Category: Creativity

Kill Your Television (Here’s Why…)

 

According to research collected by the Nielsen Ratings Service, the Washington Post, and several D.C. research groups… 

* Only 17% of all Americans can name any three members of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, 59% of Americans could name all Three Stooges. 

* In the average home, the television is on for 7 hours and 40 minutes per day. 

* From January to September of the 2004 presidential elections, the major candidates spent $342 million on issue-based TV ads. 61% of those ads were centered on attacking the character and track record of the opposing candidate. 

* Those totals ran much higher for the 2008 election.

* The amount of television shown to negatively impact a child’s academic performance is 10 hours per week. 

* The average child between ages 2 and 17, however, watches 19 hours and 40 minutes per week. 

* That’s the equivalent of about 43 straight days of TV-watching per year. 

* 75% of U.S. teenagers know that the Beverly Hills zip code is “90210”; only 25% know the U.S. Constitution was written in Philadelphia. 

* 54% of 4 to 6 year olds report they’d rather watch TV than spend time with their fathers. 

* The brain waves you experience while watching television — almost regardless of what you’re watching at the time — are less active than those you experience while driving on long stretch of straight highway or even while sleeping.

* Your metabolic rate also runs about 16% slower when you’re just sitting there watching TV. No wonder “couch potatoes” are so quick to plump up.

I know this isn’t exactly an issue with a clear correlation to the world of copywriting. The bottom line is, however, we’re better thinkers when we’re less active watchers. Do yourself and the world a favor.  Kill your television.

P.S. Strangely enough, a new study from the University of California shows that Internet use can actually boost your brain power. Especially in people ages 50 and up. Especially if you’re regularly reading sites like this one ; )

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Scientific Study Asks, “Are You Creative?”

HomerQuick — do any of these apply to you?

 * Ideational Fluency – Someone gives you a word. The more sentences, ideas, and associations you can match to that word, the more likely it is you’re a “creative type.”

 * Variety and Flexibility – Someone gives you an object, say a garden hose. How many different things can you do with it? The more you can think of, the better.

 * Original Problem Solving – Someone presents you with a puzzle or a problem. Beyond the conventional solution, how many other workable but uncommon solutions can you come up with?

 * Elaboration – How far can you carry an idea? That is, once you have it, can you build on it until you can actually carry it out in application?

 * Problem Sensitivity – When someone presents you with a problem, how many challenges related to that problem can you identify? More importantly, can you zero in on the core or most important challenge?

 * Redefinition – Take a look at the same problem. Can you find a way to look at it in a completely different light?

Say researchers published in Scientific American, while their isn’t really a measurable “Creativity Quotient” (C.Q.) that they can pin to any set standard, it just so happens that a lot of creative people share some or all of the traits I just told you about.

How’d you fare?

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How to Write Faster

Regardless of what kind of writing you do, says a study from the National Writing Project of Louisiana, three key components seemed to have the biggest influence on how creatively productive you’ll be.  What are those components?

1) A More Consistent Working Environment:

Almost all of the writers in the study had a designated ‘place’ where they did all their best writing.  Simply being there gave them focus. I concur.  I can write almost anywhere — but I prefer dark, quiet spaces.  I travel a lot, but have a designated spot in each of the five spaces I typically find myself in during a given year.

I also need certain “supplies” to get going.  A long yellow legal pad or a tab of French graph paper.  Black Bic pens.  My ever-present Macbook Pro.

Environment includes sound, of course.  Personally, I work best with dead quiet.  Or sometimes, music.  But anything with lyrics is poison.  I know other many other writers –including copywriters — who agree.

Classical or jazz.  Bach Cello Suites or the Goldberg Variations.  Chopin Etudes.  Beethoven’s piano sonatas.  “Kind of Blue” or “Some Day My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis.  Old Coltrane (but not the crazier, more recent stuff).

(Caveat: I know at least one brilliant copywriter who keeps the TV droning on in the background!  I couldn’t do it.  But it works for him.)

2) A Set Time For Working:

If you’re a freelancer, working outside of an office environment, this might be a hard truth to face. Yet, almost all the writers in the study said they wrote better if they did so at a certain time, the same time, every single day.

And best of all, if you write in the morning. I know, I know. I sympathize with anyone who says they prefer to work at night. I used to be one myself. But having young kids, who don’t understand why Dad won’t come away from the computer, has changed that. And for the better.

Not only am I much more productive when I get good work done early, but I’m happier too. And yes, all the best copywriters I know also get started early.  And not just early, but make sure the first thing you do is start working on your largest project, too.  No e-mails.  No phone calls.  Writing first, trivial stuff later.

