Sound Thinking: A Gooder Writer’s Three Questions

by Tim Miles

“STOP! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ‘ere the other side he see!”
- Bridgekeeper, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Last Time…

We discussed the three values inherent in every gooder writer: curiosity, knowledge, and courage, and their symbiotic relationship. An overwhelming curiosity drives you to learn more about your client and her business. That knowledge – combined with a better understanding of advertising – grows your courage to do the right thing without compromise. That courage – combined with the results you see doing it the right way – leads to more overwhelming curiosity about other businesses and other ways to do it right.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours sitting in front of a word processor, legal pad, or bar napkin staring blankly into the abyss waiting. For what? You tell me.

Inspiration? Divine Providence? Another drink?

Let me be clear: The hardest way to write copy is to stare blankly at the screen or piece of paper in front of you. You have to start somewhere. Bolstered with curiosity, knowledge, and courage, I suggest you always start by asking yourself three questions.

Where to End?

Wasn’t it the Cheshire Cat who said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there?”

Why, then, is it so hard to start writing when you’re staring at the blank screen? Because you do know, in generalities, where you have to go.

And that’s the problem. We’re not in the business of generalities. And that’s why the first question you need answered is “Where to end?”

You don’t write gooder ads by trying to make the client happy. You cannot control her mood. You need to know what it is, specifically, the business owner wants to have happen.

“Mr. Business Owner, do you want me to help you promote a specific event?”

“Ms. Business Owner, do you want me to make you a household name?”

Because I’m going to use different strategies to accomplish the former than I am for the latter. And I need to know up front what you want to have happen. It ain’t my business. It’s yours. I can only help to accelerate what’s already going to happen anyway, so I need a clear definition from you of what you want that endgame to be. Please.

Where to Begin?

We’ve talked about this in previous lessons, but we’ll repeat here for frequency’s sake. One of the questions I’m most often asked is where my ideas come from.

Let me say that they are rooted in a clear establishing of the client’s goals. Once we know in what direction we’re headed, all we need to do is take a proper first step.

What I don’t do is try and start by being funny or clever. Don’t waste your client’s time by trying to do that either. Start by pulling the truth out of your client.

A WARNING: If you ask stupid, shallow questions, please don’t be surprised or frustrated by stupid, shallow answers that lead to stupid, shallow advertising. Thank you.

When speaking with your client, if you let him get away with, “well, we really care about our customers, and we’ve got such a friendly, knowledgeable staff. Ya know, it’s our people that make the difference…” Once, a radio sales rep in southern Illinois actually told me her client ‘really cared about their customers,’ and I said to her that people always say that. She replied, ‘oh, but these guys reaaallly do.’

Oh. Well. Okay, then.

Never put anything into your clients’ campaigns that they can’t back up with specific stories and examples. Ask them to give you an example. Ask them to tell you a story. Ask them to prove it.

Funny this is – consumers want it proven to them and are far more interested in hearing stories and examples that ring of truth than the same tired ‘we care about our customers’ clichés they’ve been beaten with for years.

What to Leave Out?

Insipid clichés will run us all out of this business and into a new career because – and it won’t be long – a new generation will finally step up and say, ‘Sorry. We’ve been to the carnival one too many times, but thank you.’

If it sounds like an ad, get it out of your ad. Think of your client as an onion. Peel away all the layers of crap till you get to one nugget of truth that resonates with you. Because you’re pretty incredible, and if it resonates with you, I promise you there are thousands of others out there who will think it’s pretty neat, too.

Dig for the diamond. Peel back the layers of the onion. Search for the truth. The truth will set you free.

There’s No Grail Here...

Listen, I know I may not be telling you anything you don’t already know, but I know there are some of you out there content with just taking what your client says at face value and sticking into another cut-and-paste advertisement and moving onto the next sucker.

Stop it, please.

For the rest of you honorable folks, there’s no magic bullet. These are just some questions to hopefully get you re-thinking the way you look at your approach to strategy and advertising. Next, we’ll give you three little unmagic bullets to help you through your days.

Now, Go Do Something: Go through your client list. Do you, specifically, know how each of them is measuring the success of their advertising campaign? Look through your files at your c.n.a.’s – are they littered with phrases like ‘friendly,’ ‘caring,’ ‘better selection,’ and ‘lower prices?’ Don’t you think it’s time you actually sat down and listened to them back those things up?

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