JS Tip 155: From the Speaking Workshops: Identifying Your Central Idea

Just after World War II, two writers—and combat veterans—wanted to make a movie about the air war in Europe.

They approached Louis “Bud” Lighton, a producer at Fox:

He made us define our central idea. He said, “Give me something you can put down in a paragraph, or preferably in a line, or even four words. You get back to your office and don’t come back here until you can tell me what the central idea is.” 

Well, Sy and I took nearly two weeks. We did get it down to four words: “The destruction of [General Frank] Savage.” He said, “You’ve got it! Now I don’t want one inch of film that doesn’t contribute to telling that central idea.”

The movie was Twelve O’Clock High. It was nominated for four academy awards. It won two. It’s one of the best movies ever made about leadership.

All great presentations have a central idea. A single, declarative sentence that captures the speaker’s intent:

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

If you can find a better car, buy it.

We are not the red states, we are not the blue states, we are the United States.

When you’re asked to give a speech, talk, or presentation, identify your central idea and build everything on that. Everything.

A special appreciation to Maggie Gremore of Wells Fargo. A good friend. A great training director.