“A story’s a story, no matter how small”

HortonWith apologies to Dr. Seuss, his book Horton Hears a Who gave me an idea for today’s blog post. In the book, we are reminded that “a person’s a person, no matter how small” – but as I was thinking about some of the questions people ask me about my two careers, I realized that writing can also be summed up in this way.

Believe it or not, whether it’s a radio commercial script, a poem, or a picture book (or even a novel, for those of you with longer attention spans than Yours Truly), there are many similarities between them…

Let’s start at the beginning

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: the first line is possibly the most important line you will write.

At his seminars and workshops, radio advertising guru Dan O’Day has stated for years that the first line of a commercial is the “commercial for the commercial.” In other words, the first sentence of a commercial needs to garner enough attention and interest to compel the listener to continue listening and not zone out or – worse – change the channel.

The first line of a poem or book acts in much the same way. It sets up a story, it pulls the reader in, it connects on an emotional level. And not only does the opening draw the reader into the story, it is often the deciding factor on whether or not a consumer purchases said book.

There’s a reason we tend to remember the first lines of books (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and poems (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary”) even if we don’t recall exactly what comes next.

If the first line isn’t compelling, you won’t get anyone past it. And guess what?

The rest of it needs to be compelling, as well!

And then something happened…

The next step is to develop the story by connecting with the reader (or listener) on that emotional level I mentioned. I don’t mean “emotional” as in tear-jerking, chest-clutching, drop-to-your-knees kind of emotion (although it could be)…I simply mean the story and character need to touch the reader or listener in such a way as to stir empathy.

This can be done through imagery, dialogue, word choice, and even humor. If I’m going to write a commercial for a florist, I may choose to set a scene with a husband who wants to surprise his wife for her birthday. If I’m writing a poem about a child playing at a park, I may decide to not let him/her have any playmates, which – while sad – is completely relatable to both kids and adults.

Whatever I do, I want the reader to not feel disappointed he/she continued listening past the first line!

“So, what’s the problem?”

There needs to be some tension, whether it’s through a problem that has been presented or simply through the imagery being described. Maybe your main character has tried fixing that leak in the bathroom and now it’s flooding. Perhaps two lovers are feeling unsure of the next step in their relationship.

Or maybe the old tree in the backyard needs to be taken down, but its bark still bears the scars of think rope once used for swinging.

And did you notice that any one of these scenarios could be used for any genre of writing? The bathroom leaking could be a plumbing commercial, but it might also be ID-100227497 (tree)a short story. The story of the lovers sounds like a poem, but it could be a commercial for a dating service, a jewelry store, or even a condom manufacturer!

That old tree could be the main character in a commercial for tree-cutting services, a metaphorical poem about old age and memory, or a novel about a family coming to terms with its members’ mortality. A story’s a story, after all.

The only place problems get solved

…is in commercials.

This is where the genres split. While a poem, novel, or picture book can conclude in all sorts of satisfying ways, commercials need a solution; it’s why they exist, isn’t it? The whole point of a commercial is to show how problems can be solved.

Other stories can veer off into strange paths: a problem may get solved, only to present another problem; a problem may get solved in such as way as to leave the reader wondering if it really was solved; or it may not get solved at all!

But commercials that don’t solve problems are few and far between.

Don’t take my word for it…

Test out my theory the next time you hear a radio commercial (TV commercials I find too visual for this exercise). Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the first line or two compelling? Is it truly the “commercial for the commercial?” Do they draw me in and make me want to continue listening?
  • Is the premise/problem believable? Is the dialogue natural? Does this “feel” real?
  • Can I relate to the character, premise, or problem that has been presented? Do I feel empathetic to these folks’ plights?
  • If I can’t relate, it is reasonable to assume that there are people out there who can relate to it? (I may not smoke, but there are people who do; I may not own a pet snake, but there are people who do; I may not be a woman, but there are plenty out there.)
  • Is the conclusion satisfying? Was a problem solved – believably?
  • Is this compelling? If not, why?

