Thursday, May 12, 2011

We listen harder.

I'm a copywriter by training. What does that mean? I don't, usually, know the product or service I'm working on as well as the experts. I've worked technology brands, but I'm not an engineer. I've worked on car accounts, yet I have no driver's license. I've worked on financial accounts though I am not wealthy.

So how do writers write?
How can we convey understanding when our association with a brand is often loose?

By listening.

What I've found is that most copy is already written. It's buried in the depths of a too-long client brief. It's on page 37 of an annual report. It's in a sales spiel from a company employee. A powerpoint from a "product specialist." It's all around you in a way a building is all around you if you're standing on a pile of bricks.

Our job as creatives is to hear and see everything.

And from that hearing and seeing find a soul. A voice. A cadence. The truth.

It's like writing a biography of an author from reading his books. What is her perspective? Her interests? What pisses her off or makes her laugh? How does she make you laugh?

Because they don't listen, a lot of creators are really decorators.
They put filigree on things, they dress them up. They aren't much more than a fresh coat of trendy paint.

That explains much of what is wrong with advertising.

If you want to do something true, listen.

Pursuant to the above, I've pasted here a poem that is about listening by the great and, today, unknown Langston Hughes.

By Langston Hughes
The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me---we two---you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me---who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records---Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white---
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me---
although you're older---and white---
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.


Sean Peake said...

This is Off Topic, but you'll (I believe) love this TED video by Sir Ken Robinson—it's on creativity. Very amusing. Very true.

george tannenbaum said...

Thanks, Sean.

Anonymous said...

Right on the mark as usual.

People will always ask me where I got that clever piece of information that makes the Ad come to life. My response is usually the same, "it's on page 45 of your impossibly long brand study."

Reading deeply and widely is the key to being a successful writer.

Tore Claesson said...

I'm an art director. I use the same technique. In search of ideas. Which often becomes a story expressed in words before it takes shape as "art".

george tannenbaum said...

Absolutely, Tore. That's why you're the best.

Sean Peake said...

We'd get along famously. As a copywriter my initial ideas come as images not words, that I then explain to my AD partner, who then comes up with some key words for those images and off we go.

Graham Strong said...

Part of listening harder is making it easier for the client to spit out what they can't quite articulate. (Hey, there's a reason why they hire you...)

I've found that, in a meeting/interview situation, asking stupid questions helps. Like, really stupid questions.

It baffles them. It boggles them. It makes them dumb down their answers to a bare minimum. So instead of getting something like "...because it enables the synergistic confluence of ideas in a way that concurrently benefits both parties in terms of understanding and in a way that will motivate them to take action on those ideas", the answer is "...because they just get it, and they get'er done."

I can work with that.

At first I used to apologize, saying something like "I know this is a stupid question, but in your words, why..."

Now I don't bother.

(Note: this works best if the person you're talking to isn't the same person you're invoicing. You don't want to undermine the confidence of the person who hired you...)


george tannenbaum said...

Smart, Graham.

bob hoffman said...

If you're in advertising long enough you'll use everything you know.

Rich Siegel said...

Lee Clow told me the same thing years ago. He said, "I don't art direct better than most. I can't write. And I'm not a businessman. But I know how to listen. Not just to what people say, but what they mean. If you want do well in advertising, listen."

I probably should have taken his advice.