Coming Soon To a Nonprofit Near You

I am really excited right now because I just saw an example of a pie-in-the-sky idea that I’ve been talking about for years. But before I tell you what it is, allow me to give you some context. I’ll begin with a question that I often ask people:  What is your favorite part of the traditional movie-going experience? If you’re like most individuals, you’re favorite part is the previews. I know, right! I love seeing movies on the big screen, and I love the popcorn, particularly when the butter is real, but nothing is more enjoyable than a quality mix of 4-5 trailers.

Ever wondered why we love our movie trailers so much? Upon quick reflection, it’s not so surprising.  For one, previews take the most compelling scenes from a two-hour feature film and boil them down to two-minute, bite-sized nuggets of cinematic goodness. Secondly, trailers are often how we first learn of a new movie, or even better, that a long-awaited movie is close to release (is The Hobbit trailer ever going to come out!?).

But these are the obvious reasons. Push further. What fundamental attributes of movie trailers make them so darn enticing? What grabs us by the psyches and demands “you must see this movie!” What was it about this trailer and this trailer that convinced me to waste my money and my time? I assure you, there is a science to making good sneak previews and it results in millions of dollars in consumer spending each year.

The power of movie trailers is built around the idea of CONTEXT. Trailers will almost never begin by showing you a movie star or explaining the main plot thrust of the story. No. Instead, they set the stage by providing context and letting you the viewer get transported, if only for an instant, into the realm of the movie. It’s an absolutely essential part of the trailer because it primes the viewer for what follows next.

How does the stereotypical movie trailer always begin? In a world where ...” or “In a land before time …” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” Trailers always lead with context. It’s only once the context has been provided that the narrator can deliver part two of his one-two punch and say, “one man lived to tell the tale.” Don’t believe me? Check out this hysterical and utterly appropriate trailer on YouTube.

If there is a lesson to be learned here it’s that context is a key aspect of effective communication. Yet so many of us neglect to utilize it. We speak as if everyone is already quite knowledgeable about that which we ourselves are passionate. We assume audiences understand the intricacies of our worlds, as if the complex plot thrust of our day-to-day professional lives hold meaning for others

Said bluntly, assume that the audience knows nothing about you or your organization. When a person asks you what you do at your next networking event or cocktail party, don’t start by answering with the “one man…” part of the trailer, which is what we normally do. Begin with the “in a world where…” part. Not only will you find that your listener is more engaged in what you have to say, they will more readily understand why you do what you do.

Here is an example of a person who does not provide context when asked about what he does (it begins at second 23 in the video). It’s a shame because the Acumen Fund is a really cool organization and does amazing work. They have a compelling story to tell, but their value proposition is meaningless without context. The speaker in the video begins to address context at around the 60 second mark. But by that point, he's lost his audience. Basically, he does a backwards movie trailer ("One man _____, in a world where ______.")

Contrast that video with this one – also from Acumen Fund – in which CEO Jacqueline Novogratz provides over a minute of context (albeit with the help of music and compelling footage) before talking about Acumen Fund (**note the title of the video**). What a difference!

At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that I had recently seen an example of something I’ve been talking about for a long time. What I saw was a nonprofit, in this case Davidson College, produce this full-on movie trailer as a way of saying thank you to its donors. The video is campy and awkward. It’s not even the best example of how to effectively use context. But when I saw it, it put a smile on my face and inspired me to write this post.

It’s time for organizations to take a cue from Hollywood trailers, and to incorporate the power of context into presentations, interviews, elevator pitches, and cocktail party dialogue. Also … more buttered popcorn at board meetings.

How would your organization’s movie trailer begin? “In a world where ____________, one organization dared to _____________!”