And by the way…those are the same questions you can ask yourself, once you’ve finished writing your poem, picture book, short story, or novel!

A story’s a story, no matter how small.

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A favour…

I have a quick favour to ask you. It won’t take long, unless you enjoy it.

Before we get to that, I need to explain why I haven’t been around much lately…

First, it’s been an another insanely busy week (I know, I’ve said that before, but I really mean it this time!) I recently wrapped up a marathon radio commercial production project for a good client of mine, American Cottage Rugs. I recorded the owner interview-style, sorted through the 45-55 minutes of her audio, and ended up producing 27 – yes, 27 – radio commercials. Whew!

Plus, I have been trying to finish up a picture book manuscript and get some new Cybils-Logo-2015-Round-Lgquery letters sent out to potential publishers – and I’ve got two other books AND a poetry collection I need to work on. I’m also in the process of tracking down at least five dozen young adult and middle-grade graphic novels (that’s right, I said five dozen!) as part of my responsibilities as a 1st-round panelist for the CYBILS Awards.

My wife and I are also attempting to get several rooms in our house moved and emptied in advance of a) winter and b) major construction work to repair ice dam damage we received last winter. The downstairs playroom will become our bedroom, our bedroom will become our 2-year-old’s room, and her room (the nursery) will become my long-awaited “real” studio. (My current studio is a side room near a common area upstairs – it’s ok, but not ideal)

Oh, and did I mention my wife and I have only been getting 2-3 hours of sleep each night for the past week? It seems our daughter is apparently suffering from something called “separation anxiety” – which means it takes us 2-3 hours to get her to fall asleep, and when she wakes up 3 or 4 times during the course of the night, it’s almost impossible to get her back to sleep. Oy.

Matt Tea 1Anyway, somehow in the midst of all this I managed to finally get my website updated – and this is where you come in! If you have the time and interest, I’d love for you to check it out and see what you think. The biggest change is the landing page, which allows the viewer the option of choosing my voiceover site or my children’s writer site.

If you’ve ever had the uncontrollable urge to learn more about me, your dreams have come true, right HERE! Thanks in advance, and I hope you’re enjoying these cool, colorful autumn days!

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To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-Sm
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When people stop trying

I’ve been noticing something a lot lately. I’ve been noticing spelling errors made by people who are supposed to know how to spell things. I’ve been reading errors in grammar made by people who are supposed to know how to write.

I’ve been hearing things spoken incorrectly by people who get paid to speak.

Is the world becoming more and more full of folks who just don’t care enough to bother, or am I becoming a curmudgeon?

Thankfully, I’m still an exuberant, virile, young man…so the answer appears to be the former.

Dachshund
Poor little guy had no idea he was going to be the basis for a blog post.

Lack of communication in the communications industry

Seriously – what is going on these days? Everywhere I turn I’m bombarded with mistakes made by precisely those people who should not be making these mistakes.
A few examples:

– A radio news reporter was relating a story on-air about a domestic dispute involving a man, his girlfriend, and his dog. When the woman doing the reporting made reference to the man’s “dash-hound,” I had no clue what she was talking about until it occurred to me she apparently had never heard of a dachshund. Granted, the average American might not recognize that word as being pronounced “DAHK-suhnd,” but one of the first lessons in radio I ever learned 25 years ago was, if you don’t know how to pronounce something – ask!

– A local TV news outlet shared a news story on their Facebook page recently, recognizing the anniversary of the discovery of the bodies of two young girls, whose killer is still unknown. The headline noted that the girls have never been found. Now, not to be insensitive, but if their bodies were discovered some 15 years ago, I’m pretty sure the girls aren’t going to pop up anytime soon. Who writes this stuff??

– The other day, I heard a radio commercial I almost couldn’t stand listening to. The audio was thin and distorted, the person speaking sounded completely unenthused about whatever he was talking about, and I can’t even remember what they were selling because I just kept waiting for it to end. The commercial sounded like it had been recorded over a telephone…because it probably had been.

