How Actors Read a Script

grayscale photo of man holding smartphone

Photo by James Frid on Pexels.com

Have you ever felt like a character on the screen just didn’t seem like the person they were meant to be? Or, the character seems just shy of a full deck and inauthentic? There is a simple reason for it—the actor is a newbie or doesn’t work on developing their character properly.

When a great actor is developing a character, they take hints from the writer. Every word on the script is an important hint to who the character is and how that person behaves. Skipping over any of it would limit the actor’s ability to truly capture their character in an authentic manner.

I recently watched the movie JUDY starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland. Her performance was so rich and spot-on that I actually believed I was watching Judy Garland, which is sure to land her an Oscar® nomination for best actress. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see past the character to Renée.

When rookie actors get a copy of their script, instead of reading every word on the page carefully, they jump down to the dialog and start reading one of their lines. This forces them to miss a lot of what the character is all about and why they make the decisions that they make. Most of the nuances of a character are written in the description lines and are therefore missed.

I try to remind all rookies that they are called actors because of their actions. I suggest they would be called vocal-ers or word-smiths if the dialog was central to their character, which it is not. Actors are called actors because they move and behave in visual terms. In fact, they were named for their most notable trait of acting before sound movies were invented.

A pro would read the below page word for word. In fact, some acting coaches will tell the actor during their first read to read everything out loud except for their own lines. This is to force their attention on all the character hints in the script.

INT. INTERROGATION ROOM – DAY

A dim light hangs over a small table. GREG, 50s, unshaven and wearing unkempt clothing sits across from:

DETECTIVE, early 30s, a professional type wearing business casual. He reads a REPORT.

GREG

I needed food, my ulcer was acting up.

DETECTIVE

Jump to the part where you hit the guy
and grabbed the bread.

Greg faces the Detective.

GREG

You make me sound so—

The Detective leans in to listen.

GREG (CONT’D)

Look, the system made me feel indignant,
so I acted that way. That’s it.

DETECTIVE

You don’t believe in taking
responsibility for your actions?

GREG

The program’s for the less fortunate. I’m
not one of them. Temporarily unemployed.

DETECTIVE

That’s unfortunate.

The Detective jots a note.

Let’s break down the hints…

The “INT.” stands for interior, which means the scene is happening inside… the interrogation room during the day. While we can’t tell that its day time, the actor needs to know that he is in an interrogation room instead of being at work. That immediately tells the actor his day is not a normal one and it has an added level of stress. Plus, he must figure out the “why” this has happened by reading on.

The “A dim light hangs over a small table,” immediately sets up the seriousness of the interrogation. This man is in a backroom somewhere as compared to the waiting area of a police station. The man is in jeopardy of some kind, another hint for the actor.

The line “GREG, 50s, unshaven and wearing unkempt clothing sits across from…” tells the actor that he was out in public looking like a bum. This hints to his character no longer carrying about what he looks like or taking care of himself. Since most people care how they look in public, the script is suggesting that he has been suffering for some time and has lost all hope.

When people get to the place where they’ve lost all hope, they can either become super depressed or very angry at anyone who differs in opinion about their behavior. This gives the actor two ways to explore his character during rehearsal.

Next, the detective is introduced and we need to read it from Greg’s perspective. The line reads, “DETECTIVE, early 30s, a professional type wearing business casual. He reads a REPORT.” The detective is unengaged. He is off with his face in paperwork. The script hints to the fact that this man is unmoved and sees the moment as another task he must handle. Again, this is from Greg’s viewpoint based on searching for hints to his behavior.

The actor must find a way to reengage the detective if he ever wants to get out of being locked up or fined. The decision is to open his mouth one more time. Yes, the script suggests that they’ve been there for some time because Greg’s first dialog implies that he’s been talking about something and he is just reiterating the information.

His line reads, “I needed food, my ulcer was acting up.” This is clearly a sympathy move and the wording suggests that he’s tried several different angles on his story, but none have captured the detective’s attention enough to let him go. Or, the detective has an agenda that Greg hasn’t yet figured out. It also tells us that Greg had been in a bad situation long enough to develop an ulcer from it.

