During a less-than-successful stint selling life insurance, we were trained to "assume the close." That meant we were supposed to say, "Now, while you two decide which of these three plans is best to you, I'll get started on the application. Fred, which state were you born in?"
At that point, my job was to be completely quiet, because, as they told us in training, "whoever speaks first loses."
Now, in my case, those long pauses were usually followed by "We're not interested," but I understand for the more successful agents, it was followed by a date of birth. I stopped selling life insurance a long, long time ago.
But this did open my eyes to a new concept. I had never considered what silence communicates. I mean, how can you communicate anything with the absence of content?
There are two important benefits of silence. First, it communicates your belief in your message. By incorporating segments of silence into your message (and by the way, this includes white space for you designers out there), you let the audience know that your message is compelling enough to be effective without having to communicate every possible message point in your arsenal. (Here's an example: go find a brochure or website for a middle-of-the-road hotel and there's a good chance you'll find a long list of amenities, usually in bullet format, and it will likely include a Color TV, something you find in every hotel room. This is the advertising equivalent of using every bullet you have. Now go see if you can find a Color TV listed as an amenity at a really nice hotel. You probably won't find it because they have confidence in their message. You are more likely to see that white space, though.)
A second benefit is that, in today's hectic, cluttered environment, silence actually helps your message stand out from the crowd. Recently NPR's The Kitchen Sisters were speaking before an audience, many of whom were typing away at their mobile devices. Then, The Kitchen Sisters simply stopped talking for about 30 seconds. Everyone in the audience stopped being distracted and started paying attention. Instead of getting everyone's attention by screaming, they simply shut up and let the silence speak loudly.
Next time you're crafting a communicative message, put some thought into how you can use moments of silence. Be strategic in what you don't say, not just in what you do say. You'll find what you communicate has more impact and is better understood by your audience.
As promised in the last post, I want to talk about how to understand the customer's motives. Some things are universal. I said in the previous post that customers want the best possible consumer experience for the least amount of money. I should have added, though, that a positive experience will win against low cost almost every time. (Care to delve into the psychology of that statement? Okay, here goes. If you think about it, money is only a piece of paper in your pocket or a number on a bank statement. The only positive experience to be gained simply by "having" money is a feeling of security. All other positive experiences occur when you "spend" your money. Whether you're satisfying a short-term craving or a life-long dream, it's a positive experience at the end of spending money. That's why people will happily spend money on a really good experience.)
So how does your product create a positive experience? You must know the answer to that question, and I cannot stress that enough, if you are going to persuade anyone to spend money on it. (And by the way, if your product simply doesn't provide a positive experience, no matter how you slice it, address that issue before you do anything else!) So, when crafting your message, resist the urge to go with the first thing that comes to you. The first thing will always be what you know, and what's important to you. And you may be very close to the product and how it was developed, how it is executed.
Here's an example. As recently as ten years ago, I worked for a resort company that pumped out a LOT of brochures and ads. In almost every single one of the pieces, one of the bullet points - in a message that was intended to communicate that our resort accommodations were "luxurious" - was "Color cable TV." And as many times as I tried to convince the marketers that this was unnecessary and only took up space. And that, further, there were $40 hotel rooms with "Color cable TV" up and down the highway, they insisted on keeping it. From their perspective, it made the list of amenities longer, and I couldn't convince them to look at it from the audience's perspective, to whom "Color cable TV" was practically on the same level of luxury as a working toilet.
Use your imagination. If you're writing web copy, pretend to be someone who knows nothing about your product and they've ended up on the website you're writing. Would you respond the way you want them to respond? As I write this, I'm pretending to be you, and you, and you, and you. You could be someone who's very accomplished as a communicator and simply likes to read other professionals' thoughts on the topic. Have I added anything new to your thinking? You may be a college student, or early in your career, trying to absorb everything you can? Can you communicate from a place other than your own perspective? You may be a business owner who is trying to understand marketing better. Are you at all persuaded?
These are the kinds of questions that will give meaning to your message. Dig deep, and when you get to what you were looking for, dig a little deeper just to make sure. Your customer wants to hear your message, but only if your message means something to them, not to you.
"Hey, hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove."
If you're a Led Zeppelin fan, you can't help but to hear the heavy guitar riff that follows that line in "Black Dog." Indeed, much of Zeppelin's appeal is the driving percussion and inventive guitar, as well as Robert Plant's vocals singing lyrics that are at times drenched in sensuality. (Again from "Black Dog": "Hey, hey baby, when you walk that way, watch honey drip, can't look away.")
I think that, even though this may not be high-brow art, I consider it a masterful use of language. Consider the image of honey dripping. Take a second and see that image in your mind. Consider the color of honey, the light that it reflects and refracts, and especially how slowly honey drips and how sticky it is to the touch. All of this emotional content is contained in three words: Watch. Honey. Drip.
Another lyric I've always admired, from "Tangerine," speaks to the precision good writers are able to achieve:
Thinking how it used to be,
Does she still remember times like these?