Make an effort, people!

Granted, you may be prone to a malapropism from time to time. You might use less-than-perfect grammar when leaving a Facebook comment. Heck, even I find spelling mistakes in this blog sometimes months after I’ve posted!  But these are examples of glaring errors made by people paid to not make these mistakes.

The person who didn’t know what a “dash-hound” actually mispronounces words all the time; it became a nearly daily occurrence before I stopped listening altogether.

TV news departments have large staffs of people who are paid good money to communicate the news, so grammar and syntax should not be a problem area.

No radio commercial should ever be recorded over the telephone…ever. Even the ones that are written to sound like they’re telephone conversations should be recorded in-studio. The particular commercial in question is either the result of a lazy producer or a sales rep who was given way too much control over the production process.

Grammar-Yoda

Human error…or something worse?

We all make mistakes. As I said, I understand that. But the preponderance of examples such as these leads me to wonder if something else is going on…something much worse.

In each of the three cases I shared above, a simple solution would have been to take one extra step. The radio reporter could have asked someone how to pronounce this word she’s never seen before. The TV news headline writer could have had someone proofread the post first. And the business owner who recorded the awful commercial could have come in to the studio.

But instead, that one extra step was neglected. It could be called laziness or ineptitude.

I prefer to call it apathy.

…and apathy IS worse

Laziness is a human condition, a state of being. Ineptitude is a lack of skills capable of completing a task.

But apathy is a lack of concern for that which one should have concern! Apathy, as inactive as it may seem, is actually a very active thing. It prevents people from producing good work not because they are lazy, inept, or otherwise incapable. It prevents them from performing because they just don’t care.

So whether it’s your job, your marriage, or any kind of project of which you find yourself involved, don’t be apathetic.

Don’t not care.

And if you recognize that you truly don’t care about the project, step back, step aside, or step down – and let someone who does care do the job.

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This just in: I had not even had a chance to hit “post” when a Facebook friend shared this ridiculous headline about an “amphibious” pitcher!  That’s right…he doesn’t just pitch with both hands, folks, he can live underwater, too! Once again, where’s a proofreader when you need one??

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SCVBWI_Member-badge (5 years)Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!
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To keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)
Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

Getting the maximum out of minimalism

As I mentioned last week. I continue to be too busy writing…to write! My children’s writing is keeping me busier than I’ve ever been, which is good, although it’s preventing me from being as consistent with my blog as I should be. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you this post from Oct. 2012 which, although it’s two years old, still makes for some interesting reading, I think. (Then again, I’m the one who wrote it, so what do I know??)

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Sometimes, it pays to keep things simple.

I was reminded of this maxim over the weekend, when I recently came across this blog post from artist and designer Christian Jackson at Square Inch Design.  Jackson took classic children’s tales and rendered them as minimalist posters – basically reducing the stories, characters, and plots into very simple designs that are at once striking, yet instantly familiar.

With all the extraneous stuff out of the way, the viewer is left with just the germ of the story, a simple visual cue that – to anyone who knows the particular story – conjures up images and memories of our favourite parts of each story.

This got me thinking about how we, as creatives, often get carried away in our work and sometimes lose sight of our objectives.  Sometimes, being detail-oriented can be a very good thing.

But sometimes…things don’t need to be as complicated as we try to make them.

“Is the guy running away, or coming down the stairs?”

Details can do wonders.  If you’re writing a book, you may need to expound on the layout of a castle or the idiosyncracies of an antagonist.  If you’re producing a radio commercial, simply having two people talking to each other may not be enough; adding footstep sound effects or outdoor ambience can really flesh out a scene.

(And for those unfamiliar with radio production, ‘footstep’ sound effects are not as cut-and-dry as you might suspect; there are ‘footsteps on gravel,’ ‘footsteps on pavement,’ ‘footsteps going upstairs – cement,’ ‘footsteps going downstairs – wood,’ ‘footsteps running away,’ ‘footsteps coming closer,’ and tons of other variations I won’t bore you with right now.  Talk about details.)

