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10 Storytelling tips from legendary film director Billy Wilder

BillyWilderBilly Wilder (1906–2002) was the first person to win an Academy Award as producer, director and screenwriter for the same film. The film The Apartment (1960) stared Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray and is certainly in my top-10 favorite movies of all time. There is something quite special about Wilder's films. There's a simplicity, clarity, and naturalness that is above all else engaging and human. Even today Wilder is a hero to many filmmakers both young and old. In a 1999 interview with NPR, filmmaker Cameron Crowe talks about his admiration for Wilder's work. It is this bit from Crowe that I find most interesting (emphasis mine):

"...if you talk to many screenwriters or film students, they’re still studying Billy Wilder. And what is it that makes a guy still relevant after more than 50 years of filmmaking? And what you find are values, you know, that people are going to experience over the holiday when they see a movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which isn’t, of course, Billy Wilder, but it’s simple, clear, soulful, funny storytelling. And I believe Billy Wilder is the king."
— Cameron Crowe

What makes Wilder and his films still relevant today, suggest Crowe, are themes of deeply human values and "simple, clear, soulful, funny storytelling."  This has relevance beyond writing and fiction, of course. There are many different ways to connect and share your message with an audience, but the storytelling principles noted by Crowe of simplicity, clarity, soulfulness, and humor—backed by authenticity and a respect for your audience—will take you far.

In 1999 Crowe wrote a book called Conversations with Wilder where the legendary and elusive Billy Wilder talks extensively about his life and work. It's gold. In the back of the book Crowe includes a list of ten screenwriting tips by Wilder. This list has now been shared by thousands over the years. "There’s no better film school really than listening to what Billy Wilder says," Crowe said in the 1999 NPR interview. You may not be interested in writing a novel or a screenplay, but the lessons can be applied to the work of anyone who is in the business of story and storytelling, and that certainly includes public speakers and presenters of all types.


10 Storytelling/Screen Writing Tips From Billy Wilder
The tips here were for screen writers and filmmakers, but with a little imagination, it's not hard to see how Wilder's advice can help us too. After all, Wilder is talking about storytelling, and storytelling—that is, telling true stories— is what we are doing. After each tip by Wilder (in bold) I offer my own thoughts on how the tip relates to the world of presentations. I hope at least some of these tips will stimulate you to find your own applications of the wisdom.

(1) The audience is fickle. You try to prepare the best you can for an audience. But in the end, audiences are unpredictable. What works one night falls flat the next night (ask a comedian). But we need not eat our liver over this. All we can do is prepare the best we can. A presentation is not about us. Even if we are telling "our story," we must think long and hard during preparation how our story is really their story. If our story has a universal theme with an important lesson or some other contribution then it has a shot at resonating. Yes, audiences are fickle, but the old axiom is true: Know your audience.

(2) Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go. Don't waste time at the beginning with formalities or filler talk. Start with a bang. A hook. Get their attention and then sustain that interest with variety, unexpectedness built upon structure that is taking them some place. We remember the beginning and the ending the most—don't waste those important opening minutes. At the end of the documentary Billy Wilder Speaks, Wilder warned against being timid when he says, only half jokingly, "You have to use both knees to kick them in the balls.” Start strong.

(3) Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Make sure the arc of change is clear. This one may not seem as directly relevant unless your narrative has a clear protagonist, but one thing we can take from this tip is this: Make sure the arc of change in your talk is clear and it is meaningful. Whether you are talking about a customer or a person in history or yourself, the series of actions you unfold for your audience—actions often involving a conflict to overcome—must illuminate a clear arc of change.

(4) Know where you're going.
Story takes you some place. Have you ever listened to a speech and wondered where the heck it was going? It is not enough that you know where this presentation is headed, the audience needs to feel that the parts are connected and that everything that is included is included because it is necessary. Too many presenters—and writers for that matter—get bogged down in back stories or details about minor—or even irrelevant—points and momentum dies as the audience begins scratching their collective heads in confusion or boredom. What is included must be included for a good reason. Remember the dramatic principle Chekhov's Gun:  "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." —Anton Chekhov

(5) The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
A plot point is an event that propels the action in a new direction. A typical three-act film may have two major plot points. The first plot point comes at the end of Act I and takes us in a new direction in Act II. The second plot point signifies the end of Act II and gives the story momentum for Act III. One takeaway for presenters, however, is that we must have a very clear structure that is the framework of our talk, but that framework does not necessarily have to be clear to the audience. Our events, which may be in essence similar to plot points in a drama, are certainly events that get the audiences attention, pique their curiosity, surprise them, make them question and want to know more, etc. But the audience is not aware of the structure or that it is a "plot point" or an attempt to engage and propel the story forward. The audience is too busy listening and yearning to know what comes next.


