keeping our content informative … without preaching:

  1. Talk like you’ve been listening. Today we need the audience’s permission to present our movie.  So approach them with a listening attitude — a perceptible sensitivity to why they may be troubled, baffled, or bored.
  2. Acknowledge the barriers, their questions. This is really the first M of  motivation. All the arguments must solve their mysteries, uncover their secret treasures.
  3. Blow up your “talking points”. A boxer doesn’t go into the ring with a rehearsed choreography. The match evolves one punch at a time.  Let the argument incorporate their best defense of our best argument — not straw men. The most disappointing project I’ve ever been associated with involved a client who had a major PR problem, but chose to leave out the real nitty gritty issues for fear of upsetting the audience. Assess what your audience cares about, and talk frankly about “the elephant in the living room.”
  4. Enthusiasm, yes. Ridicule, no. Why do people like talk radio? I think it’s because they’re passionate about their message. Education tends to make people broad-minded … and less passionate. But appropriate emotion feels right. Use it, clearly and fairly. If you’re self-aware, you can avoid manipulating the audience.
  5. Understatement is more powerful than “power”. Use kind, understated approaches. And when it must deal a blow to their opinions, pull the punch if possible. Because in reality it’s not like boxing at all… it’s more like a first date or a 10th anniversary dinner with a spouse who has “issues”. We need to address the issues and yet we need to avoid offense: not PC, but not cocky either. The audience really is in the driver’s seat, and if we want to get to first base, demonstrate that we care, understand, and honor them.
  6. Gather strength from your opponents. Like I said, it’s really not a boxing match. It might, however, involve Tai Chi. In this gentler form of combat, you use the leverage created by your opponents moves, to bend his energy away from your hurt.

Contrary to popular opinion, the most important part of presenting is the intellectual.

Mad Man

Mad Man

There’s a myth that people don’t care about ideas. Yep, the Dullsville slums are huge and scary, but thankfully there’s a lot of enlightened folks around, too. While I hate the tactics of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk,  one thing that guys like Rush and Glenn Beck have proven is that there’s an enormous appetite for emotional talk about issues. Ideas can be entertaining.

So instead of cueing the violins and trying to schmooze our way toward persuasion, I have found that it’s really important to address the emotions behind the facts … and lay ideational groundwork in a systematic, transparent way.

Here are two examples of the intellectual part of a motivational presentation. The first excerpt is from a video shown to Ohio Wesleyan alumni. This section deals passionately with the challenges all colleges are facing. The premise comes straight from H.G. Wells:

The case we are making here is that alumni can be proud because of OWU’s commitment to serving a very needy world. While the claim is presented with emotion, I think it displays an attitude that the idea is more important than the institution. We’re not whipping up tribal loyalty, but issuing a call to arms for a moral principle.

The second excerpt is a simple sales video aimed at accounting teachers. Here, we use humor and surprise. But the fabric of the piece is a careful set of arguments based on the hot buttons that the audience told us they cared about. For example, they were unhappy with the old Glencoe software. In the first minute, the nerdy alter-ego jumps in with “Much Better Software”. It’s an informative presentation wrapped in an entertaining bundle. The substance of the product was authentically built in response to their requests.

In the next week I’ll write about the third M, Melding with the Heart… the emotional part of motivation.

Appreciating the Audience

The most important part of successful communication is to appreciate the audience. Hillman Curtis styles it, “Eat the Audience”. It means to know, to have empathy for. It also means to honor, or value their perspective, their biases, and their preferences. And it means to understand and have emotional intelligence regarding how our own perspectives as storytellers and filmmakers on behalf of a business or institution contrast with that of their audience. Perhaps it’s merely a gap in awareness or knowledge. The institution or company knows something the audience doesn’t know.

But more likely, there are subtle differences of viewpoint or experience. Or significant differences of values and beliefs, or the entire cultural point of reference. Whatever the source of the difference, it is the communicator’s task to do the bridge-building, and that means starting where the audience is, honoring their current place and viewpoint, and then providing a framework for movement that is acceptable and relevant to them. If they like the framework we have provided, they will choose to take a step toward us… we cannot and should not try to manipulate their response, either in terms of feelings or conclusions.

In this real-life example, I was tasked first with helping build a bridge to Ohio Wesleyan alumni. It is a given that the alumni love their school, and are interested in meeting its new President and expressing their views on how to best preserve the institution. The client had three communication objectives: reassure the audience that the school is effective in changing the lives of contemporary students; set out a vision of three aspirational objectives for the school; and build a shared emotional touchpoint for future fundraising conversations. It was not a fundraising video, per se; and it was used as part of a conversation, not a presentation in the more traditional sense.

This clip is the first minute of a 10-minute alumni video. I chose to begin with an iconic timelapse of the Ohio Wesleyan campus, accompanied by a student a capella version of a classic Madonna song, “Like a Prayer”. Since most of the alumni in the audience are Boomers, this song delivers a familiar and emotional memory touchpoint with their youth. The next images are static institutional affirmations by famous OWU alumni — Norman Vincent Peale, Branch Rickey — and a cornerstone quote from the Gospels. These paving stones, cornerstones and pillars become the visual framework for contemporary student expressions of what they appreciate about Ohio Wesleyan. These student expressions (rather than alumni testimonials) are vitally important, because unless the institution is effective in changing the lives of contemporary students, it will not be seen as a good investment by even the most loyal of alumni. Notice the third interviewee, Jesika Keener. She says that Ohio Wesleyan has become her home: a statement that surely resonates with the alumni audience. A slight editorial change to that comment makes a big difference as we repurpose the same creative elements for an entirely different audience — prospective students:

Though sharing the same basic interview and shooting budget, there are a number of important editorial differences between the two approaches … and these flow from an appreciation of each audience. Jesika now leads the interviews, but we leave out the home reference, because incoming freshmen are more interested in getting away from home than finding one. It’ll take them a couple of years before the college they pick, whatever it is, feels like home to them.

Then, the music: instead of a familiar piece performed by OWU students, I chose a very fresh song by up-and-coming artist Jamie K: Dare to Dream. Instead of making the institution the frame of reference, which is an emotional connection with alumni, I changed the editorial emphasis to “what I was looking for” … small school, diversity, specific subject areas, etc. Instead of quoting profs on what they like about the school, I let students share what they like about professors — especially the personal relationships with profs. No emotional connection with the school is assumed. All we wish to do here is to establish a credible testimony by students who may or may not resonate with the viewers. It’s up to each audience member to decide if they “fit” that authentic brand.

Finally, there’s a big difference in pacing. The Boomer piece has 21 cuts and 4 interview clips in the first minute, while the Millennial piece has 34 cuts and 10 interview bytes by 7 interviewees in about the same period of time.

It is an appreciation and honoring of the audience that leads to approaches that are authentic in both cases, but decidedly different because the audiences are different.