However, there are times when the details just get in the way.

“Spare me the details”

A friend of mine has been working for months on a middle-grade chapter book.  An artist by training, when she first began writing her story, she would spend an entire page just describing a room:  how the tables were set, what the chinaware looked like, what the curtains were made of, what flowers were used for the centerpieces.  It was beautiful writing, flourishing imagery, vivid detail…unfortunately, much of it was irrelevant to the actual storyline.

So she ended up cutting some of her story, revising some of it, and also leaving some of it – and her manuscript is much stronger now because the reader doesn’t lose sight of the plot.

Unless you’re Tom Clancy, there’s no need to spend an entire chapter describing a boat.

Personally, I’ve produced hundreds of radio commercials that required significant details vis-a-vis sound effects or multiple voices, but I have also produced many spots that feature nothing but a voice.  It all depends on the message, and whether or not music or sound effects will add to the listener’s experience or detract from it.

Background music in commercials:  Yes or No?

Maybe.

Clients ask me this question all the time.  I explain to them that music should only be used if it helps propel their message.

Music can create drama, evoke a mood, or act as a transition from one scene to another – but it will not, contrary to what some of my fellow radio programmers say, ‘keep things interesting.’  In a commercial, if the script is not written well enough to create a compelling message, no amount of music will keep a listener from turning the channel.  Likewise, if a message is compelling, why muddle it with an electric piano?

Think about your own life and consider how ridiculous it is to think that music will make a message ‘interesting.’  An excited friend comes up to you to tell you some fantastic news – but you say, “Hold on, there, pal.  Let me find something on my iPod to make our conversation interesting.”

The devil’s in the details

This past July, I decided to leave my position as production director for a 5-station radio group and work from home.  It was a scary decision because of all the unknowns ahead of me – will I make enough money, will I find new clients, etc. – but the clincher was an examination of the details of my life.  My wife and I were amazed when we actually broke things down:

I was spending $400+/month just commuting (not total driving, just commuting).  We were also spending $650/month for daycare for my 2-year-old.  When I added just those two expenses, I realized I was spending nearly an entire paycheck for the privelege of working!  After crunching the numbers, it became apparent that my goal of running my own voiceover business and pursuing my children’s writing was never going to have a chance as long as I kept spending almost $1100 and 245 hours each month just driving and working.

The details of my life were killing my dream!

So I quit the job on good terms, finished building my home studio, and now can work on my voiceover and writing careers while being a stay-at-home dad to my 2-year-old son.  By the way, I highly recommend number-crunching.  It may not sound like fun, but it’s worth it:  I discovered that because of the money I could save, I only needed to make a minimum of $150/week to break even.  (Granted, I plan on making more than $150/week – but that’s my minimum)  With numbers like that, why would I NOT want to move forward??

Just like my friend’s book, editing out some of the details of my life has made my life better.

“Keep it simple, stupid”

The Pizza Margherita is a prime example of the beauty of simplicity.  Just three ingredients – crushed tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella cheese – on a pizza crust.  Yes, you can throw in a little extra virgin olive oil, if you want – but you’d better stop there.  No amount of ‘details’ like garlic, onion, peppers, or anything else are going to make this classic pizza taste any better.  It is a perfect blend of minimal ingredients creating maximum flavour.

Whether it’s a pizza or a poem or an aeronautical system, the more complicated it is, the more trouble you’re asking for.  As Lockheed’s famous engineer, Kelly Johnson, once said, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Remember this the next time you get stuck writing, producing, or creating.  Take a look at your project and ask yourself if the details are needed, if they drive the plot, if they’re important for the goal…or if they are a detraction.  Even if it’s life in general, like mine – examine the details.  You might realize there are some that need to be edited out.

And, like mine, you may be surprised at the details you didn’t even know where there.

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!

PoetsGarage-badgeTo keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

In copy writing, it’s all about the details

Last week, I wrote and produced a short video commercial for my wife’s business.