(Remember when there was no email? Could you imagine wasting two hours a day sending and receiving faxes with your buddies? Of course you couldn’t. Just because email is more automatic doesn’t mean it’s any better for you.)

And then there’s the intelligent use of deadlines, as long as we’re talking about time for writing. Even daily deadlines. It’s the pressure — the end goal — that makes you move more quickly. Consider the famous Eugene Schwarz story. Everyday, to get himself started, he’d set his egg timer to 33.33 minutes. Then he sat down to write, even if it just meant staring at the blank page until beads of blood formed on his forehead.

3) Last, Rituals that Boost Confidence

This last component — writer’s behavior rituals — was the broadest category of observed creativity patterns.

It’s critical to how productive you are.  Unfortunately, it’s the most ambiguous.

For instance, some of the rituals writers had in the Louisiana study didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing at all.

Sharpening pencils.  Wearing lucky sweaters.  Using a certain coffee mug.  The theory was that the consistency of the rituals bred confidence, and helped melt away potential “writer’s block” anxiety.

That may be true.  What seems just as true is that some rituals manage to mildly distract your senses so your subconscious can get to work.

Walking, for example, seems to work for writers. The next time you’re feeling around for an idea, fast track it by filling up your mind with information about what you hope to sell… and then stepping outside for a stroll.

If not that, then a drive.  Or a shower.

4) Bonus Tip:

You say you’ve tried all that and you’re still stuck?

Try re-working your diet.  The January 19 issue of “Science” reports a single protein in the brain – SCN – that controls your entire ‘master clock,’ allowing you to feel awake or tired, hot or cold, bleary or focused, etc.

Just two days of tinkering with eating schedules in lab rats threw off the SCN balance in the brain.

Eating a light, protein-centric breakfast can help you stay focused on anything.  Lunch, on the other hand, should be light or even skipped. A lot of people claim they can think better on an empty stomach (yours truly included).

I hope all those ideas help.

Okay, some more last minute ways to get jumpstarted — most of them, a rehash of ideas we’ve talked about in past issues.  Ready? Write out ideas on index cards.  Talk ideas into a tape recorder. Sketch out the pages of your promo, even before writing a single word.  Copy a strong lead paragraph two or three times. Go to bed early tonight.  Study the outline behind your last great promo.  Start re-reading your pile of research from top to bottom. Good luck!

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A Lucky Accident

mail1I got a note awhile ago from consultant Bob Serling

Bob writes:

“Years ago, I was using a print broker for some of my mailings. She had been referred to me by a direct marketing legend whose identity I’ll protect.

“At the same time the broker was sheperding my mailing, she was also doing a large project for “the legend”. The job was so large that she split the printing between two different printers.

“I was a seed name on the legend’s list and when I received my copy of his sales letter, it turned out that it had been stuffed with the pages completely out of order. I alerted both the legend and the print broker of the error. Checking with other seed names confirmed that one of the printers assembled and stuffed all their pieces out of order.

“But here’s the kicker: the piece that was out of order pulled a stronger response than the piece with the pages in the correct order! I told the broker at the time that I could only assume that having the pages out of order forced the reader to dig through the piece and pay more attention.

“Final point: The legend then had the gall to ask the print broker for a make-good on the improperly ordered pieces.”

Thanks Bob. Gotta love it when a mistake suddenly shows you something about the customer you never expected. And when one of my CR readers (if you haven’t signed up yet, drop your name in the email box to the right of this page) writes in with a great lesson worth sharing!

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The Two Best Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

twriterAn interviewer once asked me, “How do you tackle writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block?” I said. “What’s that?”

Seriously, I don’t much believe in writer’s block. Oh, there have been times I don’t know what to write. And even times I’ve felt a little desperate about that. But I’ve never been afraid or unaware of how to plow right through it. Why? Because I don’t think blocked writing is where the problem originates.

See, most of the time, I believe what stops a writer from writing isn’t a lack of output at all. It’s a lack of input.

When I find myself losing steam, I stop and read. Then I start taking notes. Before I realize it, I’m chasing a new and original idea all over the page. And more often than not, an idea that doesn’t appear at all in the thing I first picked up to read for inspiration.

That’s the most immediate “cure-all.” Then, like any ailment, there are long-term steps you can take. Some include other ways to get more input. Like making sure you stick around people who will talk intelligently about what you’d like to write about. Pick up the phone, raise the topic in the right company, invite smart people to lunch and get them chattering.

