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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After years of hard work, it’s time to cut corners

Why is it some folks feel that advertising is simple stuff?

I subscribe to a number of blogs, news feeds, and online groups, and recently came across a question an author had posted, which made me pull the last few remaining hairs on my head completely out of ther folicles. This person had a new book coming out, so had asked a college student to produce the trailer (commercial) for it – and was wondering what the going rate was.

I’m not mentioning the author’s name, because it’s irrelevant to my point; the person is actually very good and has published numerous books already. But there were so many things wrong with the question I didn’t know how or where to begin my answer.

So many questions, so little patience…

My first thought was, why even ask a college student to do something this important? Assuming we’re talking about a traditional, 19- to 22-year-old student, what skills could they possibly possess to be able to market a book effectively?  Other than knowing how to stick video images together and add audio, what do they bring to the table? Does this person understand what a USP* is? Does he/she know the five things every commercial should create – attention, interest, connection, desire, action? Has he/she even written a commercial before?

Then I started thinking about other aspects of the question. Why would you ask an amateur to produce a commercial…then ask around to find out what a rate should be? Do college students even have standardized rates?? Why not ask some professionals what their rates are?

And why not have a professional do it, anyway?

Oh, that’s right…because anyone can write and produce a commercial.

I know, I know, everyone’s on a budget

If a professionally-produced book trailer is going to cost you a thousand dollars and you’re paying for it out of your own pocket…then I completely understand why cost is so important. Believe me, I’m a voice actor/copy writer and father of four who’s been struggling for years to get a book of children’s poetry published; I’m constantly living on a tight budget. Money is always a concern of mine.

I get it.

But think about this:  if your book was written by a professional, edited by a professional, proofed by a professional, illustrated by a professional, agented by a professional, and published by professionals – why entrust the advertising and marketing of it to the lowest bidder? We’re talking about the final step in the long, arduous process of publication…and you’re going to cut corners now?

That’s like an NBA team putting their third string in during the last two minutes of a championship game because heck, they put so much time and effort into the first 46 minutes, the last two minutes really don’t matter.

The ‘Instantaneous Expert’ phenomenon

I’ve worked with numerous businesses over the years, from car dealers to restaurants to mortgage brokers to strip clubs.  Some actually trusted me to write and produce an effective spot for them. (Spots are commercials, in radio jargon) They would tell me to go ahead and do my job because I was the professional. I loved those clients.

Others, unfortunately, would suddenly and mysteriously become radio advertising gurus, even though they had never advertised on radio before. Upon signing a contract to run their very first basic 13-week schedule ever, these business owners miraculously understood all the nuances of copy writing. They would tell me how to start the commercial, they would tell me how to write the commercial, they would tell me the ten million different pieces of information that just had to be included in the commercial.

And, given enough time to write, re-write, re-write, and re-write…I would present them with a highly ineffective commercial. Because the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong.

I hate admitting that, to be honest; I’m a perfectionist with a disdain for mediocrity, let alone outright failure. But working as a production director for a large company, I was in no position to excuse myself and walk away from the deal. These days, working for myself, I have the latitude to be able to do that, if I feel it’s necessary.

“Make it wildly creative!  Then again, don’t!”

I recall one commercial in particular that was supposed to be fresh and unique, a bold departure from what the client had been running for years. They wanted something that would immediately stand out from the pack. Something funny, ear-catching, different. A campaign of two or three different spots that all worked together, that they could create some buzz with.

It took awhile, but I came up with three different scripts. Because they utilized multiple voices and sound effects, I went ahead and produced all three so the client would be able to hear – and hopefully better understand – the commercials instead of just reading the scripts. I was quite proud of them.

The client, however, thought they were too creative; could I edit them down and include this, that, and this other thing in the script?

Uhh…ok.

So I rewrote the scripts. They were still too ‘confusing,’ according to the client. Oh, and could I add this and this to the script, as well?

After four rewrites, we were left with a bland, over-stuffed, one-voice commercial – very similar to many of the forgettable spots you hear on the radio and nothing at all like what had been initially requested. And it was approved.  Ironically, the client kept the catch phrase I had created for their original commercial.  This, of course, was pointless, because the catch phrase had everything to do with the original commercial’s concept and nothing to do with the one we were left with.

Advertising. Anyone can do it.

If anyone can do it, let me do your job

If you’re a car dealer, I doubt you’ll let me try to sell your vehicles without training. If you own a restaurant, you’re not going to ask a copy writer to cook your food (although you could ask me, since I’ve done that before). If you value your skills as a plumber, lawyer, book author, or widget salesman, why devalue the skills of others? If your rationale is, ‘anyone can write a commercial’ or ‘how hard can it be?’ then you are seriously underestimating the value of advertising.