There are two problems with that statement.

ID-10021920 (Times Square)
Advertising: These folks know how to do it right.

First, I’ve never produced a video commercial before, ever. I’ve written hundreds of commercials – and produced thousands of radio commercials – but never produced a video commercial. Second, if you have no experience doing something like that and it’s going to have a big impact on the impression people get about your business, I always say it’s best to have a professional do it.

If you’ve never patched a roof before, you’re going to call a roofer. If you need your car repaired and you don’t know the difference between a carburetor and carbon dating, you’re going to bring it to a mechanic. So if you need a commercial or corporate video produced, seek out someone who has more experience than you do. It’s your livelihood, and it should be important enough for you to have it professionally handled.

As I said above, I didn’t do that. I did have some good reasons, though…

Understanding what I wanted to accomplish

Unlike many folks who have never written commercials before, yet decide they need to be the ones to write, produce and/or voice the things themselves, I knew before I even began how the commercial was going to be used and what I wanted to accomplish. This was not going to run on television – it was to be used via the internet (social media, etc.) only, and it was to garner the attention of a specific group of people who were unfamiliar with the specific benefits of the products my wife sells.

I also had 25 years of copy writing and multi-track audio production knowledge behind me (along with some basic video editing experience), so even though it probably wouldn’t be perfect, I suspected it would be suitable for her purposes. And trust me, I’m my own worst critic, so if it was even slightly subpar, I would’ve scrapped it and gone a different route.

Oh, and due to my ACL reconstruction surgery back in March, a major car accident in late winter, and a leaking roof (see above!), I had a zero budget.  So a one-man DIY project was born.

It all starts with the script

Like a novel or short story, there are several things a good commercial script needs to do. In chronological order, they are:

  1. Attract the listener’s or viewer’s attention
  2. Connect on some emotional level
  3. Develop interest
  4. Create desire
  5. Compel action

A commercial should also showcase the product’s or service’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – the feature or benefit that makes the product or service stand out from all the others. And in the case of a television commercial, it should be able to get its point across even if there’s no audio. Doctor’s offices might have the sound turned down and sports bars are often so noisy one can’t even hear the person they’re with, much less the TV – so visuals are extremely important.

Knowing the benefits and USP of my wife’s products, I put the script together and realized I wasn’t going to need to provide a voiceover. (Ironic, isn’t it, that a voice guy produces a video commercial he doesn’t even get to voice?) But it didn’t need it, so I didn’t do it.

The commercial and the breakdown

First, let me show you the commercial and then I’ll break down some of the details I was particular about…

As I mentioned before, I knew the specific audience I was after: health-conscious folks who are not opposed to the vegan lifestyle. Of course, one does not need to be a vegan to appreciate botanically-based products that don’t test on animals, but the word “vegan” is so well-known these days that if you hear or see the word, you immediately understand its connotations.

So after attracting the attention of people who can appreciate veganism, I list other facets of Arbonne’s product’s USP: they are gluten-free, kosher, botanically-based. Then, rather than telling the viewer they need to buy something or they need to improve their lives or they need to do something else, I ask a simple question. Having just seen the benefits of the products – without me telling the viewer these are the benefits – the viewer can now make that connection on their own.

And when you can encourage a viewer or listener to draw their own conclusion and subconsciously take part in your commercial…it’s much more powerful than you telling them this and telling them that and hoping they believe you.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
No need for a voiceover; the sounds of nature worked quite well on their own.

Just like most commercials, I show a problem (your health & wellness products are not vegan/gluten-free/etc. even though you are) and I offer a solution (try Arbonne) – but I do it subtly. The call to action is subtle, as well – I don’t command the viewer to buy now, save now, limited time, blah blah…I simply suggest they learn more.

I wanted this video to be almost like a conversation, and being too heavy-handed with my approach would have been counterproductive. That’s why I opted to use some light sound effects of a natural setting rather than a voiceover; I didn’t want the commercial to feel like a commercial.