(6) If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
Again, wonderful advice for a screen writer, but what about us? In drama, the third act (usually) is the climatic conclusion. Our conclusion in many ways is the most important part. People remember the beginning and ending the most. The ending should be the pay off. But a lot of speakers have great difficulty with the ending. One reason for this is they prepare speeches or presentations in the typical linear outline method in slideware. They spend a lot of time filling the talk with data, facts, and often unconnected opinions and events to beef up their talk without really considering first where their destination was in the first place. When this happens you get a rather weak beginning followed by a lot of stuff in the middle and concluding with a weak little ramble at the end. The presenter has problems with the ending because he never set down the foundation of the talk at the beginning.

(7) A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.
Treat your audience with respect and don't try to beat them over the head with your message. The best storytellers, no matter the genre, craft the material so that the audience can be an active participant in figuring things out. No one wants to be lectured to or fed conclusions all the time. Treat the audience as intelligent participants in this journey. Whenever possible show them, don't just tell them. And of course, in the classroom or training room, participants should be doing not just watching or listening. (Ernst Lubitsch was Billy Wilder's mentor.)

(8) In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they're seeing.
This one is related to number (7). When possible, show don't just tell. And when telling, be careful not to describe what they are seeing. Design visuals so that it is obvious. With quantitative displays, for example, it is useful and a very good practice to explain the vertical and horizontal axis and set up the audience for the visual display that you are about to show them. If it is a good graph the data will be easy to see and the data will be clear. You then can focus on talking about the consequences of the data, the meaning in context. What are the opposing arguments or different interpretations of the same data, etc. Too often audiences are just trying to figure out what they are seeing while the presenter rambles on or moves on to another point, leaving the audience behind.

(9) The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
Think about how you can introduce an event near the end that really gathers you some momentum. This is a twist, something unexpected that increases the tempo for the last part of your talk. When they say go out on a bang, they ain't kidding. So in the preparation stage, what can you include in the structure of your talk—an event or a revelation or an unexpected finding, etc.—that spins the talk in a new direction and sets the stage for a compelling ending or conclusion?

(10) The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that's it. Don’t hang around.
Two things we can take from this. (1) Momentum is always important, but the beats or the tempo must really build, especially at the end. It builds to such a degree that your ending is engaging and obvious. And then (2) it is time to be done. One of the worst things you can do is to go over your allotted time or to linger, repeating the same message long after it was understood. This old chestnut by Franklin D. Roosevelt is a good reminder:  “Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.”

Bonus Tips
Here are a couple of more tips I gleaned from researching the great Billy Wilder.

• Don't be boring.

Another "rule" from Billy Wilder is not on the list, perhaps because it is implied, but it is simply this: Don't be boring. A simple guideline but it's indeed very hard to achieve. "I have ten commandments," Wilder said. "The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut."

• The more complicated the story, the simpler the visuals
In this last one I am paraphrasing Wilder from one of his interviews in the Billy Wilder Speaks documentary. If your story is rather simple then "you can be ornate" or be a bit more complex with the visual treatment. But if the story is quite complicated then Wilder suggests a very simple approach to the use of visuals. This obviously is an approach that translates well to a lot of presentation situations as well. Certainly when showing quantitative displays, especially complex ones, you want to remove any extraneous material and keep the visuals simple and clear.

Bonus II
Here is a 4-min cut from the classic The Apartment. At the end you will see an important plot point. It's a wonderful film. See it on DVD if you get a chance.

Presentation zen books
• See the books written by Garr as well several books on visual communication and storytelling that he often recommends.


Davide Jones

This is cool. There are in fact many lessons we can learn from by seeing the structure behind films. A story must go some place. I have seen a lot of speeches that did not really go someplace. That makes me a little sad.

Alan sabo

Thank you for sharing Wilder's perspectives on good story telling techniques. As a rookie storyteller (historian narrator), I am constantly modifying and evaluating my presentation. The tools you shared shall be applied to achieve a conclusion of excellence, i.e. hugs, kisses, and sincere appreciation from the audience.


Thanks for sharing these gold rules... he was master !

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