The detective speaks next revealing his perspective with the dialog, “Jump to the part where you hit the guy and grabbed the bread.” Ouch. The other actor has revealed the big issue that this short is about. Greg must respond, but how. What are the hints? The most important hint comes in the description, “Greg faces the Detective.”

We know from life that when someone faces a person during a serious issue, they are taking the stance of being their equal. In other words, Greg is ready to go head to head with the detective. This is the first key point of conflict. This is the salt in the wound moment. The do or die moment. What will Greg do or say?

“You make me sound so—” Bam! Greg held his tongue. He cut himself off. He didn’t lash out. He showed restraint. This hints that his hitting the man was purposeful because Greg is capable of controlling himself. Curious then… what position will he take?

“The Detective leans in to listen,” along with the audience. What is Greg up to? Does he have the guts to say what’s on his mind, especially since the detective leaned in to find out? Greg is now on the spot. This is visually a point of intimidation. Will Greg crack? How would this character feel when being confronted? Does he retreat a bit, or charge forward with boldness? Or, attempt to charge forward, but quickly retreat. The actor will most likely draw additional hints from other places in the script to help him make the decision.

“Look, the system made me feel indignant, so I acted that way. That’s it.” Okay, Greg showed his cards or should I say he didn’t speak the truth, but instead pointed blame in another direction. Then he attempted to end the conversation by saying “That’s it.” He weaseled out of the situation with a lame comment that he hopes the detective will accept so they can both get out of this poorly lit room.

Will the detective call him on it? Of course, because it creates more tension in the scene, which makes stories interesting.

I won’t take any more time going through the first page, but you get the idea that the actor must take hints from all parts of the script, not just the dialog. Remember that the actions and descriptions will give the actor the greatest amount of hints for the physicality of the character and his behaviors.

Well-crafted scripts are loaded with instructions for performance and character development. Rookies don’t understand how many hours it takes to properly craft the concise, full-meaning words on the page.

Some newbies might even suggest that the dialog needs to be rewritten because it isn’t the way the actor would say the lines. Instead, quality actors realize that the words were specifically selected to make the character who he is and the actor needs to find a way to get into the character enough that those lines come across authentically.

Audiences want to see characters that they’ve never seen before and they want to be caught up into that person’s world as authentically as possible. To that end, the actor must learn everything he can about his character and make him believable.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

 

 

 

Advertisements

Advanced Visual Storytelling

I’m a firm believer in continuing education. Recently, I took a masters class in advanced visual storytelling. This was a writing class that required us to translate our written short story to the screen. The assignment required only one scene plus an establishing exterior shot at the beginning and end of the story. I made the creative decision to not use the exterior shot at the end of the story, hoping to keep the audience focused on the protagonist’s experience.

The story had to include a beginning, middle, and end. However, the professor said we didn’t have to use an ending if the short was getting too long. The goal was to create a 30 or 60-second story, figuring that no one would watch past that point. I made the decision to make the story about 2-minutes long in order to develop the characters. I was warned that most people would not watch the full two minutes.

The big question that I faced was whether or not I developed the story to the point that people would watch it for the full two minutes. A secondary question for me came from wondering if such a short film could still be of value, as I’ve never told such a short story.

Then there are those social media questions about whether or not the film would take off and go viral. I decided to not make the show public, but private. This means that if a person tells their friend to watch it, they won’t be able to find it by searching the internet or YouTube. The only way for their friend to watch the video is by having the link sent to them.

That means the show can’t go viral unless each person purposely takes the time to pass the link on to someone that will then watch it and pass the link on to someone else. In other words, the only way to see this clip is for someone who has a relationship with someone else that has the link. No one can accidentally stumble across the story.

Mathematically, if everyone that watches the film from this site shares it with two people they know, and those two people do the same, the film could be seen by 300 million people within seven days. But, the odds of anyone sharing the video in the first place is less than one percent. But regardless of the math, here is the story for your entertainment.

 

Adaptations True to the Original or Culture

man holding clapper board

Photo by Martin Lopez on Pexels.com

I recently completed writing a short film adaptation for the festival marketplace titled The Sacrificial Gift. The screenplay is based on the original story titled The Gift of the Magi written in 1905. I will be placing the screenplay up for sale so a filmmaker that’s looking for a wholesome story with a great plot twist and moral lesson (provided by the original story) will have a shot at winning several festival awards.

