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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Direct Mail Can Be Hazardous to Your Health – Your Marriage’s Health, That Is

It was an enticing offer. It seemed so innocent, yet perfectly-timed. Coming from a reputable company, it offered exactly what I thought my wife was looking for.

MH900387606 (mailbox)It was, in fact, the last thing she’d ever want.

The letter that started it all…

One beautiful, sunny afternoon, I walked to the end of the driveway to check the mail and see what goodies the Postal Service had left for us that day.  I opened the mailbox and pulled forthwith a bounty of bills, automobile sales flyers, and oversized, multi-colored envelopes from Publisher’s Clearing House emulating Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and exhorting me to cut, paste, sign, and stamp my way to financial bliss.

Tossing the electric and phone bills aside along with my opportunity to be one of the 10,000 guaranteed potential winners of a chance to qualify to win another opportunity to receive more envelopes, my eyes settled on a blue-and-white envelope from my eye doctor’s office. I opened it and read the letter inside.

Although the message was not utterly compelling…it was intriguing.

It was also, apparently, not completely read. That was my first mistake.

What could be wrong with an eye doctor?

First, a little history. My wife and I were married a few years ago and were still in the process of combining marital things like utility and bank accounts, bathroom supplies, and Christmas card lists. One of the things my wife wanted to do, now that she was living almost an hour from where she had been previously, was find some new doctors closer to our home: a general practitioner, a dentist, and an ophthalmologist.

MH900422196 (eye dr)That’s why this letter from my eye doctor’s practice caught my interest. They had just hired a new doctor! Now, I didn’t know if my own eye doctor, a wonderful fellow, was accepting new patients – but this new doctor was. Both my wife and I had been meaning to call my doctor’s office, yet for whatever reason we just hadn’t gotten around to it. This letter served as a perfect opportunity to call and find out.

Plus – and here’s the kicker – every new patient of this new doctor would receive as a gift a free bottle of high-end, scientifically-formulated, super-duper skin cream…and what woman doesn’t like expensive skin cream?? My lovely wife certainly does; she’s the first to admit she’s as as girl-girl as they come. If it’s pink, sparkly, soft, or cuddly, she’s all over it.

So here it was:  an appointment with a new eye doctor at a well-respected practice, and a bottle of fancy lotion-y stuff I just knew she’d love. I set the envelope and letter, face up, on her desk, so she would see it as soon as she got home.

That was my second mistake.

Ohhh…that kind of eye doctor

My beautiful bride hadn’t been home for more than 10 minutes when I heard her shout out, “What is THIS?!?”  The fact that she was in the living room and I was outside in back of the house should give you an idea as to the sheer volume of that shout.

Unaware of my transgression and oblivious to the reason for her outcry, I came in and asked – in an admittedly muted tone – “errr…what’s the matter, Honey?”

My jaw dropped when the love of my life held up the papers and shook them in front of my face.

“You think I need a PLASTIC SURGEON???”

Reading = good.  Skimming = very, very not good

I was dumbfounded. If she had no idea what I was thinking, I certainly had no idea, either.  I asked, foolishly, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you think I need a PLASTIC SURGEON???” My wonderful wife repeated her question word-for-word. I’m not sure if it was for emphasis or because she was so stunned she couldn’t think of anything else to say. It was probably for both.

Still not knowing what to say, I took the papers she had been holding – well, actually, she kind of threw them at me – and read more closely. The new doctor was, indeed, a plastic surgeon. He had been hired to do facial treatments, eye lifts, Botox, and that sort of thing.  I had mistakenly figured eye doctor + new patients = good idea.

This was so not a good idea.

“You think I need BOTOX?!?” my gorgeous life partner asked me –  rhetorically, I assumed.  Now, she had mentioned once or twice in passing that she might be willing to try it in the future if she ever got old and wrinkly enough, but I wasn’t about to open up that can of worms.  I just immediately said no, of course not, and tried to explain my confusion.

After a few minutes, she understood that I was not a shallow, demeaning, chauvinist trying to encourage her to change her body or looks to suit my preference. I was simply an idiot.

We both accepted that fact, and have, I’m happy to say, moved on.

ID-10019632 (Botox)Let this be a lesson!

The takeaway from this little episode, of course, is that one needs to pay attention to the messages that bombard us every day.  Conversely, those of us in the advertising industry should take notice and make sure our messages are clear, as well. I’ve written previous posts about things like the importance of knowing your audience and having clear, specific messages.

This is why.

If you’re an advertiser, you have to assume some of your potential customers will be idiots like me and completely miss your message. Can you make your message 100% idiot-proof? Not always. But you can certainly increase its effectiveness by editing, reviewing, and testing.

If you’re a writer, ask others to read your work and see if they get your message.

And if you’re a consumer….read the fine print.