But one of the best “curatives” many writers overlook is to simply try writing — anything — more often. How’s that? So many writers, especially newbies, imagine they get blocked when they pour out too much of their best stuff onto the page. They think of the well containing a limited quantity of ideas.

Nothing could — or at least should — be farther from the truth.

What really happens when you write often, preferably on a fixed schedule, is that you get more accustomed to the habit of writing and your brain is mixing and matching all those inputs you come across, in constant preparation for the next scheduled session in front of that blank, blinking screen.

Try it. You’ll be surprised.

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The Positioning Myth

Sponsor: “Then They Handed Bob a Check for $60,000…”

You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain

What does it mean to “position” a product? According to Harry Beckwith, author of “Selling the Invisible,” it doesn’t mean a thing. He writes, “‘Position’ is a noun, not an active verb.”

So what is it  then that other marketing mavens the world over keep babbling about? No doubt, the process of establishing a product’s “positioning” matters big time for marketers. But, if you listen to Beckwith, there’s a misconception about how to go about that. The good news is, getting a product’s position right can mean doing LESS work rather than more.

But before we get to all that…

The Big Mistake Many “Branding” Pros Make

In the classic marketing book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” authors Trout and Ries made it clear. In any marketing challenge, you often get one shot at staking out your territory inside your customer’s cranium.

You’re done for after that.

Either you’ll get it right and have loyal customers lined up at your back door, ad infinitum… or you’ll blow it and spend a fortune trying to re-invent their perception of you, possibly for years to come.

It’s a sound insight.

And the so-called art of “branding” products claims to be built on that bedrock. But here’s where a lot of “branding” pros have gotten a wrong idea. A lot of brand-based marketers think their job is to build from the ground up. To force some idea on the customer where it never existed before.

But as Beckwith’s book points out, this is backward.

What you’re really doing, if you’re doing it right, is leveraging the mental positioning you’ve already got.

Four “Branded” Building Blocks

So what makes for unshakeable, effective positioning? Here’s how Beckwith boils it down…

1) To sell well, you need to decisively occupy a single position in your prospect’s mind

2) That single position must be stripped of complexity and ambiguity. Simple is best.

3) That single position has to be different from the position your competitors occupy.

4) You can’t be everything to everybody. You have to sacrifice claims on what lies outside the position you occupy.

You can see the thread that runs through this. When faced with the challenge of product positioning, what Beckwith says to start with is not so much to complicate customer perceptions by adding something new…

But to simplify your pitch so it focuses on what’s already there, defining what’s most fundamental and unique about it.

Isn’t it a relief to know that, when you want to sell more, sometimes doing LESS is actually best? 

Why Simple Sells Best

Last weekend, I taught a writing class, as part of a seminar. We did one exercise where, in small groups, we critiqued each other’s writing. What was the one most common mistake, above all others? A failure to answer a single, simple question. And, by the way, it’s a question you have to ask yourself every time you sit down to write…

“What is this about?”

I had a similar experience a week earlier. An old friend and mentor sent me a promo written by another copywriter. The copy had many problems. But it’s primary weakness, above all others, was that it also failed to ask — and answer — the question: “What is this about?”

Don’t get this message wrong. By simplicity, I’m not saying “short copy works better.” Or anything even close to that.

 Rather, the key is relevance.

 You can say plenty — and often get better results doing it — as long as every syllable is relevant to what your prospect cares about.

Finding What Matters, Ignoring the Rest

Beckwith offered seven clarifying questions that help marketers define a product position. For the sake of space and — well — clarity, I narrowed that list even further.

In short…

Who are your customers?

What do they want?

And finally, how does that match a primary benefit only YOU can deliver?

Your “product position” depends on how well you answer those questions.

Miss the mark, and the gap between what they see and what you want them to see will run wide. Nail it and suddenly selling everything gets simpler. Easier said than done?

Two words: Look closer.

Often the difference between a creative and non-creative answer to a problem is simply exposure. The deeper you’ve got your arms in the details, the more you ‘get’ what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to.

 It’s really that simple.

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How Curiosity Can Save a Copywriter

questionsSomebody once asked David Ogilvy for a list of traits that matter most when hiring copywriters. Above all, he said, they have to have an unwavering, overpowering, enormous sense of curiosity.

I can’t help but think that has to be right. Why?

Because sometimes you need to dig deep — really deep –into a product, a target audience, and so much more to find that one gem that’s going to make your ad sing better, louder, and more in tune than all your attention-seeking competitors. And frankly, those who are uninterested in the world too readily give up before they find that one gem.