Now, don’t start thinking that I’m trying to push my own particular service here. Yes, I write copy. I’ve written hundreds of commercials over 25+ years. And I have voiced and produced probably thousands of radio commercials during that time, as well…so I do know a little something about this.  But I don’t produce videos. I know how to write for video, I have voiced videos…but I don’t produce ’em. So I’m not trying to get anyone to hire me to produce their TV commercial or book or movie trailer.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to need to find someone to produce a video demo for me this year – basically, a series of clips of commercials and videos that showcase my voice to prospective clients – and a college student is the LAST person I’ll ask to do it for me.

This is my life’s work we’re talking about, and it’s worth more than what a college student can offer…no matter what their rate.

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* USP = Unique Selling Proposition! Learn more in THIS POST.

Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

Or, who are you writing to?

Whether you write advertising copy or novels, video scripts or poetry…I’m talking to you.

Forgive me for indulging in a little cathartic rant in today’s post, but I felt compelled to write a few words about a scourge upon our advertising landscape. It’s something that is not only one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to copy writing, but it’s a sure-fire way to get potential customers and clients to immediately tune out your message. It’s an evil villain, but one that is easily thwarted if writers just take a little extra time.

It’s…industry-speak.

But hold on, poets, fiction writers, and voice artists – I’m not just talking about writing and advertising here. Industry-speak is more than just words; it’s also tone.

Are those pavers or pavestones?

Know your audience

I read scripts and marketing materials all the time. I know when someone is speaking to me about my concerns, and when someone is speaking at me about their product. I’ve written before about the importance of connecting with readers/listeners/viewers, and let me say right here that using terms and phrases that only others within your industry use – or worse, using terms and phrases that no one ever uses in real life – are copy-killers.

I hear colleges using the word “dynamic” to describe their courses. I’ve heard businesses offering “robust solutions.”  Just recently, I came across a script for a landscape company selling paving stones, brick pavers, and stepstones (I honestly don’t know if there’s a difference).

When you use words that normal, everyday folks don’t, you’re saying, “Let me speak to you in a language you don’t understand about things you don’t comprehend, so I can then wonder why you don’t care.”

What are pavers, and why should I care about them? Do I need them? Why should I get them from you? As a consumer, I have a flurry of questions when I hear something like that…and more often than not, I don’t want to be bothered with questions. I have enough questions in my life I’m trying to answer already without you throwing more at me.

On the other hand, if you ask, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could have an outdoor patio area that’s easy to clean, never needs staining, and can allow you to grill outdoors all year-round?” Well, now you have my interest. And you didn’t even use the word “paver.”

Don’t get me wrong, if pavers are what you’re selling, you obviously need to use the word “pavers” at some point.  What I’m saying is, don’t act like I already know what you’re talking about!  Also notice I said “easy to clean” instead of “virtually maintenance-free.” You know you’ve heard “virtually maintenance-free” in plenty of commercials before – but who actually talks like that?

Step into the Delorean

Before you write the copy, take a trip back in time and think about what life was like before you knew all this stuff.

Think back to when you couldn’t tell a flagstone from a fieldstone. When you didn’t care about the difference between clay and concrete.  Back when you didn’t even know college courses could be ‘dynamic’ (personally, I think colleges just make up that phrase to sound flashy).

Get rid of the industry-speak. Get rid of the advertising-industry-speak, as well:  crutch-phrases like ‘knowledgeable staff,’ ‘no-pressure sales,’ and – oh yeah, ‘virtually maintenance-free.’

Think about your listener or reader. Use the language that is used by the people to whom you’re talking.

The same goes for you, too, storytellers

OK, well, technically, radio and TV commercial copy writers are supposed to be storytellers…and if they’re not, they should be. But if you write fiction or poetry, ask yourself the same questions. To whom are you writing? For whom are you writing? Whether it’s a 4-line poem or a 1000-page novel, you need to know who your audience is, and use the language that best suits that audience. I’ve read drafts of picture books that use slang terms that went out with 8-track tapes. and drafts of YA novels about subjects that would only interest an 8-year-old.

Again, use the language of the reader.

Ask yourself who the consumer is; that is, the person who will be doing the reading. Some children’s authors say they write to their young self. Other authors write to an imaginary person they’ve created. Many poets write to their (former or current) spouse or significant other…their muse, as it were. Some folks simply write to themselves, too, which is fine if you don’t plan on distributing your material to a wider audience; I will never understate the importance of writing for oneself.

Conversing with your audience

It pays to read and re-read. If you’re a voice artist or speaker, look over the script and try to understand a) who you are representing while speaking, and b) who is receiving the information. Understanding who you are, who your audience is, and why any of you should care about the message is of utmost importance. There are plenty of tips out there about voice acting, but to me, they all come down to one truism: everything you speak is a conversation.

Writers, look over your copy, poem, or manuscript and see if that person to whom you’re writing will ‘get’ everything. Have someone else read it and ask them if they know what you’re talking about. If you’re an advertiser, it also pays to have a person who is not in your industry – but could be a potential customer – read the copy. If something doesn’t make sense to them, change the copy.

