I’m sure you recognise the challenge.
You’ve written a twelve page document, and your team leader wants it summed up in three crisp paragraphs.
You’ve had your 45 minute keynote filmed, but you need to edit it down to a 90 second showreel.
You’re presenting a year’s research to the Board, and you’ve been given eight minutes in next Tuesday’s webinar.
Put the kettle on, while I share a five step process that I have always used, as a TV journalist, to boil things right down.
- SCAN IT IN FULL
This may seem counter-intuitive — but you need to see the big picture before you can zoom in on the detail. Remind yourself how your material begins, ends, and what’s in the middle. You may discover that some of the key points are summed up already along the way.
Example: news reporting often involves wading through long public sector documents, far too long to read in full on a tight news deadline. Scanning these documents quickly ensured that I got the full picture — and helped me spot if the author had already summed things up in bullet points along the way.
2. BREAK IT DOWN
What caught your eye? What stuck in your memory? What points are immediately clear to an audience less informed than you, free of context? If you’ve got a hard copy of your material, grab a red pen and circle them. If your material is digital, make a note of what stands out as you review it.
Example: I’ve recently produced a 45 minute keynote for After Dinner events — ‘Royal Weddings, Then & Now’ — revealing how broadcast technology and news values have changed between the weddings of Charles and Diana in 1981, and William and Kate in 2011. My source material was approximately four hours of news coverage. So I put the kettle on (several times), watched it all (just the once), and made notes. My red pen was deployed 43 times — 43 video clips I could use to make the points I wanted to make in my talk.
3. MEASURE THE WINDOW
By now you will have a sense of what you can cut, and what’s on the shortlist to keep. So it’s time to ask yourself, honestly, what the size of the ‘window’ is that you’ve been given for your summary. Is it ten percent of your material, or one percent?
Example: I’ve recently set myself the challenge of turning one of my 45 minute keynote talks into an enticing 90 second showreel, to help time-challenged speaker bookers size me up fast. My research suggests that 90 seconds to two minutes is the optimum size of the ‘window’ for this purpose. By knowing my target, I can now take aim. Your ‘window’ may be the 3 paragraphs your boss has requested, or those eight minutes you’ve been allocated by the Board.
4. KILL YOUR DARLINGS — FAST
Brace, brace. This is the hardest part. ‘Kill your Darlings’ is an expression editors will use in newsrooms to remind producers and journalists (like me) who would sometimes be too insistent that certain elements of their work were just too marvellous to be left out of their news reports. The harsh truth is that quite a lot is going to have to be left out. The happy truth is that the only person who will know, or care, is probably you. And (harsh truth again here) this isn’t about you. It’s about your audience.
Example: take this blog. Thirty years of news reporting means I’ve got quite a lot of thoughts, stories and examples I could share on this topic. But you haven’t got time to read them all, and I reckon you’re probably quite pleased that you can see you’re approaching the end of this article. Quite a few of my darlings have been killed in the writing of this ‘Newsroom Secret’.
5. LET IT MARINADE
By now you’ve scanned your material, you’ve broken it down with your red pen, you’ve focussed on how much time/space you’ve got to get it all into, and you’ll have (reluctantly) decided on what to drop. You should be left with the key elements — your ‘Best Bits’, as Davina McCall might have once said. Having stripped so much away, you should be able to turn what’s left into a coherent whole — for you to return to the following day. I call it the ‘marinade moment.’
Example: at around 5pm on Wednesday last week, after quite a bit of darling-killing (only 7 of my 43 darlings made the final cut), I complete my 90 second showreel. But I didn’t upload it to YouTube in triumph that evening. I left it alone. The next day — refreshed, away from the edit bubble — I looked at it again, and realised it worked. Yes, I tweaked a sound level here and shaved a couple of seconds off there. But returning to it with a fresh pair of eyes helped me to see it as a fresh audience would see it. And that gave me confidence.
It’s widely accepted that attention spans are becoming shorter. There’s a reason Ted X talks are 18 minutes max, and Instagram shuns anything over a minute. Mastering the art of brevity is a handy skill these days. So let me leave it at that.