Three more details you didn’t even notice

One comes immediately after the words “botanically-based.” From the moment the commercial begins, there is a rhythm to each of the words that flashes on the screen…but then there’s a pause before I ask my question. I deliberately did this to allow the viewer to consider what these words have to do with each other and where I’m leading them. If I posed the question too quickly, the USP – those benefits I listed – would not have had a chance to sink in quite enough.

Remember, it’s a conversation – and I didn’t want it to appear the commercial was doing all the talking. As I said previously, I wanted to allow the viewer some time to process the information and become a “part” of the commercial, and “part” of this conversation.

Another detail is that I did not mention the product name until slightly more than halfway through the spot. Some folks will tell you the name has to be front-and-center right from the get-go – but those are the folks who feel advertising is done best when it’s a one-way conversation. The way I look at it, if I’ve been able to keep you compelled long enough to view the commercial, you’ll stick around for the payoff.

The third detail is the little child and mother at the end, which I didn’t include just because it’s my son and wife. The Arbonne company sells its products via independent consultants who are often moms and daughters – and even dads. I wanted to evoke a familial feeling to the spot to underscore not only the Pure-Safe-Beneficial tagline, but the fact that families are buying, selling, and using these products to make their lives better…and a little child with a mom is about the best representation there is of that!

Pay attention to the details

So when you’re writing – whether it’s a commercial, short story, whatever – don’t lose sight of the details. Some might be superfluous (I could have included another word at the beginning and crammed too much info), some might not be on target (I could have listed products, but that wasn’t the point of the spot), and some might just be too wordy.

Know when to leave those out.

But other details – like knowing who you’re writing to, understanding what you want to say, and spending some time determining the best way to connect with the viewer/listener/reader – are imperatives.

If you write a picture book, short story, or commercial in less than one day, you’re either really lucky or you’re doing it wrong.Please don’t do it wrong.

If you don’t know how to do it, hire a professional. Your commercial and your roof will be better for it.

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!

PoetsGarage-badgeTo keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

 

Someone spent a lot of money promoting their competition

I think I’m a fairly low-key, easy-going guy. I tend to take things in stride, but every now and then something will get me all worked up to the point where I’m jumping around, hollering like an idiot.

It’s usually due to moron drivers and bad commercials.

In this case, I felt compelled to share my discontent because we’re dealing with a bad commercial featuring people driving! And really, it’s not that bad a commercial…it’s just advertising the wrong business. (Which I guess makes it a pretty bad commercial, after all.)

Check out this commercial for Fiat:
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Oh, wait – that wasn’t a commercial for Fiat. That was for Lexus! Oh, stupid me…my bad. You see, I just spent 60 seconds looking at fine sports cars and seeing the sleek “F” logo popping up in my face. Can you blame for mistaking this for a Fiat commercial?

Seriously, Lexus: the viewer only gets a few quick glances at the Lexus “L” logo on the cars…and unless the viewer’s attention is completely focused on the commercial, he/she will never realize those are all Lexuses (Lexi? What, exactly, is the plural?).

Here’s how I presume it all went down:

– Someone at the Lexus corporation said, “Let’s call our new model the same letter that our competition’s name starts with.”
– Someone at the ad agency said, “Let’s flash the first letter of the competition’s name throughout the entire commercial – and be sure not to show anyone the Lexus name or logo until after they have determined it’s an ad for the competition.”
– A whole bunch of executives said, “We agree! That’s a great idea!”

I’ve written before about what happens when a good story goes bad, and this is one of those times. And as always, I critique these spots not out of displeasure with or dislike of ad agencies – heck, I’m a voiceover guy, I LOVE ad agencies! – but out of love. Tough love,

So now that I’ve had my rant, I’m going to go take a rest. But be forewarned – if Ford Trucks comes out with a TV commercial featuring a male sheep, I might need to write another blog post.

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Did you like this post? Find something interesting elsewhere in this blog? I really won’t mind at all if you feel compelled to share it with your friends and followers!