Again, it all boils down to knowing to whom, or for whom, you’re writing or speaking, and targeting your language to reflect that.

As they say in the advertising biz:  know your demographic!

(Wait, sorry….was that industry-speak?)

In Commercials or Poems, Be Specific!

I have mentioned before on this blog that different types of writing often need to follow the same rules, and can often benefit from the same methods. Thanks to a  7th- and 8th-grade English teacher in Haiti, I’m sharing another example today.

When I speak to clients about how to write radio commercials, one of the many things I tell them is to read the finished script and do a ‘generic check.’  I ask them to read the script, but wherever the name of their business is given, replace it with the name of their competitor.  If the commercial still makes sense…it’s not a good commercial.

Edit it – or throw it away and start over.

A commercial needs to specify a business’ Unique Selling Point (also known as the Unique Selling Proposition).  The “USP” is an industry term referring to the one thing that sets that business apart from all the others.  Ultimately, it’s the answer to the question, “Why should I give you my money, instead of the guy next door?” If your Italian restaurant commercial sounds fine using the names of other Italian restaurants, someone did something wrong.

If you don’t know what makes you different, how will anyone??

I’ll spend more time talking about USPs in a future post, but for now I want to concentrate on specificity.

SPECIFICITY [spes-ih-FISS-ih-tee]: noun. The state of referring to an explicit or definite thing.

Whether it’s a radio commercial, a poem, or even an on-air radio bit…don’t assume that by trying to be generic you’re going to attract more people.  If you’re not trying to be generic, but still come up with a script that can be easily appropriated by another business, your script is missing a key component.

I was reminded of this by a teacher in Haiti named Ruth, who operates her own blog, There Is No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town.  Last Friday, she posted a love poem by Craig Arnold titled “Bird-Understander,” in which the speaker addresses his partner about a particular facet of her personality that is particularly endearing to him. You can read the entire post here.  The poem is a terrific example of specificity because as one reads this poem, one realizes this person is a unique individual unlike anyone else – at least in the speaker’s mind.

In her blog post, Ruth points out:

“A love poem should be specific, not a generic verse suitable for a  greeting card.  The beloved is not interchangeable with others, and  poetry about the beloved shouldn’t be, either.  By that standard, this love poem succeeds brilliantly.  When we read it, as people who don’t  know the woman being addressed, we see a beautiful quality in her, and  we see why he loves her.  We know what makes her special.”

If you’re an advertiser, do we know what makes your business special?

Not all mortgage companies are created equal

Several years ago, while working as the production director for a five-station radio group, I was asked to record a new client who was going to come to the radio station to voice his spot.  I was handed a copy of the script just a few minutes before he arrived, so I had no time to edit the script or even speak to the account rep who wrote it.

But I knew we weren’t going to be able to record it the way it was written.

It was basically sixty seconds of bullet points:  “if you need a mortgage, call us”….”offering a variety of options”…”residential or commercial”…blah, blah, blah. And then it concluded with multiple calls-to-action, including the location, phone number, and website. (Multiple calls-to-action are another of my pet peeves, but that’s another blog post)

Any – and I mean ANY – other mortgage company in ANY part of this great country could easily plug their name into this commercial, and by changing the contact info, they’d have a  script.  Again I say, if your commercial script can be used by anybody else in the same industry…that’s a major problem.

So when the client came in, we chatted about the script and he expressed his displeasure with it before I even had a chance to express mine.  He felt it was too generic (!!!), he didn’t think it was written the way he would naturally speak…he didn’t even want a physical address or a phone number in the script, because the only call to action he wanted was to direct listeners to his website!

I breathed a sigh of relief, and did a little Happy Dance on the inside. The client and I were both on the same page.

The spot needed to change, drastically.

I had an idea.

Letting the client speak for himself

He was a very friendly, animated fellow who knew his business, knew why he was unique, and knew what he wanted his commercial to accomplish.  While he was talking to me about it, I suggested he let me turn on his microphone, and I would record him speaking extemporaneously.  I figured I could edit the best parts into a :60 commercial and let his unique message and unique delivery – at least for a mortgage broker – be front-and-center.

This is what we came up with:

StarOneFunding_Image-#1 9-2006

Have you ever heard a mortgage company commercial like that? This was just one of 3 or 4 spots we ended up creating, and he loved them. They were unlike any others on the air at the time, and because of the unique features of his website (along with his style of delivery), they stood out from the pack. Try plugging another mortgage company’s name into that spot; I’d say it definitely passes the ‘generic check.’

Making a habit of ‘generic-checking’

Next time you need to write a commercial, plug in another business’ name and contact info and see what you get. Can any business use this script? Next time you write a poem about someone or something special, try plugging in someone else’s name.  Could this poem be about anyone?

If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”…start over.

After all, if the business you’re promoting isn’t unique, why should anyone be expected to patronize them? If the person you’re writing about is as ordinary as everyone else, why waste the ink?

If someone was going to write about you…wouldn’t you want to pass the ‘generic check?’