The last short story I wrote for the screen, not only opened up doors for its producer, but it helped expand the awarded actress’ career with a reoccurring role on a major television network. And yes, I too won a festival award for best screenplay. But that was then, and now I’m looking to sell The Sacrificial Gift to an interested producer.

Adaptations are an interesting type of story because some follow the original so closely that the film appears to be a period piece, or worse yet, it’s not understandable by contemporary society. Others use the original only as a springboard to a new creative direction that is so far from the original that it’s hard to see the relationship. Still, others find a balance between updating the story for contemporary culture while maintaining as much of the original author’s passions and intent.

A friend sent me the following link to an adaptation and suggested I watch it this weekend while the movie is free (online through tonight). Here is the link should you want to watch it. https://www.pilgrims.movie/

The writer of this latest version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the original written in 1678, struggled with how to make the content relevant for today’s audience. This is a very hard decision to make and if the writer is not completely focused on the initial decisions can easily wander and create a glorious mess.

In this film, the writer wrote most of the dialog for Baby Boomers and the action for kids. The director took things a step further and cartoon-ized the bad guys with silliness, while keeping the protagonist highly dramatic, enduring pain after pain—something difficult for kids to watch.

However, Paul Bunyan’s greatest allegory still remains at the core of the story within this adaptation. Unfortunately, that means most people in today’s society won’t understand the story as the film has it unfold. Yet, in spite of these choices, Bunyan’s original story is still the second most sold book next to the Bible.

I did not want to cannibalize The Gift of the Magi, but I did want to bring it into the 21st century. I changed the main Christmas Eve setting to a typical weekend in the average American household. Instead of the holiday driving the exchange of a young couple’s sacrificial gift, I used a marriage enrichment challenge.

The original was about hard times when there was little a person could do to survive, making the sacrificial gift significant. However, with super-powerful computers in everyone’s hands these days (that’s right, smartphones are more powerful than the big mainframe computers were back in the 70s) I wanted the lack of face-to-face time to drive the need for the gift exchange.

Since I’m a person who understands the difference between an entertaining film and a heavy or important film, I’ve also added in some great humor that sets up the message in a new powerful way. Yes, you will laugh and you will have your gut hit with the impact of the final twist in the plot. But the question is, how close to the original did I keep the story?

It doesn’t really matter.

Why? Because the producer and director will also add in their artistic choices. Then, the actors and editor will also salt in their viewpoints. But hopefully, the director will honor my adapted story as I intended it and help keep everyone focused on the same impactful outcome that was designed. But we won’t know how the team handled my story until its premiere.

I’ve got to be honest. Most directors today don’t know how to properly read a script, let alone know how to keep its critical elements intact. So as a writer, I have to find ways of saying goodbye to my little darlings every time I sell a script—hoping the director knows what he or she is doing. In any case, if the intent of my screenplay is honored, the theme and plot twist from The Gift of the Magi will also be honored.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

Creativity in Short Film Festival Selections

pexels-photo-2335046.jpeg

Photo by Bruno Massao on Pexels.com

I know numerous filmmakers who make short films to keep themselves sharp in between their major projects. I also know several students who shoot shorts with the hopes of being discovered. All of their creative knowledge goes into shooting the story they believe might help them achieve awards and attention.

However, the festival circuit is a highly competitive market with a uniqueness not considered by most filmmakers. Few producers contemplate the steps necessary to find the right festival for their story and build the film in a fashion that garners the greatest number of invitations by festival selection committees or jurors.

To help the filmmakers out, I’ve decided to write about a creative approach that will increase their chances of winning a meaningful award. I use the term meaningful because there are less than 50 festivals that will bring acclaim to a filmmaker out of several hundred. It’s easy to win an award if you’re willing to submit your film to small festivals with little competition. There are even fewer Academy Award-qualifying festivals.

