Archive for March 2012
Everyone uses a grid to sift the events and inputs of any given day. Your grid is your life experience that informs how you hear and see everything: all that you’ve read. How you’ve experienced life. The dark and bright sides of life you’ve experienced. Nerd or jock. Pretty or not: all of this speaks to how you hear conversation and how you interpret actions. Even your intentions and dreams are part of the grid.
Over at MultiCultClassics, the bloggist(s) sees ads and news through a grid of inequality. Copyranter uses a polarizing screen to force communication events into best or worst categories, with little in between. At church on Sunday the teacher reads an ancient text through a doctrine developed centuries later, invariably forcing the ancient author to say what the author never meant. Werner Herzog reads Curious George showing one species making a buffoon of another (what, you thought Curious George was a kid’s story?).
But there is no escaping our grid. We’ve always been a subjective species. Always will be. The best we can do is identify the baggage we carry that holds us to our interpretations. And it’s best if we can be honest with each other about where we are coming from when we read this text, or interpret that comment.
Honesty about how we understand things makes for good conversation.
Now. This very moment—long before you have a clue what you are doing. This sounds different from what Young said. Young said go slow, gather your material and masticate. Chew it over. And keep chewing. I agree with Young but with this addition: trick your mind into engaging the problem by jumping all the way to the end before even beginning to gather. Then go back to Young’s process.
Writing the end result out of ignorance does this: you know you’ll write dreck so your internal Editor-Nazi takes a nap while your inner poet-child scrawls all over the wall with red crayon. When you wake up the next day and look at the terrible mess the poet-child made, you recognize a couple very productive words that hint at where this thing needs to go. Sometimes those words or images drill to the internal core of the problem you might never have guessed at with all your precious process.
Image Credit: Oliver Barrett via 2headedsnake
How To Think Visually?
Thinking visually and combining words and images is something of a kaleidoscope experience. Especially for the English major. These folks love words and regularly ask them to leap and dance and bite and romance. English majors have been going steady with words for years. I’m asking these people to see others—but it’s not about two-timing your fascinating Helvetica friends. Just add an image to the mix and step back: did the image just comment on the words—or vice versa? Did the words explain the image? Or did the words supply a subtle subtext that subverted the image? Or vice-versa? Now we’re spinning the kaleidoscope and it is all sorts of (kinda nerdy) fun.
Hint: Don’t Start With The Google Machine.
The temptation is to type your first thought into the search bar and see what images pop. This lazy approach will be at least mildly amusing and completely distracting for the next 73 minutes. There is a more productive way to begin: pen and paper. Any number of artists and writers will tell you that working through potential ideas in the isolation of a blank page helps you focus. The drill is to do it again and again. Page after page. Hour after hour. Until you can’t stand it anymore. From all that terrible, worthless dreck that you would never show your mother let alone the cute human in your Classics class, pick the two or possibly three that don’t make you wretch. That are kinda ok. Google those.
The key is to get your brain working and keep it working long enough that your subconscious takes up the project, freeing you to walk around the lake or pull a prank on your roommate.
You will produce something in this manner.
Try it and tell me if it worked.
Below: dreck. Maybe an ad came from it. Maybe not.
In Freelance Copywriting (Eng3316) we’ve started producing work in earnest and every week (including tomorrow) another student piece moves into their portfolio. All the students have signed up for work they’ve never tried before—ad concepts, radio scripts instructional booklets, and many other forms. All according to where their writing passions are leading them.
One thing I love about copywriting is learning new stuff. Whether it’s asking a doctor questions during brain surgery or watching a silicon wafer get doped and fired or learning about the medicines Lewis and Clark used (forced marches and blood-letting seemed to resolve a lot of their ailments). There is no end to fascination with how the world works. Putting what I learned into words (and images) electrifies the whole task: spooling out my argument and helping show why anyone would care what the patient said while the doctor probed his frontal lobe, or why ramping quickly to 900 degrees centigrade matters when firing a wafer or why Dr. Rush’s bilious pills had such a strong…(ahem) purging effect—it’s a puzzle that rewards more as I attend to it. Words and ideas are the puzzle pieces. The goal is to engage very particular audiences (with much shorter sentences than I’ve used here). James W. Young would call this the gather and masticating stages of the process. How could you not love this work?