No bottle of free body cream is worth the aggravation.

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Commercials: The little things are starting to pile up

Last week, I wrote about details in writing – whether it’s for commercials or creative writing. I spotlighted a couple of commercials that I thought could have been improved and one that I felt was well-done.

And because there seems to be no end to the number of TV commercials that annoy me…I present ‘Part 2.’

I hadn’t planned on doing another post on commercials today – or even on advertising in general – but soon after I had finished writing last week’s diatribe, I felt another one welling up inside me.  So please forgive me for indulging in a second little rant; heck, it’s my blog, after all!

Of course I hope, as always, that some of points I make about copy writing and production can be directly correlated to other types of writing such as poems, stories, and books.  Continuity errors, misleading untruths, and confusing messages are hardly confined to the advertising realm.

Which unravels faster: the clothes or the message?

Some things get better with time: wine, cheese, friendships. A sales message should not be one of them. In the case of the following commercial, it took repeated viewings – and an explanation from my wife – for me to understand just what’s going on. This is a perfect example of a message getting lost in creativity:

Here’s your trivia question: what’s with the yarn?? Why is this car unraveling all these clothes? If you don’t know, go ahead and watch it again and see if you can figure it out.

Now then, if you have the answer, congratulations – you did better than me.  I had seen this TV spot innumerable times and never knew what was going on.  It took my wife at least seven viewings before she suddenly announced, “I finally figured it out!”  She explained that the clothes are unraveling because winter is over and the car is bringing spring to the world. In actuality, after I paid close attention to it, the commercial is advertising a sale.

No prices, no features, no Unique Selling Proposition…just an announcement for a sale.  This commercial basically takes half a minute to say, “We’re having a sale.”  I could be way off base here, but wouldn’t it be nice to know why I should care about the sale – or why I should want an Infiniti? Is it too much to ask for a few little details? Perhaps, if one can afford to own an Infiniti, one already knows all about the features of the Infiniti and therefore one needn’t concern oneself with the price of an Infiniti.

But that negates the need for a sale now, doesn’t it?

Fun with science

Every time this commercial comes on the TV, my wife sighs. Not because of the commercial itself, but because of my reaction to a mere 1.5 seconds of it:

This isn’t a bad commercial…but it is misleading. Check out what’s happening :15 in. See those little yellowish critters, squiggling around in the sewage? Those are supposed to be enzymes, breaking down the waste.  Well, guess what?

Here’s a news flash:  enzymes are MOLECULES, folks!

They are naturally-occurring chemicals – not living creatures that scoot around inside your septic tank, chewing up your poop like Pac-Man chasing after a cherry.

This is what drives me nuts.  I know this dramatization has nothing to do with the true efficacy of Rid-X, but when I see this blatant error (or misleading animation – I’m not sure which), it makes me wonder what else I’m being misled about.  Be true to your subject! Whether you’re writing a commercial, poem, or novel…remember that suspension of disbelief only goes so far.

A good commercial, made better

This spot, by contrast, is a fine example of a clear, compelling message:

Zero Water TV spot: ‘The Waiter”

Zero Water filters are so good, they can filter out wine from tap water! I have no idea if that’s true, but it only took me one viewing of this commercial to understand that message. Like most good commercials, it’s a story: wine is poured into tap water, tap water is filtered, the Zero Water filter filters out the wine while the competition fails. And the genuinely surprised reaction by the man in the audience is a nice touch – a small detail, like we talked about last week – that makes a big impact.

But the commercial wasn’t always this good. Here’s how it first appeared:

The two biggest changes the ad agency made were the most important. First, they took the focus off the waiter; his goofy expression takes away from the straightforward, realistic style of a more-or-less-serious spot. And the reaction of the woman was, well, uhh – almost a non-reaction. She’s just sort of…there.  The gentleman in the newer spot appears to be honestly surprised and impressed, and that air of realism is important to the overall tone of the spot.

Be honest, be clear!

Don’t muddle your message with some cutesy ‘hook’ – like pulling strands of yarn off people to sell a luxury car in the spring. “Spring” is not the message, and “yarn” certainly isn’t, either.  And don’t assume your potential customers are too stupid to know what you’re telling them, such as enzymes that go chomp-chomp-chomping around your septic system.  Be honest, be clear, and make sure viewers (or listeners, if you’re in radio) know what you’re selling and why they should care.

Those two things – the product/service and the benefit of that product/service – should be first and foremost in your mind.

I’ll take “highly effective” over “highly creative” any day.

Commercials: It’s the little things that mean so much

After spending April celebrating National Poetry Month, I’m glad to get back into one of the other aspects of this blog: advertising! But as you might know, I try to offer something for all writers when I discuss voice work, commercials, or copy writing.  In past posts, I’ve touched on a variety of topics that, although they are about commercial production, the insights I try to impart can be utilized in various forms of writing.

