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Content Strategy | Writing | Editing

Brand to the Bone. The connection between brand and culture OR why rebranding is going to be a bit uncomfortable, and way more rewarding than companies ever imagined.

Jeffrey Williams

Brand. What does that word even mean?

 

It's such a mushy word, brand.

Ask people to define it and you'll hear:

  • It's the company
  • It's a logo
  • It's the site design and messaging
  • It's what a company does
  • It's how it does it
  • It's about promises and expectations
  • It's its reputation.

The last one is closer to home. For example:

Marty Neumeier writes in "The Brand Gap" that a "brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It's not what you say it is, it's what they say it is."

Idris Mootee writes in "60-Minute Brand Strategist" that a brand an "intangible asset that resides in people's hearts and minds."

Jeff Bezos famously said that "Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room."

However, work by some of the top brains in marketing suggests that a brand is deeper than reputation.

Brand is culture.

Think of it like this. If you're a person, you can work like hell to try and manage reputation while not changing anything about your character. (But you'll always get found out in the end.) On the other hand, you can work at being a better person and let your reputation be a by-product of authentic change.

It's the same with a company.

Is that a fair comparison?

Procter & Gamble executive Robert Blanchard thinks so:

A person's character flows from his/her integrity: the ability to deliver under pressure, the willingness to do what is right rather than what is expedient. You judge a person's character by his/her past performance and the way he/she thinks and acts in both good times, and especially, bad. The same are true of brands.

Mootee agrees:

An authentic brand comes from within. It is the exposure of what a company really is. A few interactions with the company will quickly reveal if their marketing and branding is simply saying what they think will appeal rather than what they think and believe.

So, if:

your brand is what people think about your company

and

what people think about your company is determined by your company's character

and 

your company's character is revealed in the interactions your customers and prospects have with your company's people, interactions which the company doesn't control ...

Then

to create a great brand, you need your people to be great. For your people to be great, you need a great culture.

Brand is culture, culture is brand

Here's Bill Taylor, the co-founder of Fast Company, writing in the Harvard Business Review:  

Your brand is your culture, your culture is your brand.

Here's Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos:

At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff -- like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers -- will happen naturally on its own.

We believe that your company's culture and your company's brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.

Your culture is your brand.

And here's Mootee again:

Your brand is your culture and your culture is your brand. ... An appropriate and well-aligned culture can provide a brand with a sustainable competitive advantage.

If brand is culture, then branding is:

1.     helping a business create its culture, and

2.     helping that business tell its story.

To do the first thing, you must build trust and articulate a purpose, a "why."

To do the second, you have to develop an identity and get employees to live it.

Create culture part 1: Build trust

Google's HR group set out to answer the question: What makes a Google team effective?

Over two years, the researchers interviewed more than 200 employees, analyzed 180-plus teams, and reviewed more than 250 team attributes.

Google HR analyst Julia Rozovsky writes that HR was convinced they'd find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team: "Take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at Angular JS, and a PhD. Voila."

Result?

"We were dead wrong."

What was the number one factor in creating a successful team?

A climate of psychological safety, where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

"Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found," Rozovsky says, "it's the underpinning of the other four" (dependability, structure/clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work).

The centrality of psychological safety is echoed by Simon Sinek, in his book "Start with Why":

Great organizations become great because people inside the organization feel protected. The strong sense of culture creates a sense of belonging and acts like a net. People come to work knowing that their bosses, colleagues and the organization as a whole will look out for them. This results in reciprocal behavior. Individual decisions, efforts and behaviors that support, benefit and protect the long-term interest of the organization as a whole.

Feeling good is great. But it's about a lot more than feeling good. When co-workers trust each other, when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable, they innovate.

Here's Dr. Brene Brown, author "Daring Greatly," in an interview with Fast Company:

I would challenge to anyone to point to any act of innovation that was not born of vulnerability, that was not born of putting an idea on a table that half the people in the room thought was stupid. That the other half questioned.

If the idea that makes sense to everyone right away, there's nothing innovative about it, right?

ChangeLabs CEO Peter Sheahan expands in a quote from "Daring Greatly"):

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be “in charge” and to “know all the answers” is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.

And lack of innovation kills a company.

Psychological safety allows for vulnerability. Vulnerability creates trust. Trust fosters innovation. Innovation makes a company succeed.  

But innovation to what end?

Create culture part 2: Give people a WHY

In his book "Start with Why," Simon Sinek argues that "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." He cites Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright Brothers as examples.