BUDGET

The first consideration is the film’s budget. Few filmmakers have taken time to research their return on investment based on their out-of-pocket production budget. Statistically, the higher the budget, the greater the chance of being accepted by any given festival. This is true because the audience, and certainly the selection committee, can see the quality of a film increase with a bigger budget. That’s why some first-time filmmakers hate competing against a company like Pixar who enters high budget animated shorts from time to time.

While the selection process is easy for higher budget films, winning is not. The Short Movie Club conducted a survey and learned that higher budgets do not guarantee to receive an award. Here is a table I put together based on the research results of winners. I put it in the order of best to the worst chance of winning.

Budget

Odds of Win

$10K 3.60%
$20K 2.45%
$500 1.64%
$5K 1.21%
<$20K 1.09%
$0 0.77%

You can see that the budgets, or lack thereof, create an interesting return on investment. The zero-dollar budget is filled with passionate friends who want to help make the film, but when production hits harder than most realize, their skills don’t make it to the silver screen. However, the volunteer cast and crew that gets to eat, thanks to a $500 budget, puts more of their sweat equity on screen. Budgets that exceed $20K are also hampered in the amount of effort that clearly comes across on the screen. Whether the crew is made up of professionals that are trying out new positions, or a passionate group that wants to use the short as a political statement, something falls short in higher budget films.

However, when a passionate group makes a film that they believe in, and have a few extra dollars for CGI work, great music, or something substantial that can differentiate the show from others, the odds of winning an award goes up.

FESTIVAL PERSPECTIVES

Once the budget is settled, then the genre becomes most important. In qualified festivals, documentaries, dramas, and animation shorts rule the awards ceremonies. In unqualified festivals, animation, horror, and sci-fi bring home the awards. Selecting any other genre greatly reduces the filmmaker’s chance to win.

The one exception is niche festivals. For instance, a faith-based festival rarely will give an award to any film except for that of the faith-based genre. That also holds true for LGBTQ+ festivals not giving space to films that are not overt in their agenda.

Knowing the perspective of the festivals of interest prior to production helps the filmmaker creatively focus on the elements that are award-worthy. Promotional dollars can also be saved by not marketing the film to the wrong outlets and markets. However, the smaller the niche, the less likely the filmmaker will become known for his film.

FILM LENGTH

The shorter the film, the greater the chances of a festival accepting the film. Here is a table showing the acceptance rate based on the length of the film.

Length of Film

Odds of Acceptance

5 min. 25.00%
10 min. 11.26%
15 min. 11.73%
20 min. 11.57%
25 min. 11.79%
30+ min. 10.92%

The win rate is a very different set of percentages, as it reveals that brevity is king. The only exception is the 15-minute film that has enough time to develop a character that is worth rooting for. The caution comes in the development process that suggests the tighter the story, the better the chances of winning.

Length

Odds of Win

<:05 min. 7.00%
5 min. 1.84%
10 min. 1.39%
15 min. 2.00%
20 min. 1.45%
25 min. 1.01%
30+ min. 0.91%

I’ve been a festival judge numerous times and I can tell you that based on the vast majority of submissions that I’ve seen, 99% of them demonstrate that they are not award-winning films in the first 60-seconds. It is therefore prudent for filmmakers to immediately capture the attention of the audience with as much on-screen quality as possible.

However, most shorts do not immediately introduce you to the problem or the main character in the first 60-seconds, which guarantees that they will not win an award. Most film entries open with the mundane so you get a feel for the character’s life before something significant happens—killing the film’s chances of surviving the overloaded festival circuit.

Award-winning filmmakers typically open with a scene that oozes of the protagonist’s character or immediately drops the audience into the middle of a problem that is in full swing. While there are some films that win outside of that formula, the vast majority of awards go to the filmmaker who makes a film according to the needs of the targeted festival.

The process of developing a story for a particular festival takes a tremendous amount of creativity. And, it’s very limiting in that the film might not play well in commercial markets that do not hold to those constraints. In fact, if you make a 30+ minute film and release it on Amazon Prime, you’ll make good money and are almost guaranteed to not win a single festival award due to the film’s length—unless you apply to the Emmys.

