I’ve learned a lot from Star Wars. I’ve learned that sand people walk single file to hide their numbers. I’ve learned to let the Wookie win. I’ve learned that there is no try; that I should do. Or do not.
But this article from io9 embraces some of my favorite lessons – how to create and design content and strategy. The approach J.J. Abrams took with The Force Awakens is rich with possibility for us to learn from and take into our own work. Never underestimate the power of The Force.
1. What do we want people to feel?
The very first discussions we had were about feeling…What did we want to feel in this film? What did we want the audience to experience and feel? I know that sounds so stupid and obvious, but it was the most important thing to me. The absolute fundamental ‘What do we want the experience to feel like?’
JJ Abrams is the co-writer and director of the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, and this is what he told io9 about the origin story for the new film. When I read this I wanted to share it with all my clients, with every writer and strategist I know – start with the audience.
You might remember that the original Star Wars movies were awesome. I watched them with my 8-year-old daughter recently, and was able to experience it for the first time in some ways. I saw what she thought was funny. Frightening. Confusing. Exciting.
You might also remember that the followup trilogy, the prequels, pretty well sucked. I’ve read that George Lucas had developed the misperception that what people loved about the movies were primarily the flash and splash. The special effects and eye-candy. If you’re super nerdy – which I just might be – you saw this approach getting pervasive when he revisited the original trilogy with the “special editions” and seemingly every digital release after – tinkering a bit endlessly with new visual effects in scenes from the old movies. He seemed unable to help himself.
Got 15 minutes? Enjoy the video below about all of Lucas’s many changes. Or don’t enjoy the video below. Whichever.
Abrams came to the new movie with a different, better approach. Maybe the approach Lucas had a long time ago when he wrote the first movie. He began by asking the right questions.
2. Why are we telling the story at all?
The team settled on a huge mix of things: exhilaration, thrills, heartbreak, joy, fear and spirituality, to name a few. And that lead them to the next step.
‘Why are we telling the story at all? If we wanna feel that way, how do we do it? Who are these new characters? ‘Cause this had to be a new story about new people. And that was all gonna be about trying to serve that feeling,’ he said.
Oh man this is just a masterclass in how to approach content. After identifying what he wanted people to feel, he asked Why are we doing this at all?
When we’re designing content and strategies around content, I like to ask this question first – why are we doing this at all? What problems are we solving? And sometimes that will be hand-in-hand with what do we want people to feel. Sometimes they’ll be two sides of the same coin. But always we have to ask the question, and then search as seriously as necessary for the answers. I also read that one reason Lucas created the cartoon series The Clone Wars was because toy sales weren’t as brisk as he’d hoped. We can argue if that’s a lame reason to add to the Star Wars mythology (no we can’t – it is a lame reason), but at least he had his why – to help sell more stuff.
Sometimes the why is more emotionally driven, as Abrams contends. Of course Disney (who Lucas sold Star Wars to) first had a business objective in mind, same as Lucas did for The Clone Wars. But without the why, there’s no purpose and no direction.
3. Trust the audience
Trust the audience. Trust the characters and that the audience will feel more, in a way, the less you explain the stuff to them. And the challenge is always to make it satisfying and clear and not feel like you’re being preached to.
The third piece of great content strategy and design – know your audience. And as Abrams says, trust them. If you’re doing your job right, they’re along for the ride. They’re curious and interested. Captive and invested. The challenge then, as Abrams says, is to make the message satisfying and clear. Here we can lean on great writing strategies – be authentic. Be yourself. Get out of your own way. Tell the story – your story – whatever it is.
What do you think of my take on how Abrams approached the new Star Wars movie and how we can approach content strategy? I’d love to hear your comments, or hit me at twitter to carry on the conversation!