And former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune.

Throughout the 1980s, Continental was regarded as the worst airline in the United States. Bethune wrote in his memoir that "Employees were surly to customers, surly to each other, and ashamed of their company."

To change Continental's performance, "Bethune set out to change the culture by giving everyone something they could believe in," something that made them believe they could turn the worst airline in the industry into the best -- with the same people and the same equipment.

What did that look like? Being on time. "Bethune told employees that each month Continental's on-time percentage ranked in the top five, every employee would receive a check for $65."

In a successful month, the program could cost Continental $2.5 million. (Of course, being late could cost the company $5 million.) But it wasn't about the money, says Sinek. What was most important was "what the bonus program did for the company culture: "It got tens of thousands of employees, including managers, all pointed in the same direction for the first time in years."

The employees had a WHY. Bethune backed it up by creating a culture of trust. The story goes that the previous CEO, Frank Lorenzo, wouldn't even drink a soda on a Continental flight unless he'd opened the can himself. He was paranoid who created a paranoid culture.

Bethune changed that. He fired 39 of the top 60 executives who weren't on board with his new vision of the company. He "got rid of all the security on the twentieth floor (of Continental's headquarters). He instituted an open-door policy and made himself incredibly accessible. It was common for him to show up and sling bags with some of the baggage handlers at the airport."

It worked. In 1994, the year before Bethune took over, Continental lost $600 million. The next year, the airline made $250 million. Shortly after that, it was rated one of the best places to work in America.

For Alcoa in the late 1980s and early 90s, the WHY was safety. Charles Duhigg writes in his book "The Power of Habit" about new CEO Paul O'Neill's initial meet-and-greet with Wall Street investors. O'Neill announced:

"If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won't be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They've devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we're making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That's how we should be judged."

Investors were mystified, but O'Neill was onto something. He gave employees a WHY -- worker safety -- that labor and management could agree on, and he built a culture of trust.

"I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing," O'Neill said. "If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company."

The "one thing" was what Duhigg describes as a keystone habit, a habit that "can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that can change everything."

O'Neill's focus on safety electrified the company, affecting morale, communication, plant design, innovation, and the bottom line. Key to making the WHY work, though, was trust. O'Neill walked the walk:

"All the safety railings at Alcoa's plants were repainted bright yellow, and new policies were written up. Managers told employees not to e afraid to suggest proactive maintenance, and rules were clarified so that no one would attempt unsafe repairs." One of the company's most valuable executives was fired for safety violations at a plant in Mexico. And O'Neill, wanting to know if management wasn't following up on safety issues, gave his home number to hourly employees. "Workers started calling," he said, "but they didn't want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas."

This one key habit became the WHY that a company could build a culture on, especially when it was given a culture of trust in which to flourish.

And the investors who stuck with the company were rewarded handsomely. "By the time O'Neill retired in 2000," Duhigg writes, "the company's annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion."

Sinek sums up the power of WHY like this:

"Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well. It's not such a stretch to see why the companies that we love to do business with are also the best employers. When people inside the company know WHY they come to work, people outside the company are vastly more likely to understand WHY the company is special. In these organizations, from the management on down, no one sees themselves as any more or any less than anyone else. They all need each other."

To recap, brand is culture and culture is build on trust and purpose -- the "why."

What this means is that, in the most successful companies, what's good for business (trust and purpose) and what's good for a person (trust and purpose) harmonize. Each brings out the best in the other.

As Mootee writes:

"Everyone in the company must live up to the brand promise. This concept is simple, but it is all-encompassing -- it's about every company member being a walking, talking reflection of the brand itself."

To that I would only add that it goes both ways. The company, too, must live up to the promise of every person it employs.

A brand should call us to be our best selves. 

 

 

 

What's a home page supposed to DO?

Jeffrey Williams

What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong with this picture?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's supposed to make a connection that leads to a sale. 

Seems obvious. 

But I've seen this trend lately of overdesigned home pages -- as in the example above (can you guess the type of company? Answer below.)

The pages look pretty but don't ... 

  • solve my problem (or indicate an understanding of it)
  • give me a reason to care about the brand
  • tell me what to do next

Prospects are busy, and don't have time (at first, anyway) to figure out how you can help solve their problem. 

Why not make it really clear

How? 