Filmmakers have to pick between festivals and commercial exploitation. Rarely can a film be successful in both venues. Unfortunately, most filmmakers disagree with that statement, attempt to prove it wrong, and fail miserably. This multiple decade long attempt at reinventing the proverbial wheel in filmmaking continues with every generation. Their hope is more powerful than the measured reality.

Creativity must be applied with reason for success to ensue.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

Failure Breeds Success

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair

Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

There are several notable authors speaking on failing forward and the need for environments that allow for, or support failure. None of the individuals speak to the importance of failure and how it increases our ability to think and drive innovation. Out of those who speak about the positive aspects of failure, most seem to do so with failure as a caveat, not a requirement. The truth, however, is that failure is a necessary part of success.

Over the years, I’ve talked with numerous award winners, self-made entrepreneurs, and multi-millionaires. In each case, when talking to a person that made the trek up the hill of success, they shared how integral and critical their failures were in getting them to their goals and big wins. No one was able to succeed until they experienced a healthy dose of failure.

The secret weapon of failure must be added to our creativity tool belt. This tool empowers us for the big wins that company’s need for growth. It also wipes out fear from our workforce, promoting a healthy attitude for calculated risks that drive innovation, instead of the shrinkage driven by a risk-averse environment.

Colin Powell, one of my favorite leaders, says, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

Flaws are found in every product and service. When we choose to look at the negative and learn about the need that is not being met as a result of the given flaw, then we can learn from that single point of failure and innovate a new and better solution. If, however, we pretend that our product or service does not have a flaw, then we fool ourselves and give an opening for another company to build our mousetrap better. We lose market share—by choice.

Failure sets us up to win with three benefits:

A Growth Mindset

We all start from a position of failure. This is easily seen in my first swimming lesson at Sunset Pool. I was afraid of the water, like two-thirds of Americans, and I tended to sink instead of float. By focusing on my inability to swim, I was able to add to my skill set. By the time I was an adult, I was a PADI and NAUI certified diver that swam with sharks. (According to National Geographic there are 375 types of sharks and only about a dozen are considered dangerous.)

A growth mindset was a simple idea discovered by Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck, that drives motivation and productivity. The concept is that we can change or improve our basic abilities in order to make great accomplishments. By seeing failure as a stepping stone of learning, being able to consider new ideas that would never have popped up had we not failed, we can alter our products and services to be a better solution for the customer.

A Customer-Focused Perspective

I learned at an early age that failure meant you didn’t have or offer what the customer wanted. I’ll never forget the meeting I had with the vice president of a national youth organization. I was told what the organization wanted and I clarified what they actually needed to be successful. While I was 100% accurate in my assessment, which was later proven true, I was dropped from the project because I didn’t deliver what they wanted.

The disconnect was due to me being focused on their customers and donors, while the vice president was focused on assigned objectives. The organization moved ahead without me and saw a massive failure. They soon realized that their objectives were not aligned to their customers and donors. After making several phone calls to key people, they discovered that the needs in their market were perfectly aligned with my initial recommendation.

My failure taught me a valuable lesson about having a customer-centric perspective. I could have gotten the original contract had my recommendation matched their objectives, but I stood by what I thought was right, not what they were willing to pay for. The next customer that called me in for a quote that wasn’t aligned to their market, I offered exactly what was being asked for and supplied a phase two proposal covering next steps should phase one not work. One company suggested we forgo phase one and just jump to two. I was thrilled that they had made the determination after understanding the differences between phases.

A Trajectory for Success

When failure no longer looks like a problem, but rather the next step of an exploration seeking the best solution, the company finds itself on a trajectory of success no matter what scenario is first developed. I had a friend who once told me that some things aren’t worth doing perfectly. The saying stuck with me because my marketing background suggested that speed to market was far more powerful than second to market—unless you pour a ton of money into the second product’s release.

My friend explained that when a product or service is 80% ready for release, to go ahead and release it while continuing to perfect it. Within six months, regardless of having released the product at 100% or 80% complete, the product will still be tweaked from the market’s initial feedback. The amount of time it takes to polish the final product is not worth the quality difference compared to the percentage of market share gained by releasing first.

While this holds true with most products and services, it does not work in film and music sales. Once the product is created, you rarely have an opportunity to fix and rerelease it. This is why entertainment companies do test screenings and focus groups—to get it right the first time out.