When Plant sings these lines, he pauses slightly in the middle of the word "remember," which gives you time to complete the line in your mind before you hear it. And most people, I believe, complete that with "me," as in "Does she still remember me?"
Why is this significant? Because when you complete it yourself one way, and Plant delivers it another way, both meanings are communicated. In this case, you automatically connect the concept of "me" with the concept of "times like these" and the end result is a more powerful, more emotive effect.
This is no accident. This is the craft an excellent writer.
The White Stripes offer another example. In the song "Take Take Take," Jack White sings:
Then I saw what she wrote.
My heart is in my ___________
Care to guess what the last word is? Most people will complete that line in their minds with "throat" because it's a common phrase and it rhymes with "wrote." But White actually sings, "My heart is in my mouth." By combining the two concepts, mouth and throat (what you expect with what you hear), the impact is more powerful.
These are minor details that tend to go unnoticed by the listener or reader, but significantly impact their experience as they absorb your written words. As writers, we can always make our work stronger by paying attention to the connotations our words carry at this "micro" level of detail.
There's an arc of experience that I see in almost all creatives who work in a business environment, whether they are writers, like me, or graphic designers, videographers, etc. This was definitely my experience, and I think it's fairly common. We start out after college, in our early 20s at a time when we're excited about making our way in the world of business, among experienced adults. In that environment, it's human nature to want to prove that you belong. So, as a result, we do what we are taught to do: we are creative. I recall a friend of mine who had a meteoric start to his copywriting career right after colleges saying to me, "I see every single assignment they give me as an opportunity to write something kick-ass, no matter how small or unimportant the assignment might be."
While it worked quite well for my friend, the result of this can sometimes be highly creative work that doesn't really address the client's or employer's business interests. Haven't you been impacted by an ad because it's very creative or funny or touching, but you can't quite recall what product it was advertising?
At this point, sales and marketing people enter the equation and hit us with this dose of reality. Sometimes they are direct, as in, "This is crap. Do we need to find something else for you to do around here?" Sometimes they are more polite: "I like what you've done here and it's very creative, but I think we need to be more specific about the product's benefits." Over time, this feedback starts to accumulate and coalesce into an overriding message that your creativity is not as magic as you thought it was. Eventually, the creative professional needs to make a change and it's either get out of the business or adapt.
How do we adapt? At some point, I had to change my thinking. Early in my career, I worked as a copywriter in an advertising department for a travel and tourism school, and one of my responsibilities was writing articles for the school's newsletter. My very first article was about their Career Night, where students would meet potential hospitality employers. Before the event, students were lined up outside the door, professionally dressed and holding a stack of resumes.
I decided to lead the article with the line outside the door, comparing it to the long lines at the theme parks in Orlando, just a few miles away. I wrote the article. In fact, I wrote the living hell out of my theme-park-line lead, pouring everything I had learned about creative prose writing into it. Descriptions of the scene, the heightening anticipation, the giddiness of the students. Hemingway couldn't have written a better lead about a Career Night line than I had written!
Then I showed it to the executive who had to approve it and I remember his response as if it were this morning: "Well, I don't know if I like the idea of comparing our Career Night to an amusement park." And the way he said it, he sounded as though he was insulted because I had belittled this very important event. I was completely deflated and, in a huff, went back to my desk and wrote a standard who-what-when-where-why style lead. It was dry and boring, which is how it was published.
Shame on me. What I didn't realize at the time was that this executive was communicating to me what his business needs and expectations were. I hadn't put any thought into the purpose of this newsletter, its audience, and the desired result of the article. I just wrote something I thought would be good writing.
From this experience, I started to understand the relationship between creativity and business. I started to learn that, even though I had a skill, my skill had no value if I didn't use it in a way that accomplished the business objectives of my employers or clients. And to this day, this is one of my core business ethics: As creatives, we must first understand the business purpose of every creative assignment or project and use our skills to achieve them.
I think it's good advice for fellow creatives, especially those who are fairly early in their careers. And after you've earned your paycheck, if you still need to satisfy your creative urges, write a novel (I have; still unpublished), or get a canvas and start painting and truly enjoy the creative process on your own terms.
This advice actually came from book on writing fiction, but I think it works for most kinds of writing. During editing, see if you can get rid of as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. You will have to further revise to maintain the meaning you intended. However, by communicating the same information with as few modifiers as possible, you can't help but to write stronger copy.
Here's why. Adjectives and adverbs are shortcuts. Think of the phrase "We came across an old farmhouse." If a thousand people read that phrase, the writer is intending for the word "old" to mean the same thing to all thousand readers. By any definition, that makes it a cliche. If you remove the modifier, though, you are forced to describe the details of what makes the farmhouse "old" in order to convey the same meaning. It's more work on the writer's part, but the end result is worth the effort.
"We came across a farmhouse overgrown by thistle and black chokeberry bush. The wood panels were gray and the grain had split open on many of the panels, leaving deep grooves running lengthwise along the boards."
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