Of course, that means you stumble across a lot of stuff you don’t need too. And a lot of trivia that just grabs hold of you. And you never know when that trivia is going to come in handy, popping up in your copy when you least expect it. This is one reason, of course, why you never want to play Trivial Pursuit against a very good copywriter.

But it’s also why I’ve piled up a lot of little facts that I don’t know what to do with. Except maybe, share them here. Are you ready? File these, if you like, in the drawer labeled “truly useless information”…

  • Did you know that King Louis XIV once locked up a nine-year old boy in his dungeon for making a joke about his Royal Highness’ bald head? Yep. And he kept him there, too. Agents of the court told the distraught and wealthy parents the boy had simply disappeared. But they knew where he was — in the basement of Versailles, for the next sixty-nine years. Sheesh.
  • Did you know, too, that you’ll never see a rainbow in mid-afternoon? They only appear later in the day or in the morning, when the sun is 40 degrees or less above the horizon (that’s position, not temperature). Meanwhile, there are approximately 1,800 thunderstorms in progress at any given time during the day. And at lest 100 lightning strikes on the planet any given second.
  • Did you further know that, while nearly 25% of the world’s population lives on less than $200 per year, it costs more to buy a new car in the U.S. than it cost Christopher Columbus to equip and undertake not just one but THREE voyages to the New World?
  • Peter Mustafic of Botovo, Yugoslavia, spoke nary a word for 40 years. Suddenly, he broke the silence. When asked by a local newspaper why, he said, “I stopped speaking in 1920 to get out of military service.” Yes, they prodded, but… uh… then what happened? “Well,” he answered, “I got used to it.”
  • Please read the following passage quietly to yourself for the next 30 seconds. Ready? Here it is: “ .” Congratulations. You have just performed the entire Samuel Beckett play, “Breath,” first introduced to the stage in April 1970. Without actors or dialogue. Even the original presentation lasted only half a minute.
  • Don’t wear blue unless you like mosquitoes. They’ll target blue twice as often as any other color. If it’s a female, she’ll even bite (since it’s only the females that do.)
  • Did you know that Peter the Great had any Russian who wore a beard pay a special tax? Good thing Chopin wasn’t living in Russia then — apparently the composer/pianist habitually wore half a beard. Reason? “When I play, my audience only sees half my face.” No kidding.

Will you ever find a use for these tidbits? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s hoping you do.

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The Simple Secret of… Complexity?

wineprThere’s a book, “Making Sense of Wine,” by author Matthew Kramer.

In it, Kramer writes: “What constitutes quality in wine?… The single greatest standard used in assessing a wine’s quality is its complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it — in the bouquet, in the taste — the more complex the wine.”

Could the same lesson apply to writing articles, ezines, or sales letters?

If it is, it’s one that flies in the face of conventional web wisdom. Usually, the writer’s mantra is “K.I.S.S.” (Keep It Simple Stupid). And most of the time, this rule works just fine. As does another you’ve seen me talk about here or in the weekly CR e-letter (sign up if you haven’t already), called the principle of “The Power of One.” The idea being that when you want to get a message across, the tither you can bundle it up for the reader, the better.

Yet, we also know that writing — especially the kind of writing we do in sales letters and even more so, editorially — is more and more about building relationships. And aren’t relationships built layer upon layer with complexities?

Here’s more from Kramer…

“It appears that we are, in fact, set up to respond favorable to complexity. Decades of work in experimental psychology have revealed that when people are free to choose between a simple visual image and a more complex one, they gravitate to the complex… Even our alleged neurological compatriot, the laboratory rat, has demonstrated a preference, over time, for more complex stimuli over simple.”

But if that’s true, doesn’t the idea of “keeping it simple” fall apart?

Kramer continues: “One researcher in the field employs the notion of disorder or entropy. The more things are jumbled, the more ‘information’ can be conveyed at one time. The trick is our ability to sort it out and make it meaningful. In short, there must be both pattern and complexity for sustained interest… For something to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise us and yet we must be able to grasp these surprises as part of a larger and pleasing pattern.”

Rich. Complex. Consistently surprising.

That’s the juice we seem to want to squeeze not just out of grapes, but life. At least according to what Kramer’s saying. If we accept this as true, maybe there’s still a way to reconcile this insight and the one about the power of simplicity.

First, I’d say that yes, the relationship one builds with readers, either from the first paragraph of a piece of copy to the last or over a series of articles or issues or blog posts does need to grow and evolve. And as anyone knows, evolution is never simple.