My failures have given me wonderful tools that move each of my projects a step closer to success. Without those failures, I would have no idea how to make a new product or service successful. When we review our failures and determine the lessons learned, we drive success in our next venture. In other words, failure allows us to grow, focus on our customers, and create a process that forces our success.

Shouldn’t we all be thankful for our failures?

© 2019 by CJ Powers

 

The Game of Business

person holding string lights photo

Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

When speaking in-depth with an executive at a successful Fortune 100 company, I find more times than not that the executive looks at the business and marketplace as a game to be won. Most sales and marketing executives that I’ve spoken with also have a penchant for playing business.

The movers and shakers in the entertainment industry find the creation of their products and services to be game-like as well. In fact, creative people, in general, find their productivity skyrockets every time they view their innovations as a game. So why aren’t the business schools teaching business game strategies?

Three rules in the world of business gameplay must be present to innovate.

RULE 1: LEARN THE RULES

Every marketplace operates under the common assumptions and perceptions of its players. Once you’ve mastered the rules in any given market, you are then able to hyper-focus on the areas that are dealmakers and breakers. You are also able to learn what it takes to introduce new perspectives and disruptive ideas to catapult the industry forward. None of this is possible if you don’t thoroughly know the existing rules.

Back when I attended university, I made a short film that stirred the viewers and gave them hope in their own future. The letters I received suggested that this miracle film needed to get a broader release to touch more lives. I immediately took the film to the 16mm marketplace that had an audience of schools, libraries, churches, and other non-profit organizations.

I printed up a 5.5 X 8.5 catalog for the distributors to promote the film. I provided films to all the distributors for their rental programs. And, I even did radio interviews sharing where the films were available. Then I braced myself to make a lot of money. Three months later, only three copies of the film had been rented. I started asking questions and learned that the distributors never sent out my promotional materials.

No one told me that the distributors bound all of their 8.5 X 11 catalogs into one large book that they gave to their customers. Since my catalog was a different size, they tossed it in the trash. I realized that before entering any marketplace in the future, I’d make sure that I understood the rules.

RULE 2: PRACTICE THE GAME

The game of business is played every day, but the tools and techniques used require developed skills. No one enters a game with ground pleasing abilities because they are natural at it. Sure, some get lucky in their first few months based on what they sensed entering the marketplace, but it’s rare to last longer than a short stint.

The more a person tests out and practices various strategies, the better they get at playing the game. However, no one can rest on their laurels in the world of business gaming because the conditions change with every innovation. The main reason businesses want to innovate is to disrupt their competitor instead of being the one scrambling to reinvent the business due to someone else’s contribution to the marketplace. I read a poster years ago and if I remember properly it said, “Change is scary unless you’re the innovator.”

RULE 3: ENJOY TROUBLE-SHOOTING

Innovation is solving a problem that the rest of the market hasn’t yet thought about. It’s a fun activity and rewarding when your product or service is first to market with clear benefits for the end-user. Coming up with a viable solution worth exploring requires a significant amount of research and brainstorming.

The fuel used in successful brainstorming sessions is called F.U.N. and is the key to the successful play required to innovate.

  • F = Free from Failure: Every idea is a good one because it’s either an element in the final solution or the cause that leads to a better idea. Therefore, failure does not exist, as all aspects of the brainstorming process benefits the system.
  • U = Uplifting in Spirit: The process is affirming and energizing, especially when synergies form from within the brainstorming process that simplifies the team’s effort. This uplifting spirit or attitude typically makes everyone feel like their part made a difference in the final solution.
  • N = Narrative for Market: When everyone gives their personal best and brings to the innovation sessions a diverse background of experiences, a new narrative that will drive the innovation forms to solidify the vision for the product or service. The ability to explain in simple terms what the innovation does and how people benefit from it drives internal communications and sets up marketing with the necessary tools to promote the solution.

The atmosphere of play not only generates great solutions, but it also energizes people and gives them a reason to come to work every day. This playfulness relaxes the logical side of the brain and empowers the creative side, giving voice to all involved in the innovation process. And, with numerous minds working together from diverse backgrounds, it will generate some great ideas worth developing further.