PoetsGarage-badgeTo keep abreast of all my posts, please consider subscribing via the links up there on the right!  (I usually only post twice a week – on Tues. and Fri. – so you won’t be inundated with emails every day)  Also feel free to visit my voiceover website HERE, and you can also follow me via Twitter FacebookPinterest, and SoundCloud!

National Poetry Month: Thinking Like a Poet

I get asked many questions many times by many folks…all about the same subject:

NPM-2005-White“Isn’t poetry hard to write?”

“When did you start writing poetry?”

“Why do you write poetry?”

…and so forth. The answers, while simple, could be more elaborate if I wanted to take the time: Yes; almost forever ago; and because I have no other choice.

It’s not that I don’t want to take the time to offer more detailed responses; it’s just that most people aren’t really looking for that. It’s like when the cashier at the grocery store asks, “How are you?” She’s expecting a nice, short, “Good” so she can continue on about her duties. If you respond with, “Well, my dog died, I lost my job, and I just found out my wife is cheating on me with someone from the NSA…want to hear about it?” chances are, she’ll drop the eggs on the floor and not know what to do.

Better to keep the answers safe and simple, and not throw any curveballs.

But since this is my final blog post for National Poetry Month, I thought perhaps I could expand on some of my answers and try to explain – especially to non-poetry types – why poetry is not some sort of worthless academic pursuit and can actually be beneficial in your life.

Thinking like a poet: how?

First of all, it helps to think like a poet. Understanding poetry means understanding that there is always much more to life than just…life. By that, I mean, everything you see, touch, or experience is much more than what it appears to be.

coffee-mate_creamerA nonfiction writer friend once asked me to help her think like a poet. She wanted her writing to be less dry and a bit more creative and lyrical. So as an exercise, I placed a small, empty, white plastic coffee creamer cup on the table and asked her to make a list of everything that came to mind. Not just adjectives describing the cup, but every word, phrase, or vision that popped in her head – even if it didn’t make sense. I did the same, and timed us both for 2 minutes.

When we were done, we compared lists. She had words like ‘white,’ ‘drink,’ ’round,’ ‘striated,’ etc. Although we shared some of these obvious descriptors, mine were generally a bit more…imaginative:

‘Upside-down top hat.’

‘Cup runneth over.’

‘A White Hole. ‘ (Instead of a Black Hole.)

The exercise demonstrated that while she saw things as they were, I saw things as they could be. Just that one lesson opened her eyes as to how a creative type such as a poet views the world: with imagination, curiosity, and an open-mindedness that allows us to believe anything can be more than it seems. Indeed, there is more to nearly everything than meets the eye – and if you are willing to take the time to observe long enough, you can begin to view life through a poet’s eyes.

Thinking like a poet: why?

This is where things can get really interesting. I’ve found, over the years, that having a poet’s thought process allows me to conceive ideas from angles that others may not see.

This has been especially useful in radio copy writing, believe it or not. On more than one occasion, I have had to come up with commercial scripts that are unique, attention-getting, and most importantly – relatable to the listener. While different copy writers use different means to find an emotional connection with the listener for the product or service about which they are writing, I find that thinking like a poet (e.g., trying to find connections and imagery others might not see) has served me well.

Not that thinking like a poet means you have to rhyme – I’m primarily talking about thinking more creatively and making unusual connections – but let me share an example of how poetry really did work in my favour. A local restaurant needed to let people know they existed – their location, while prime, was at a 4-way intersection and easy to miss. But it was a small, family-style restaurant that, at first blush, did not appear to offer anything out of the ordinary.

What to do?