Part of the research is figuring out what makes a good print ad. Or what makes radio spot compelling. In other words, what forms have people used to tell these stories in the past and how do we use these forms today? Or do we pick a new form (which typically means recycling another older form)? These are questions we answer again and again as we look at what’s being done today and revisit the best of the best.
But love of learning is the engine. And putting things into words is the transmission. These are the bare bones vehicle of a copywriter.
Image via Copyranter
Old Volkswagen Station Wagons never die.
In several classes at Northwestern College we’ve talked about what makes something remarkable, as in, “Hey, let me tell you about this thing I saw….” The Heath brothers tried to parse out the secret of remarkable in Made to Stick, and did a good job noting six principles that make something sticky. But in our Social Media Marketing and now in Freelance Copywriting classes, we’re noting “remarkable” is less science and more art.
Was this ad remarkable in 1966 when DDB’s Marvin Honig wrote it for Volkswagen? Maybe. It is remarkable now because of the nostalgic, iconic bus—just look at the shape of that thing! But for me it is the story telegraphed from inside the bus and at the center of the image: the small businessman waiting to sell you some chili. The copy plays out the story benefit by benefit. Sure—you know you are being sold, but you’re willing to walk right into the story for the 26 seconds it takes to read the copy.
The ad is remarkable in retrospect because of the place this vehicle took in American culture. The story is in the ad, and the story in the ad played out in real life. Surely “remarkable” has something to do with reflecting real life. That’s where things get sticky.
Read the copy here.
Anyone who writes for a living or who must regularly produce creative solutions knows the best ideas are typically not the first ideas.
I’m about to begin teaching a freelance copywriting class at Northwestern College and I’m guessing there will be some who will submit copy they’ve done at the last minute: something thrown together to meet the assignment requirements, but just barely.
I hope college students don’t remember college as the place where they learned to do the least at the last minute to see how much they can get away with. This is not a great attitude to take into the workplace. And it is a fatal if you work on your own, because it leeches craftsmanship (and joy) from the work itself. And craftsmanship—care for the work itself—is one of two key elements in meaningful work. The other element is learning how to serve someone else’s needs and finally get over yourself.
When I brainstorm for an ad or a bit of copy I fill up pages and pages with pure dreck. Worthless stuff that only serves to get my keyboard moving. And then, at some point, one bit of dreck solidifies into a line that is sort of ok. Or a direction that makes sense. But that only comes after the pages of dreck. Occasionally it comes first, but I need the pages of dreck to help me realize any possible or potential brilliance.
How does that work in conversations? Same way. The first stuff we
way say is obvious and not that interesting. The first conversations of a cross-country car trip have a vanilla flavor. But by the time you’ve arrived at New York to catch a flight to Europe, you know the deep hurts and high joys of everyone in your car, and you’ve somehow settled on a series of jokes about fast food restaurants or particular car types that leave you all gasping for air because they are so funny. It takes time and sustained attention to get to that place where the good stuff comes out. It’s almost like you invent the context for familiarity as you go.
This is the way for lots of satisfying things. And it is the way for ordinary conversations. I’m learning to dwell in a conversation. To not rush it. To give myself and other space to breathe so that they (and I) feel free to let come what may. And that can be uncomfortable because silence is awkward for us. Soap opera stars lock their eyes in those silences. In a cross-country car ride you look out the window. In a conversation, you just…look…and wait. But the silence works to lube thoughts. Resist the urge to move to the next thing. Resist the urge to pull out your phone. Wait for it. Because eventually something will come along that changes everything.
On Tuesday I start teaching Freelance Copywriting (Eng3316) at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. These are junior and seniors largely from the English department, but also from Journalism, Communications and Business. They are generally excellent writers and engaged students—people eager to take their faith into the street. We’ll use a few thought-provoking texts that deal with the business side of copywriting, along with the what to expect as a copywriter and how to get better at producing salable ideas (Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer, Iezzi’s The Idea Writers, Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas). But I’ve become convinced the real-time critiques of working copywriters around the web are just as helpful if not more useful than our texts. It’s just that the language and images used in the critiques often veer outside the lines of nice and polite, though I would argue the critiques follow the line of conversation Jesus the Christ encouraged with regular people like me.
I’ve devised a warning:
Question: Is this overkill? My goal is to help prepare thoughtful writers who fold God’s message of reunion into their communication work and live it out in a world that operates on a very different basis. I think students will understand. I’m not sure the administration will.
What do you think?
Image Credit: Chris Buzelli via 2headedsnake