This one tool will change the way you see (and tell) your story

In 1910, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov changed the way films would forever be edited.  

He had a hunch that if you just zeroed in on an actor’s face, a whole range of emotions could be communicated.

And his theory blew the lid on the whole bag of audience manipulation tricks.  

Using the EXACT SAME editing cut, Kuleshov chose a new image for multiple shots and the results were undeniable. 

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>Show the audience a smirking man with a bowl of soup, they’ll think he’s hungry. 
>Show them a man who’s smirking with a coffin, they’ll imagine he’s grief stricken. 
>Show them a man smirking towards a beautiful woman. . . they’ll assume he’s a lust-driven pervert.  

This trick seems so obvious NOW, but in 1910, Kuleshov emerged as THE thought leader of his day, and 110 years later, his genius still hasn’t gotten old.

Hitchcock, Nolan, Spielberg and every other successful director in and out of Hollywood has figured out how to master this effect because they know its power over an audience.   

Done well, The Kuleshov Effect invites the audience into the scene – as participants – because instead of TELLING the audience what to feel, you SHOW them.

The end result is that the audience doesn’t just passively observe a scene; instead, they feel the scene.

And for Kuleshov, this near Biblical revelation was a full-on-revival in keeping the audience anchored to the rest of the story.  

The true genius of Kuleshov is that he developed this technique for FILM, but it’s so incredibly useful for other modes of storytelling, too.  

Sure, maybe you can’t use The Kuleshov Effect for a theatrical production, but you can still drink from its well of wisdom. Kuleshov believed all great films were actually made in the editing room (rather than through great acting or even great storytelling): moment by moment, scene by scene, act by act.  In essence, he believed that a close examination of all the tiny moments is what unlocked the portal to magical storytelling. It was here in the close-up view that the single, cohesive, and thematic story was waiting to be found. 

And that’s the part that got me thinking, because in traditional storytelling (the kind that’s written down instead of broadcast), those tiny moments are often captured through a timeline of events.  

In fact, many story coaches will tell you that if you really want to give life to your character, then (as the writer), you start with a timeline so you can be intimately aware of all the major and minor moments that shaped your character’s life.   

This morning, I wondered if I understood my OWN story as well as I thought I did. “If I’m the main character in my story, then how have my life events shaped me?” (I asked myself sort of out loud like I was a 98-year-old lady.)  

Pen in hand, tiny notebook in my lap, I began to chart out the key events in my life – good events on the left, bad on the right.  

Born in 1977. 
Married in 1997. 
4 kids by 2006. 
Business by 2016.  

Add few heartbreaks in between those dates and a splash of benign wins, and there’s Lindsay’s very boring life, captured easily in a peanut shell. 

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Except. . . when I stepped back and looked at that timeline holistically, thinking through the meaning and influence of each of those events, I felt like Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar→ instantly understanding how all the confusing and frustrating and heartbreaking pieces of my story somehow fit perfectly together with all the clear and easy and heartwarming moments of my life.  

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In a sense, by zooming in and zooming out on each of those events,  I Kuleshov’ed my own life story.  

Funny thing is, this very idea is one of the biggest tools in phenomenology (the tool I use as a storyteller), and it’s such an important step because so often, when we’re telling our OWN stories, we make the very logical and rational assumption that we can see ourselves from EVERY POSSIBLE VANTAGE POINT.  

But it turns out, that’s not a logical and rational assumption at all.

It’s actually a delusion.  

Our stories are colored with all sorts of filters and blocks and obstacles (eg., excuses and procrastinations and judgments and hurts and betrayals and loves and desires. . . ), and most days, we can’t see past our own noses. . . at least I couldn’t, until I surrendered to one very simple exercise and saw my life story laid out in front of me on a 4×6 sheet of paper.  

There, in between the blue lines and black ink, I saw my truth reaffirmed: I am driven by a pressing need to help OTHERS be seen.  

But I didn’t just see my truth.  I also sourced it, identifying exactly when and where that need began to form within me. (Like most of us who find our callings out of our own wounds. . . my work likely birthed out of my own personal struggles with often feeling unseen.)  

And while all this psychological mess doesn’t necessarily need to hold a place in my brand’s story, it does hold a place in how I interact with my clients.  

It shapes how I show up in my market, how I build my business, and how I chase (and define) success.

And perhaps most of all, it shapes the stories I choose to tell – to myself and my audience.   

I’d like to encourage you to do the timeline exercise this week. It’s simple, and it doesn’t take much time (or much paper), but if you allow yourself to show up unfiltered, you’ll stand face to face with the events in your life that have shaped you in profound ways.  

I’ve continued to look over my timeline throughout the day, and each time I glance at it, I have an “ah-ha” moment–not one that can necessarily be spoken, but one of those soul-pausing moments that somehow connect your heart to your brain.  Try it, and when you do, I’d LOVE to connect for a virtual coffee (or bourbon) just to chat over what you’ve found.