Now, normally I absolutely detest rhyming commercials. You know the ones…they always sound amateurish and dumb, and are a total tune-out. But I knew I could write a good one – and if I did it right, it would be ear-catching, memorable, and successful at getting its message across to listeners. The following commercial was written out of a need for listeners to know who the client was, where they were located, and what they offered:

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Note two important things about why this commercial worked and most rhyming commercials don’t: One, I kept the lines metrical. I was very careful about keeping the script flowing and fun – too many words per line (or the wrong words) and the commercial would just collapse under its own weight. The other thing I did was refrain from using “easy” rhymes. I could have written a line that ended with “toast” and rhymed it with “most,” or used “steak” and “bake.” but that would have made the commercial sound cheesy and predictable – which I definitely did not want.

The unusual rhymes and bouncy cadence of the verse is what made the commercial work, in my opinion – and although any person could write a rhyming commercial, without the skill of writing metrically and knowing how to rhyme effectively, the commercial would not have been as humourous or, more importantly, as effective.

Image courtesy of suphakit73 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thinking like a poet: when?

All the time! The more you start to actively think about the things around you – from your home and family to things as simple as the car you drive, the road you travel on, or the food you eat – the more you’ll start becoming aware of all the possibilities for inspiration there are out there.

Think about possibilities, think about similarities and differences, think about “what if!”

“What would a picture of my kids look like, if I couldn’t include their faces?”

“A home with no windows or doors is like a _____.”

“If I could take this elevator anywhere, where would I go?”

“Why might a pencil be considered a religious talisman?”

“What if crows were a different colour?”

Yes, these are pretty random questions – but they can be examples of ways of thinking beyond what is comfortable and concrete. Question why an apple is red, but not because of any botanical reason. Imagine what love would look like if it could be held in your hand.

Wonder to yourself how to describe music to a deaf person or a sunset to someone who has been blind from birth.

Think about that little coffee creamer cup, and see what you can create out of it in two minutes. You might surprise yourself!

Poetry = Life

For me, I’ve always enjoyed the rhythm and rhyme of words and the imagery a writer can create – whether it is via a poem, short story, or other form of writing. Poetry, though, is a perfect vehicle for showcasing compact vignettes of emotion, enlightenment, pain, and all sorts of fascinating aspects of humanity. The poet takes a scene, feeling, or object and distills it down to it’s essence – and sometimes goes even beyond that, to create new associations with other scenes and feelings the reader had never before connected

I started reading picture books of poetry as a child, and began writing poetry in earnest in high school. Since then, I’ve written poetry and songs throughout my life because I have a compulsion to do so. Most writers will tell you the same thing, too – that they write because they have this urge inside, this burning desire to get something in their head out on paper.

Poetry can be quite hard to write, but also immensely fulfilling. Even short, 3-line haiku poems, which might seem simple, are much more complex than they may seem. Sort of like humans.

And come to think of it, that observation might make a good poem.

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2014kidlit_progpoemOnly TWO DAYS remain to poet Irene Latham’s 2014 Progressive Poem! Each day throughout the month of April, a different poet has added a line to the poem, and we are very close to completing our journey!

Today it heads over to Ruth at There is No Such Thing As a God-Forsaken Town, but here is the complete list of contributors:

1 Charles at Poetry Time
2 Joy at Joy Acey
3 Donna at Mainely Write
4 Anastasia at Poet! Poet!
5 Carrie at Story Patch
6 Sheila at Sheila Renfro
7 Pat at Writer on a Horse
8 Matt at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme
9 Diane at Random Noodling
10 Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference
11 Linda at Write Time
12 Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
13 Janet at Live Your Poem
14 Deborah at Show–Not Tell
15 Tamera at The Writer’s Whimsy
16 Robyn at Life on the Deckle Edge
17 Margaret at Reflections on the Teche
18 Irene at Live Your Poem
19 Julie at The Drift Record
20 Buffy at Buffy Silverman
21 Renee at No Water River
22 Laura at Author Amok
23 Amy at The Poem Farm
24 Linda at TeacherDance
25 Michelle at Today’s Little Ditty
26 Lisa at Lisa Schroeder Books
27 Kate at Live Your Poem
28 Caroline at Caroline Starr Rose
29 Ruth at There is No Such Thing as a Godforsaken Town
30 Tara at A Teaching Life

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