Playing the game of business is a lot of fun, especially when your team wins an additional chunk of the market. It’s also enjoyable to trouble-shoot in advance of realized market problems to have a solution at the time the market is ready for it. I also find it fun to catch the competition off-guard from the innovation, forcing them to scramble for a “me too” product.

I think it’s time for you to have fun this week innovating.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

 

 

 

 

A Creative Approach to Dealing with Email

person using macbook pro on brown wooden desk

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

We are often flooded with an onslaught of irrelevant data filling our email box. In this day of information overload, we can find ourselves swimming in hundreds of emails that are unrelated to our task at hand. Wading through it not only absorbs our precious time, but it also keeps us from our profitable work that meets our goals and objectives.

A few years ago, I returned from a conference where we had no time allotted to check emails, so I found my mailbox filled with about 1,200 new emails. These were the ones that did not meet the automated filtering system that forwarded most of the mail to other employees while I was out of the office. The stack was deemed to be only answerable by me, but I didn’t have eight hours to properly go through the stack.

I quickly surveyed my associates and asked what they did when there were more emails than time to go through them. One man said to delete them all since the important ones will get a follow-up email. A woman suggested I create a folder, move the emails into it for future consideration, and label the folder with the conference dates. However, she shared how she was still working through the emails from her vacation last year.

The sheer number of unanswered emails was taking a toll on me. The volume of mail increased the number of overwhelming distractions I faced. I could sense that the overload of information was crushing my ability to be creative and come up with simple ideas and solutions. Determining a process for dealing with old emails was mandatory if I wanted my mind freed for important innovative work.

To build the process, I brainstormed the types of emails needing to be addressed:

  1. Irrelevant emails
  2. Project-related emails
  3. Urgent emails
  4. Important emails
  5. Advertisements and advertorials

The most efficient way of handling emails is to only open it once and act on it. The action might be to take steps required by the email, respond to it, review and file it, or delete it. Since taking action is a must when going through emails, I decided to separate the emails before opening.

Delete Ads and Irrelevant Emails

The emails that were clearly an ad or unrelated to my primary function were immediately deleted. I had my mail program reveal the first few lines of each email so I was able to delete items without opening the mail. This allowed me to delete about 300 emails.

File Project Emails

Since the people I work with use a protocol in the email subject line for ease of searching and sorting, I was able to move project files into their appropriate folders for review during my next scheduled project time. Unopened mail that is moved into a folder is still highlighted as not yet having been read, allowing me to know exactly which emails to read first. This action allowed me to schedule about 400 emails to a time slot booked for the project it pertained to.

Take Immediate Action on Urgent Emails

There were about 50 emails requesting my immediate attention, but only seven that actually needed my attentiveness. After taking care of the seven, I made quick decisions on what the remaining required for true next steps. This was important since some people’s urgent matters aren’t my problem. My decisions need to be based on what was urgent for me, not others.

Schedule Important Emails

There were about 100 emails that I’d consider important. I scheduled a handful of 30-minute response blocks of time throughout the week to work on the important items. Some of the emails only required me to assign projects to key players, while others required my time. The goal was to do a little bit every day until all the important items had been handled.

Outside of the above sorting categories, were about 350 emails that needed some action, but may or may not have had any level of importance. I quickly scanned the emails and made immediate decisions on the level of action required. All but about a dozen emails ended up in the trash.

I use the Gmail search engine for my emails because it gives me the most control available. Not only can I search by customer or project, but I can also search by what I don’t want included in the search.

For instance, let’s say I’m searching for legal files under project code TNT, but I don’t want any of Anthony’s emails in the output results. In the search bar, I type: TNT attorney -Anthony. This gives me all coded emails that include the attorney while leaving out all emails with Anthony’s name. The simple use of the minus sign reduced my output results from 1,633 documents down to 5, of which I opened the one I needed.

By maintaining a process for sorting through an overload of emails frees us up to innovate. Instead of eating up hours of our day trying to catch up, we can take relevant action immediately. And, we can open key project emails during project billable times instead of administrative times—making the reading of emails profitable.

© 2019 by CJ Powers