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Editing and Restraint

I am a bit of a Star Wars geek. Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the incredible creativity (and hard work) behind Lucas’s films, I realized that we mere mortals can learn much about presentations (which are essentially opportunities to tell our story) by listening to the advice of master storytellers like George Lucas, and others.

As I researched the numerous interviews over the years of Lucas talking about the making of the Star Wars films, one key idea often discussed was the importance of editing like mad to get the story down to about two hours. To do this, they scrutinized every scene to make sure that the scene—no matter how cool it was—actually contributed to the story. If during the editing process a scene was judged to be superfluous to the story in any way, it was cut (or trimmed, if the length was the only problem). They were very keen on keeping to the two-hour format because this was in the best interest of the audience.

We have all seen scenes from movies that left us scratching our heads wondering how they contributed to the story. Perhaps the director felt the scene was so technically cool or so difficult to make that he just couldn’t stand the thought of not including it in the film. But that would be a poor reason to include a scene. As far as presentations go, we also have all seen people include data, facts, or graphics, or a seemingly unrelated anecdote that just did not contribute to the speaker’s overall point (which we were probably at a loss to find anyway). Presenters often include superfluous items because they are perhaps proud of their work and want to show it off, even if it really did not help support the speaker’s particular point.

Moral of the story: always keep the audience in mind by first keeping your talk as short as you can and still doing an effective job telling your story, and second, after you have prepared your presentation, go back and edit like crazy, eliminating parts that are not absolutely crucial to your overall point or purpose of the talk. You must be ruthless. When in doubt, cut it out.

It’s paramount that we be ruthless editors of our own material. We have to make the tough choices, choosing even not do something (because it is not meeting your standards, for example). The hardest thing can be deciding to cut and even abandon material altogether, but it must be done.

Many people are not good at editing their presentations because they are afraid. They figure that nobody ever got fired for including too much information. Better safe than sorry, they say. But this leads to lots of material and wasted time. Covering your butt by including every thing under the sun is not the right place to be coming from; it’s not the most appropriate motivation. It is after all only a presentation and no matter how much you include, someone will always say, “hey why didn’t you say_____!” Difficult people are out there, but don’t play to them and do not let fear guide your decisions.

Designing a tight presentation which has the facts right but does so by giving simple, concrete anecdotes that touch people’s emotions is not easy work, but it’s worth it. Every successful presentation has elements of story to it. Your job is to identify the elements of your content that can be organized in a way that tells a memorable story.

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