When they visit your site, your prospect is going to be asking themselves questions like these:

  • Do you understand my problem?
  • Will you help me solve it?
  • What do you offer?
  • Who are you?
  • Can I trust you?
  • What makes you unique?
  • Am I bored?
  • What do you want me to do?

They're some pretty timeless sales questions, and if you can answer them clearly and memorably, you'll have gotten a great start toward building a lasting customer relationship.

Generally speaking, my preferred home-page structure is:

Headline/hook. Show me that you understand my problem, and that you can help me solve it.

Subheadline. Who you are and what you do.

Call to action. Often a video or an email capture. White papers are also great. They give prospects a "get to know you" option before they commit to anything. 

Social proof. Typically a logo row or testimonials. Once a prospect is engaged ("hey, they're speaking to me!") and understand that you can help them ("they offer just what I need!"), they'll want some reassurance about other people you've helped as well. That's the social proof the logos and testimonials provide.

Benefits. How you make a prospect's life better. 

Features. What you offer.

Call to action again.

Footer.

 

Answer: It's a management consulting firm.

Cirque du Soleil performers fail sometimes

Jeffrey Williams

A unicyclist fell. 

The tightrope walker slipped and dropped the six feet to the stage. 

Some of the acrobats landed twisting double flips slightly off the seesaw. 

The sense of risk rose throughout the show. I got nervous. These people were not playing it safe. A woman dangled from a metal hoop high above the stage, arching her back and holding on only with the back of her neck. The aerialists swung way up above the audience and I found myself murmuring, “Hold on, hold on.” 

Yet the most suspenseful performance was the stillest -- a woman balancing palm branches

She started by placing one small branch across another one, which was slightly longer. Then she balanced those two across a third. A latticework began to form as she kept adding new, longer branches. By the time she was finished, she’d constructed something that looked like the rib cage of a dinosaur or the aeroplane from a Wright brother’s nightmare. The audience was mesmerized.

I read that her name is Lara Jacobs Rigolo. “I fear every night it's going to fall,” she says, “it fall 3 times so far. I really have to be careful, also because of humidity the balance points change every show.”

It didn’t fall, not this time. 

The unicyclist who did fall got up and kept going. So did the tightrope walker. The acrobats kept flinging themselves upward. 

How breathtaking to think they’re up there taking chances every performance. The risk of failure is real. How exhilarating to live so heightened.

15 perfectly good reasons why your content marketing program may be failing and one super-great bonus reason which sounds all woo-woo, but is actually the best

Jeffrey Williams

Why do these guys win so much? It's a woo-woo thing.

Why do these guys win so much? It's a woo-woo thing.

Once when I was young and naive, I was interviewing for this content marketing consulting thing at [COMPANY NAME REDACTED].

I'm sorry. I needed the money.

The hiring manager asked me to diagnose why a particular group's content marketing program was failing.

"What's the group?" I asked.

"I can't tell you," she said.

So I went stab stab stab in the dark dark dark, but left the conversation feeling the way you do when the answers don't come to you until you're on the stairs, having just left a glittering cocktail party.

You know, l'esprit de l'escalier.

(The French have all the coolest expressions.)

So here are the 16 witty things I wish I'd said. Here is why your content marketing may be failing.

Better late than never.

(Which I'm sure sounds better in French.)

1. You need to go full Gawande.

You're letting stuff drop or you're only publishing sporadically. Get checklists.

2. You've forgot the No. 1 rule of copywriting.

Which is: People don't care about you. They care about themselves and thier own problems. So solve their problems. (I learned it from this guy.)

3. You say "synergy."

Or "leverage." Or "passion." Or "resonate." Those worda are all dead for now. They may be back later, but by then, YOU'LL be dead.

4. 80 billion people have to sign off on the copy.

And all the good sticky copy get synergied away.

5. The copy is bo-ring.

Write like you talk.

6. The copy is bo-ring.

Tell stories.

7. You need to get ugly.

Ugly communications and ugly pages can be insanely effective. (Seriously, check out that second page. John Carlton is a mad genius.

8. You're a hoarder.

Give more content away. 

More. 

9. You're selling, not teaching.

Teaching builds trust. Trust obviates price in the mind of the prospect. Check out this great Joe Polish talk on fine art marketing. By the way, white papers are a great way to teach.

10. You forget about the customer after the sale.

It's amazing what happens when you focus on customers for the first 100 days after they make a purchase.

11. You have marketing all wrong.

Try Tim Grahl's definition: "Be relentlessly helpful and build lifetime connections with customers."