I hope I can say the same for this post – because it’s all about details.

You see, I’m a stickler for them. Some might say I’m a perfectionist, but I don’t think so.  I am, to use an overused cliché, very detail-oriented. And although I admit some things get past me, I will usually pore over the details of the scripts and audio I’m working on to make sure everything is as it should be. Which is why I am constantly surprised that glaring inconsistencies get past entire boardrooms and committees made up of advertising execs.

Are you sure that’s the Downward Dog?

Take, for instance, this commercial that’s been going around for a few months:

On the surface, there isn’t really anything terribly wrong with this spot. It tries to connect with the viewer by offering scenarios that might be familiar with potential clients. It has some good clips of average hotel customers engaging in a variety of activities one would might expect. But what’s going on there, 10 seconds into the spot? Go ahead and watch it again, and pause at exactly :10.

Now, I’m no yoga expert, but I’m pretty sure that woman is attempting a pose that is NOWHERE CLOSE to the pose on the TV. Aside from the fact that I can’t imagine anyone eating cereal while doing yoga…what is going on there?? Who was in charge of continuity? How did this get past everyone – from producers to director to editing crew to boardroom to client – and get the green light? Perhaps they all hoped that this gaffe might give them some additional exposure by being spotlighted on Matt Forrest’s Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme blog, in which case, I suppose it paid off.

The seafood commercial that’s not:

Now let’s take a look at a great example of why it’s important that the imagery you use in your “highly creative” commercial should directly relate to your product:

OK, so what’s the one image you recall from that commercial? Most folks would probably say bears, which aren’t popularly known for eating vegetables. Or perhaps fish, since that’s what the mother bear was trying to catch for dinner. I doubt most people would say the first thing they remember is “new flavours of seasoned vegetable blends that can be microwaved.”

Did you realize those are new vegetable blends? Did you know the bags can be microwaved?  Did you realize these blends are seasoned? Do you know any of the flavours?

Now, maybe I’m way off base here, but these seem to be pretty important points, wouldn’t you say? I mean, if you’re selling bags of seasoned frozen vegetables that don’t need to be opened before cooking, and they come in all sorts of new, chef-inspired flavours, shouldn’t you be telling people this – instead of leaving them with the image in their head of bears fishing for salmon??

By the way, while preparing this blog post, I mentioned this commercial to my 18-year-old daughter, who was aware of it and told me there’s also one featuring wolves (you can view that here).  But hold on there, Jethro – even though I said she remembered the commercial, I didn’t say she remembered what it was for.  She knew it was advertising frozen vegetables, but couldn’t recall the flavours, the benefits, or the brand.

Which is good news for Green Giant, Hanover, Pictsweet, and any other frozen vegetable brand out there.

The beauty in realism

When one considers all the times that ad agencies lose sight of their message, goof up their continuity, or get bogged down with trying to be funny instead of being effective…it’s nice to see spots like this:

This commercial fulfills all its obligations.  It immediately draws the viewer into a story involving a number of different types of people – young folks, adults, men, women – all of whom are potential customers. It creates interest in the product, deftly showcasing the Galaxy’s new features by showing, not telling (something all those creative writers out there know more than just a little about). And it not only showcases the features, but more importantly, it demonstrates the benefits of those features.

Hands-free answering and viewing?  Cool.  Sharing pics simply by touching phones back-to-back, or taking multiple quick-action photos and seeing a time-lapse of all the action in one picture?  Way cool.  Remote-control of your TV?  Now we’re talkin’ ice cold.  But the best part of the spot?  Four magical words that come at the :40 mark.  Right after a young woman takes a photo and shares it with her friend by placing the backs of their phones together, the grandmother asks that same young woman if she’d mind sharing the photo on her phone, too – to which the young woman replies:

“Yours doesn’t do that.”

Ouch.  Harsh, no?  Yet we’ve all been there. We’ve either been the young woman or we’ve been the grandmother, in some circumstance or another, where we really, really, wanted to do something, but couldn’t. Being left out sucks – and this commercial reinforces that feeling gently but powerfully, with just four little words.

Creative writers, take note!

Details.  Show, don’t tell.  Relatable characters.  The same things that make commercials work (or not work) make your writing work or not work, whether it’s a picture book, poem, or novel.

If you are a creative writer, none of this is news to you – but hopefully it serves as a reminder how important these sorts of things are. If you’re a copy writer or producer, none of this should be news to you, either – but obviously a couple of these points got past at least a few people at Bird’s Eye and Homewood Suites.

Frozen veggies, hotel rooms, or smartphones…vampires, love triangles, or puppies…no matter what you’re writing about, no matter why, be good to your subject.  Draw attention, create interest, tell your story – and pay attention to the details!