Take it From Harrison Ford: Keep it Focused

There’s a critical scene in one of my favorite movies, The Fugitive.

Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) is the man wrongly accused of killing his wife. Tommy Lee Jones is the federal marshal sworn to bring him to justice. When they have their big confrontation down in the bowels of that giant hydroelectric dam, Kimble yells, “I didn’t kill my wife!” To which the marshal replies simply, “I don’t care!”

That’s it. The entire essence of the movie is captured in those two lines.

What does The Fugitive have to do with corporate communications? A few years ago I started a second career as an actor, and in that time I’ve been struck by how much we can learn from the world of movies, TV and theater – like connecting with an audience, tapping into emotion and telling better stories.

The lesson from this scene? Stop talking so much! Seriously. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s no such thing as over-communication. But actors and screenwriters show us every day how much meaning can be conveyed in just a few words. (Or no words at all. Check out Mad Men or Friday Night Lights– the silence is as enlightening as it is deafening.)

Now apparently the original screenplay of the The Fugitive had a lot more dialogue. But, as often happens on a film set, things got cut as the actors and director worked with the material. I don’t know what that early script looked like, but let’s imagine how it might have turned out in the hands of lesser talents:

Kimble: I didn’t kill my wife!
Marshal: I don’t care!
Kimble: What do you mean you don’t care?
Marshal: I mean it’s not my job!
Kimble: But you could be sending an innocent man to prison!
Marshal: My jurisdiction only extends to apprehending fugitives, not deciding guilt or innocence. You see, the way the criminal justice system is set up …

And so on. We see a lot of that in bad TV and film. Tons of exposition that serves only to insult our intelligence. And the corporate world, of course, is rife with excess verbiage that is tone deaf to its audience’s interests and needs.

There is undoubtedly a time and place for the old, “Tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.”

But I’ve been pushing myself and my clients to find opportunities – in presentations, videos, websites and annual reports – to be less literal and more evocative. To do more showing than telling. To get out of the way and let action and stories do the talking.

After all, where are some of the most compelling and popular stories in our culture coming from? Film, for one, which is a $10 billion business, and TV, which we spend an average of 150 hours a month watching.

So instead of looking at what our peers and competitors are doing, we should be looking outside ourselves for inspiration. Hollywood is a great place to start. And unlike in The Fugitive, we shouldn’t need a gun to our heads to do it.