12. Maybe your product isn't remarkable.

Make it so. Copy can't fix everything.

13. You're too social.

Sure, listen and have conversations. But you'll get a better return from your email list.

14. You need to get offline.

What can you do in your store, or on your packaging, or with physical media to help tell your story?

15. You need to get waaaaay offline.

There's a ton of power in good old-fashioned direct mail. Plus, there's less clutter.

Super-great bonus reason: Your team lacks love.

Yeah, love.

There is a high school football team in California that almost never loses a game. As journalist Mitch Stephens writes:

The calm, Buddha-like coach of the nation's most  successful prep football program - De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) -- absorbs many hits from the skeptics and envious of the sporting world.

After all, how could one team, one organization, one entity be so successful without some deceit or dishonor? How  could you possibly win 106 straight games - by an average score of 46-9! - and 184 of the last 186 without some underhanded advantage?

The coach is Bob Ladouceur. Here's his answer:

Now this may sound odd to you; but the reason we win and what  beats at the heart of our neighborhood is love.

Yes, we win because our players love each other. They are not afraid to say it or embrace each other as a sign of that affection. This is just an outward sign.

To love someone; words  are nice but insufficient -- actions speaks volumes. And that's not too easy. Put simply, love means I can count on you and you can count on me.

This translates into being responsible.

Responsibility is learned and not inherited. Being responsible to 45 teammates is not so simple. It means following team rules and knowing that my attitudes and actions have a profound effect on the success of the whole.

We pride ourselves on that exact accountability. We  recommit to each other on a weekly basis before games. We commit that my contributions to the team will be my best self.

This commitment extends to all facets of my life. It's how I conduct myself as a person - from the classroom  to the field, to the outside community. Wherever I go or whatever I do, I carry my team with me knowing full well that I am connected to a group that loves, accepts, and respects me.

We try to make our football team a safe place to  be. Safe to be our self.

There is nowhere to hide on a football field. Teammates know each other, coaches know the players, and the players know the coaches. All attempts at not being yourself fail miserably. The key is to be the  best self you were created to be. We work hard at breaking down the walls that separate us called race, status, religion, jealousy, hate and culture -- and truly experience each other on a purely human level.

Imagine what you could do if your workplace was a safe place for your people to be their best selves.

25 Ideas for Ideas

Jeffrey Williams

Kind of a squirrel thing you can make with the Ball of Whacks.

My brain juices congeal at times, just like anybody's, so I keep a stack of flashcards ready to hand. Each has a single writing prompt on it, and I'll grab one at random, trust the muse, and follow the instruction.

Sometimes it feels ridiculous, and sometimes the quality of the writing is horrible, but who cares? Nobody is going to see what I'm writing at this point. Besides, I've come up with some great ideas this way.

Here are 10 of the exercises.

  1. Write out a speed diary of your day.
  2. Write a letter to someone.
  3. Write out as many uses for an object as you can think of.
  4. Write a seven-sentence story. (Rule No. 4 here.)
  5. Play wordball. How? 1. Write a word. 2. Write the first word the first word makes you think of. 3. Write the first word the previous word makes you think of. Etc. Stuck? Make up words.
  6. Acronyms. Think of a 3- or 4-letter word. Like "FACE." That's your acronym. Now create sentences. Fred ate cheese easily. Fierce Alexa came East. 
  7. List the parts of an everyday item. E.g.: hand dryer. Question each one. Ask, how could it be different? Ask, does it need this part or feature?
  8. List the steps in an everyday process. E.g.: getting your hair cut. Now, question each step. Take it to the edge.
  9. Pick a random sentence from somewhere. That's your first line. Pick another from another place. That's your last line. Write a one-page story in between.
  10. Write "I remember" and then finish the sentence. If it takes you somewhere, great. If not, start again with "I remember."

And here are 15 great idea ideas from the little book that comes with the Ball of Whacks.

