By Roy H. Williams
In an over-communicated society, predictability is the enemy of effective writing.
A recent Yankelovich study tells us that Americans are confronted by more than 5,000 selling messages per day – radio and television and magazines and newspapers and billboards floating on an ocean of store signage, posters, point-of-purchase displays and product packaging - each one hoping to gain our eyes, ears and attention.
No wonder we’ve become so adept at filtering ads from our consciousness. Those time-consuming piranhas are out to eat us alive.
And they do it so painfully predictably.
I’m troubled when writers tell me they want to learn to “think outside the box.” I always want to ask, “Why do you climb into the box to begin with?”
The box is a self-focused perspective.
Predictable ads are spawned when you sit inside the box and begin asking predictable questions: “What makes us different and better than our competitors? What makes us special?” Having focused your approach inward, on yourself, instead of outward, on your customers, your thoughts will accelerate in an ever-tightening spiral as you circle the drain.
Predictable opening statements are born inside the box.
I have a love/hate relationship with a certain bit of stagecraft I use when speaking publicly. The bit is always a crowd pleaser; that’s the part I love. But most of the audience misses the point; that’s the part I hate. They gasp and laugh and clap and I say to them, “This looks like a magic trick, I know, but it’s really very easy. You can do it, I promise. Just give it a try.” But they never believe me.
The stagecraft begins when I ask everyone in the room to write a statement that would catch the ear of any person who overheard it. “The statement doesn’t have to make sense,” I say, “It just needs to be larger than life, evocative, difficult to ignore. The kind of statement that would make a passing stranger turn and say, ‘Huh?’”
I then ask 6 volunteers to bring their statements onto the stage. “I’m now going to craft real ads for real businesses using the statements written on those papers as the opening lines for the ads. Do I have any business owners in the room?” Six business owners take the stage. I randomly pair them up with the colorful statement-holders. I have no idea what businesses are on stage or what statements are written on those papers.
I owe Tom Robbins (not to be confused with Tony) for this little bit of stagecraft. In a magazine interview that accompanied the release of his novel, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, Tom said, “Everything in the universe is connected, of course. It’s a matter of using imagination to discover the links, and language to expand and enliven them.”
“Business owner number one. Tell me about your business.”
“I have a plumbing company.”
“Name a profit center you’d like to improve.”
“I’d like to get more calls for our 24-hour emergency service.”
“Crazy person number one. What did you write on your paper?”
“I came home and the dog was bald.”
The room roars with laughter as I walk to the front of the stage and balance there - my toes hanging over the edge - as 2,000 people hold their breath.
“I came home and the dog was bald. I haven’t been that surprised since I woke up at 2AM to pee and stepped out of bed into an inch of water. Thank god Martindale Plumbing never goes to sleep. At 2AM they were just sittin’ there, hoping someone would call. They fixed the problem while I made coffee. Great guys. Thank god for Martindale Plumbing, 24 hours a day. But I still got no idea what to do with a bald dog.”
That would be a television or radio script.
Here’s what it would look like as an email:
SUBJECT: I came home and the dog was bald.
[Likewise, everyone who saw that headline in a magazine ad, a flyer or a brochure would pick it up and read it. The other 4,999 messages today be damned.]
That whole exchange between me and the business owner smelled like a set-up, right? If you were in that audience, you’d probably suspect I had planted those people in the crowd. Like I said, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with this particular bit of stagecraft. Along with the fact that no one believes THEY can do it, half of them don’t believe I can do it, either.
But not only can I do it, you can, too. “Everything in the universe is connected, of course. It’s a matter of using imagination to discover the links, and language to expand and enliven them.”
The keys to Chaotic Ad Writing are:
1. Randomly force upon yourself a colorful opening statement BEFORE you know what you’re going to write about.
2. Look for the defining characteristic(s) of that statement.
“I came home and the dog was bald.” (surprise)
“I really need to fart.” (embarrassment)
“Her funeral was a day late because the cement vault for her coffin didn’t arrive.” (1. death, 2. Loss and mourning, 3. Dark, claustrophobic enclosure)
By the way, those are 3 actual statements I was given in a single city.
3. Interview the owner of the business. Learn what they most want to sell. Use the defining characteristic of your opening statement as the angle of approach into your body copy.
…the dog was bald.” (Surprise)
…stepped out of bed into an inch of water.” (Surprise)
The business to which I needed to connect the “fart” line was a 156 year-old historic wedding chapel. No problem. I just placed that thought into the mind of the groom as he stood at the altar with his bride. His moment of relief, “ahhhh,” comes when the organist begins blasting the traditional wedding exit music.
The business to which I had to connect the “coffin” line was “Florida’s Space Coast, 30 miles of pristine beaches and Kennedy Space Center, with an IMAX theater inside.” The goal is tourism. Convince people to vacation there.
Go ahead. Give it a shot.