The one-line: what marketers can learn from screenwriters

The secret to selling a screenplay in Hollywood is writing a great one-line, says screenwriter Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat: the Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Creating a great one-line is invaluable for marketing anything, whether it’s a company, product, service, book proposal, online community, a vacation spot or professional services.

You see, the one-line tells people what the product/service/screenplay is so they can quickly decide if they’re interested or not. Make it too hard for them to understand the “what it is” and they’ll simply ignore you, no matter how brilliant the product and supporting marketing programs.

Snyder says that a great one-line:

  • Hooks your interest
  • Helps you see the whole movie in it
  • Makes your imagination run wild with where the story is likely to go
  • Has a built-in sense of who it’s for
  • Is somewhat unexpected or ironic
  • Is emotionally intriguing
Aside from the primary benefit of selling your product, creating a great one-line helps you better develop the product or service or book proposal because you’ve focused the concept.
“Concentrate on writing one sentence. One line. Because it you learn how to tell me “What is it” better, faster and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested. And incidentally, by doing so before you start writing your script, you’ll make the story better too,” advises Snyder.
I read the one-liners in the N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review every week to practice my one-line writing. This one-line writing is the hardest writing I’ve ever done. I think it’s easier to run a business than write the one-line about the business, easier to write a book than write the one-line about the book. BUT without the one-line answering, “what is it?”  developing your services and products and running your marketing will be much, much harder than if you had sat down and written the one-line to  begin with.

Give me the same thing only different

The second most important screenwriting lesson that also applies to marketing: tell people what your product/service/book is most like and how it’s different.

In screenwriting, the more you understand the genre of your concept, the more likely you are to sell the script and write a great movie. Ditto for marketing. Help customers understand where you fit into categories that they understand — and then tell them how you’re different.

While creating new business models or wildly innovative products is admirable and noble, most don’t take off because the buyer can’t understand “what it is.”  And those that do, have brilliant one-lines, like Salesforce in the early days — software you can rent instead of having to implement.

Another example is Communispace, one of the most successful private online community companies. In  the early days of the company, long before terms like social media or Web 2.0 were around, Communispace CEO Diane Hessan explained that their communities were “like focus groups on steroids, only different.”  Marketing decision makers got it, and bought. While many other early community pioneers no longer exist. People couldn’t understand the “what it is.”

I’m working on some new concepts and starting with my one-lines. Who knows maybe someday I’ll even be able to pitch a screenplay.

PS — thanks to the wonderful book marketer Nettie Hartsock for turning me on to Save the Cat.