  1. Rearrange. Try putting your ending in the middle. The center on the top. Inside outside.
  2. Combine. Pick from two professions and imagine people from those professions giving you advice. What would they say? Ideas: chef, soldier, software developer, talk show hose, cheerleader, florist, impressionist painter, monk.
  3. Substitute. What can you swap out in your situation? What's time-consuming? What's boring? Expensive? Ugly? What different words can you use?
  4. Drop an assumption. What "time" and "scheduling" assumptions can you let go of? What "grownup" assumptions? What "people" and "place" assumptions? How would a ... jazz drummer, mime, mystic, clown, wrestler, designer, bomb defuser, comedian ... challenge your assumptions?
  5. Find a pattern. How do the components relate to the whole? Which parts dominate? Do some parts attract others? Repel them?
  6. Simplify. What can you take out? Where would less be more? What if you did nothing?
  7. See the obvious. Write down 10 obvious things about your problem or situation. What resources or solutions are right in front of you? What are two obvious contexts in which you haven't thought about your problem?
  8. Laugh at it. How can you take your issue less seriously? What's funny about it?
  9. Reverse. How can you reverse your viewpoint? What if you saw it as someone else might?
  10. Be random. Pick out the 13th word on page 42 of a novel you're reading. How does it relate to your situation? Look out the window. Find the first object with blue in it. How would it help you solve your problem?
  11. Imagine how someone else would do it.
  12. Imagine you're the idea. If your problem were a person, what kind of attributes would it have? How old would it be? Man or woman? Ethnicity? Hobbies? Beliefs?
  13. Compare. What similarities does your idea have to ... cooking a meal, building a house, running a marathon, starting as revolution, having a baby?
  14. Look to nature. How has nature solved this problem? What can you borrow from: seasons, compost, natural selection, earthquakes ... ?
  15. Ask a fool. What conventional wisdom can you challenge. All of it!  

Okay, have fun!

PS. These "Made by SYPartners" card decks look great, too. And Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies.

The Mostly Timeless Process for Writing Copy

Jeffrey Williams

James Webb Young

The process hasn't changed all that much in the last 75 years or so.

The great copywriter James Webb Young outlined his process in his 1940 book, "A Technique for Producing Ideas":

  1. Gather the raw material. There are two kinds: specific and general. The specific is everything about the product or service and its consumers. Take your time. Immerse yourself in it. The general is your larger knowledge of life and the world.

  2. Digest the material. "What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind."

  3. Do something else. Take a walk. Nap. Go for a bike ride. It's harder than it sounds. This is always where the panic sets in. 

  4. Aha. The idea comes. Hello, there. It may be shy.*

  5. Work and rework the idea in "the cold, gray dawn of the morning after."

That's it.

These days, you'd add a step 6 (like Copyhackers' Joanna Wiebe recommends) for testing:

  • Test copy via A/B testing (Optimizely) or just running a bunch of Facebook ads and measuring results. I'm doing that right now with a barbershop client.
  • You can do usability testing via a service like Usertesting.com or you can take a bunch of hard-copy screenshots into a bar and tell people you'll buy them a drink if they spend a few minutes telling you what they think the websites are all about.

Otherwise it's about the same.

*I had an idea that came to me once on a bike ride about a program for habit change. The idea seemed so silly that I tried to ignore it for a while. Then I gave up and wrote a mini-book about it. Check out what it did for my business partner's pullup max.

Management Lessons from the Dead

Jeffrey Williams

"By implementing a loose management style, long on flexibility and short on structure, [the organization] pioneered practices and strategies that would subsequently be embraced by corporate America."

Their style?

  • horizontal management
  • shared leadership
  • social consciousness
  • great customer service
  • viral marketing
  • nurturing community
  • pioneers of "free"

The organization? The Grateful Dead.

Barry Barnes offers 10 key lessons for businesses in his book "Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead."

They are:

  • Master Strategic Improvisation.
  • Live Your Values.
  • Be Kind to Your Customers.
  • Share Your Content.
  • Create a Business Tribe.
  • Insource.
  • Innovate Constantly.
  • Transform Through Leadership.
  • Share the Power.
  • Exploit the Experience Economy.

Good stuff, to be sure. But it's stories that stick, not lists. And the book has some good ones.

The building custodian (a Dead employee) who vetoed a record deal because it felt like selling out.

The way Jerry Garcia was always seen with his guitar, perfecting his craft.

They way the band adapted and persevered after being cheated ... after their in-house label failed ... after fans started taping their shows.

Over and over.

I'd add "practice resiliency" to the list. 

Anyway, think this through with me, let me know your mind. Whoa, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind.

And yes, I am listening to that song right now.

My Role Model is a Bookshelf (10 Ways to Live Better, Dieter Rams-Style)

Jeffrey Williams

Dieter Rams is one of the most influential designers of the past century. Chances are you’ve used a product Rams designed. Maybe an electric shaver, a calculator, or a record player. If not, you can thank him indirectly. Apple’s longtime head of design, Jony Ive, cites him as a seminal influence.

