7 communication lessons from new movie trailers

Hollywood knows how to tell a story. Embed yourself. Know your audience. Be succinct. Tips for communicators from ‘Star Wars,’ ‘The Revenant,’ ‘The Hunger Games’ and other new releases.

The holiday movie season is approaching, and the trailers are teasing the season’s releases.

Trailers have long appealed to me, because in two or three minutes they tell stories in a fast-paced, highly visual manner, ditching ponderous narrative and lengthy exposition.

“The goal of a trailer is not to inform,” says Drew Keller, president of StoryGuide.net. “It is to engage. It is to captivate. It is to bring people to the theater, where they buy popcorn and see more trailers. … It is important as a marketer to identify the purpose, craft the message to meet that purpose and put it in the right channel. Movie trailers do that brilliantly.”

So, what lessons do this season’s trailers offer for communicators? Read on.

1. “The Revenant”: Embed yourself.

“The Revenant” follows the familiar half-dead-mountain-man-gets-buried-alive-and-crawls-to-freedom-in-search-of-revenge plotline. For the filming, Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t just frolic in fake snow on a Hollywood set. He slept inside animal carcasses, ate raw bison liver and nearly got hypothermia wading in freezing rivers.

This is not to suggest that you should scrounge for lunch on the floor of your buffalo burger company’s slaughterhouse. Rather, get away from your desk and experience the action in your organization. Companies such as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles embed reporters to find stories to tell. Go deep.

Kimberly Jefferson, director of accounts at Blast Media, adds: “Preparing for PR campaigns may not require sleeping inside an animal carcass, but it does require survival and results in the face of adversity and ingenuity to get the job at hand done.”

2. “The Hunger Games”: Know your audience.

At its heart, “The Hunger Games” series is about kids who are ticked off at the adults who have made a mess of the world, says Marianne Griebler of Marianne Griebler Consulting. The main characters topple the oldsters using fashion, good looks and cool weapons. In case you hadn’t noticed, that formula is a hit with the breaking-voice demographic.

“Know your audience, and give them what they want,” says Griebler.

Learn the dos and don’ts of reaching millennial employees face to face and via email, video, your intranet and chat/text in this free guide.

3. “Point Break”: Overlay dialogue on dramatic footage.

Anticipating a dull Christmas Day? Check out “Point Break,” the story of an FBI agent who infiltrates what is surely the greatest threat to mankind these days: a “cunning team of thrill-seeking elite athletes.” (Tellingly, where I viewed the trailer, it appeared beside an ad for a Meijer store turkey.)

When the FBI guy talks at a podium, his lines are delivered mostly as voiceover on action shots of gun battles and daredevils skiing down snowy cliff faces. How about finding livelier footage to mix in with your CEO’s mumbling interview? If you don’t have any B-roll of toppling buildings handy, try footage of your customers or toiling workers.

4. “Krampus”: Contrast the “before” and the “after.”

Trailers often reel us in by contrasting life before a problem and after, says Michael Long, speechwriter, playwright and screenwriter who was a grand prize finalist in last year’s Slamdance film festival. “Krampus” presents a typical family Christmas, but when Krampus (“basically, an evil version of Santa”) arrives, everything goes to hell.

This dynamic can reversed as well, showing a problem and its solution. “The bigger the before-and-after difference,” Long says, “the more intrigued we are.”

5. “The Good Dinosaur”: Be succinct.

“The Good Dinosaur” doesn’t have time to explain at length why humans and dinosaurs frolic together in this fantasy world, says Heath Fradkoff, principal of Ward 6 Marketing.

The trailer reveals this within seconds by answering a simple question: “What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs had missed?”

“We should all seek to be so succinct in our pitching and in our messaging,” he says. “The quicker we can get through the background and on to the meat of a story, the more time we have left to educate, convince, and convert our targets.”

6. “In the Heart of the Sea”: Add music.

“When creating external or internal video, understand the importance of original music that fits the narrative,” says Jeff Kelley of Kelley Communications. “Emotional music draws in your audience and keeps them gripped to your content.”

Example? How about “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s new film about the whale that inspired Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” A few piano chords and some ominous bass and percussion add tension to trailer scenes even before anybody spots the mighty whale that blasts the ship to smithereens.

7. ‘Star Wars’: Multiple lessons.

In answer to my call for tips, a flood of communicators offered wisdom from the new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Here are a few ideas:

  • “Compelling storytelling and messaging comes down to one key thing, relatable character development,” offers PR pro Ashlene Larson.
  • “Provide a drip, drip, drip of information, then hit them with the details when everyone is at peak excitement—opening night,” says Gary Frisch of Swordfish Communications.
  • “Give an old trope a fresh veneer to bring in a new audience,” says Griebler. “Putting some polish on a familiar message makes for a great community-building effort and introduces a whole new generation to the lingo of this beloved franchise.”
  • “The Force can be likened to a company’s mission statement and a way for employees to bond around an entity that drives and motivates them,” says Alice Williams, public relations coordinator at Frontier Communications.


(Image by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt, via)


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