Still, this doesn’t mean you can just jumble your ideas together. Even rich and layered relationships are united by a few very simple goals. Maybe even one simple goal, depending on whom you talk to. Even in a sales letter that drills home on one distinct message, the copy does many things to build trust, nurture a sense of urgency, intensify desire, and so on.

Second, I’d say that you can never discount the power of passion behind written ideas. You can’t write well about something you don’t believe in. And you write better about things you believe in strongly. I say this because passion about ideas, it seems to me, is the glue between the “power of one” single idea insight… and the context of complexity in which it can still be couched.

Yes?

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Idea Angst and How to Beat It

padandpenYou hear a lot about something called “writer’s block.”

Then there’s that thing we all used to get when most writing was done with a pencil, called “writer’s cramp.”

This, not to be confused with “writer’s camp,” when a gaggle of would-be-novelists disappear into the Maine woods to drink wine and avoid their manuscripts.

Then there’s what I call “writer’s angst.”

What’s that?

Back when I was going to an office to work rather than working from my “office” at home (a comfortable chair in our living room), I was standing at a bus stop reading a good book.

This, mind you, was not just any bus stop. It’s a block from the apartment we use while in Paris, on a sun-dappled and leafy, on a corner of the Quai de la Tournelle and the Pont de l’Archêché. Boats float down the Seine nearby. The gothic towers of Notre Dame shadow the river. Parisians stroll past while les bouquinistes set up shop.

It was a beautiful day, after almost a week of chill and rain. The breeze fluttered the leaves. And in that moment before a moment, I had just been thinking how much better this was than a 45 commute through traffic to a cubicle in an office park.

But suddenly, it hit me. Out of the blue, a week’s worth of research for a new promo suddenly gelled together. No, collided. Like a tangle of monkeys on bicycles.

Headlines and leads… points and counterpoints… resistance-melting proofs… a battering close… phrases, metaphors, images, and subheads…

It was good stuff and I knew it. Too good to lose. I had to stop reading, for fear that the words in the book might drown my idea. God willing, I thought, nobody would talk to me. Where the h**l was that bus? I fingered the metro ticket in my pocket.

I looked at my watch.

I had exactly 20 minutes from here to my keyboard. Would I make it in time? That big old elevator was so slow. It would take three minutes to climb the stairs. Did I have a pen anywhere? Something to write on? Maybe in my bag. Where the h*ll is that bus?

Ah wait, here’s a pen. Maybe I can get this down on the blank inside cover of the book. Here’s the bus. C’mon people, file in. Show him your ticket. Tourist… question… fumbling in English. Let’s get this thing moving!

Scenery, great. Fountains. Cool. What’s with all this traffic? Getting out, walking from the stop, punching in the door code, up the creaky wood stairs, at the desk, opening the laptop… I made it. Someone says hello, but I’m already typing. It’s in. On the page. Phew.

Years ago, I wanted to be a novelist. And I remembered what a fiction teacher in college once warned us. “You’re not really a writer,” he said, “until you can’t wait to get to your office… or get home, if you have to… to write.”

Now I’m a copywriter instead.

But really, when we’re talking process, is there that much of a difference?

Aside from the pay, I mean. (Holler “copywriter” in a New York restaurant, and someone will hand you a business card. Holler “novelist” and someone will come out of the kitchen and hand you another dinner roll.)

The bottom line is simple: Every kind of productive writer spends time in the chaos of ideas, the maelstrom of data and research that marks the start of a new project. This is the whole theory, by the way, behind James Webb Young’s already short book, “A Technique For Producing Ideas.”

For instance, think about what it’s like — or should be like — to start from scratch with a new client or product. You end up throwing yourself completely into the research, from the ground up, with the hopes of knowing the thing you’re writing about better than the insiders themselves.

At first it’s too much. A mess of notions, no clear thread linking them together. You’re sure it will never make sense. Then it does. In an instant. And it’s all you can do to type fast enough to get it down. You need this to happen. But you cannot will it to happen. The connecting ideas, it turns out, find you. Not the other way around.

You can no more order yourself to be creative than you can order a dog to sneak up on its tail.

What you can do, however, is steep yourself in reports, in articles, in books, in recorded interviews and conversations, in related websites and — for our purposes — past promos and brochures. What you pour in, you’ll get back out. Organized by your subconscious. Stuff it in, pack it in, sit on top of it and pound if you have to.

Then take a walk. Take a shower. Go stand at the bus stop and wait.

Just make sure you’ve got a pen handy when you do.

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