Rams was Braun’s chief of design from 1961-1997, and his maxim was “Weniger, aber besser” (“Less, but Better”).

Here are his 10 principles for good design:

Good design:

is innovative.
makes a product useful.
is aesthetic.
makes a product understandable.
is unobtrusive.
is honest.
is long-lasting.
is thorough down to the last detail.
is environmentally friendly.
is as little design as possible.

But if you think about it very long, the principles are really principles for living well. With just slight modifications, they read like this. The good life is:

innovative.
useful.
aesthetic.
understandable.
unobtrusive.
honest.
long-lasting.
thorough down to the last detail.
environmentally friendly.
uncluttered.

It makes sense when you start to look around. There’s a movement underway. People are living more fully more simply. Weniger is indeed besser.

From axolotls to ad copy: how structure serves creativity

Jeffrey Williams

Here's how I wrote a book of kids poetry about the weirdest animals in the world -- one for every letter of the alphabet, from axolotl to zyzzyva -- and how the process was basically the same you'd use to write ad copy and why as a creative person I love structure.  

The task I set myself was to write a rhyme about an animal -- one poem for each letter of the alphabet. That’s it. Some of the rhymes wrote themselves. In fact, I wrote a third of them in one night. The rest, frankly, were a grind. Sometimes I’d flail around for days. Sometimes an idea would hit me as I fell asleep (always good to keep a notebook handy). Sometimes I’d get an idea when I was out on a long bike ride and hope I didn’t forget it. 

Structure helped. Here was mine: 

  1. Read about the animal, noting habits and traits.
  2. Muck around with some words. Write about what life would be like from that animal's perspective. Look for puns. Go through one-word rhymes. Go through multisyllable rhymes and rhymes I made up. Play Wordball (a free-association word game). Write a draft or two.
  3. Go for a bike ride or a run or a walk.
  4. Let the idea in.
  5. Polish.

Here’s one result of the process:

Axolotl

She's kinda finny, like a fish,
but also salamandarish.

She's also also like an eel
(that is, if eels could walk or kneel).

The axolotl's only wish
is to be loved for who she ish.

While nature doesn't mind surprise,
humans like to categorize.

But seek her, friends, and you shall find
a beauty in the undefined.

What I'd stumbled on was basically the process the great copywriter James Webb Young details in his thin little book, "A Technique for Producing Ideas." (See the great write-up on Brain Pickings.)

  1. Gather raw material. "That, I'm sure, will strike you as a simple and obvious truth. Yet it is really amazing to what degree this step is ignored in practice."
  2. Hold it up for inspection. "What you do it take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind."
  3. Do nothing. "In this third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. You drop the whole subject, and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can."
  4. Aha! "Out of nowhere the Idea will appear."
  5. Shape the idea to practicality. "It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work."

 Gather, inspect, wait, receive, shape. 

The process works for client marcomm content as well as it works for kids books as well as it works for anything.

Einstein called it intuition.


Failure HAS to be an option

Jeffrey Williams

I.

In Proust's view, we don't really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we hoped.

Source: "How Proust Can Change Your Life," by Alain de Botton

II.

What David did for me on probably six occasions over two years, was step in when I was screwing up and encourage me to screw up more. 

Source: Seth Godin, interviewed in The Great Discontent

III.

NASA has this phrase that they like: "Failure is not an option," but failure has to be an option in art and in exploration because it's a leap of faith, and no important endeavor that required innovation was done without risk. ... In whatever you're doing, failure is an option. But fear is not."

Source: James Cameron, TED

What is failure, anyway?

I worked at Amazon for two years. I won a companywide award. I saved the company millions of dollars. I was miserable. I had heart palpitations. My hair thinned. Did I fail or did I succeed?

I am divorced. My ex-wife and I are good friends. Our kids are imaginative, curious, engaged. Was the marriage a failure?

I've written a lot of poems no one has read. Does that make them failures? One of them won a national award. Does that make it a success?

If you don't risk failure, you'll never do brilliant work. 

So ... how do you deal with the fear Cameron talks about?

First, I think he's wrong. Fear is always with you. So what do you do? I think you have to question your thinking. Decouple worth from status. Stay curious and compassionate with yourself. Keep exploring. Look for new narratives of success.

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us. 

From "When Things Fall Apart," by Pema Chodron