Q It Up: Where Do You Go For the Creative Juice Flow?

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95We visited this question several years ago, but there’s a lot of new blood in the RAP Network and plenty of new ideas to share. So let’s get an update! We get part one of your responses this month, and part two next month.

Q It Up: You’ve been asked to write and produce a “creative” promo or commercial. You have the copy facts in hand. What do you do to get the creative ideas? Where do you go? How do you conjure up the creative wizard inside? What new sources for creative input have you discovered?

Dave Foxx [foxx[at]z100.com], Z100 Radio, New York: Thousands of column inches are devoted exclusively to this subject every year, and yet the answer is always the same: Experience life. Let your mind wander. Make it absorb. It sounds really simple to tell someone to watch a lot of TV and movies, to cruise the web every day, to read a new book every week, and newspapers and magazines every day, but trying to explain why gets really complicated. Here is what I’ve come up with:

Most of your listeners, in fact, almost all of your listeners are not intellectually engaged when they listen. Their brain is nearly always involved with driving their car, cooking a meal, or for simpler minds, just the act of walking. So the only real avenue you have of reaching them consistently is by touching their emotions. You have to talk to their hearts...not their heads. (This may seem basic, but follow along. The map to creative-wizard-land is coming.)

So, how does one open the emotional door? Through shared experience.

Try to describe the smell of bacon. Intellectually, it’s extremely difficult, even when your audience is fully tuned in to your words. Emotionally, it gets much simpler when you “paint the picture” and get them to recall the smell of bacon. If you can call up a few visual cues, like the early morning sunshine stabbing through the kitchen windows, add an audio cue of sizzling bacon and perhaps the sound of a table being set for breakfast, then add the words “the smell of bacon” and they’ll really “smell” the bacon.

But, what if they’ve never had that experience? If they’ve never smelled bacon cooking first thing in the morning, you can’t make them recall it. The opposite is also true, and that is my point. If you’ve never smelled bacon frying, how can you describe it? You can’t. You don’t have what I call the emotional vocabulary.

So what does watching and reading all that material have to do with things? When a good writer raises goose bumps or a great actor makes you cry, you are experiencing life vicariously. You are ADDING to your emotional vocabulary without actually going through a real-life experience. What’s more, when you see the kid in “The Sixth Sense” tell Bruce Willis that he can see ghosts, you’re having an experience you could probably never have in real life, so you’re adding things to your emotional vocabulary that would otherwise be unavailable to you.

OK. Now, let’s look at the map to creativity. The shortest route to “creative-wizard-land” is by free association. You start when you focus on your objective, say getting people to use a new medical clinic. Now you let your mind’s eye drift a bit. Let’s say you just saw American Pie on HBO. {CLICK} You think about a kid who does that with a pie that hasn’t cooled enough, and you have a potential scene to play out in your spot. {OUCH!} Even if your listeners have NOT seen American pie, they’ve probably heard similar stories, making it a “shared experience.” When the kid in your commercial explains to the nurse what he did to get this burn, well, the potential for funny is there.

The key to all of this is, you need to share a common emotional ground with your audience.

A wise man once said that teaching people the mechanics of radio is easy. Most anyone can do it. The real challenge is teaching them what to say when the microphone is open. If you really want to communicate with your audience, you need to have a tremendous emotional vocabulary. The bigger IT is, the more ways you can find to communicate effectively. And that’s all creativity really is: communicating on an emotional level in ways that are unique...finding the back door to someone’s heart.

So get a library card and use it. Read a new book every week. And don’t just stick with one genre. Make it Mystery one week, Sci-Fi the next. Historical novels can be fun. Watch a little TV every day. Don’t stick with JUST the favorites. Tune into PBS or The History Channel once in a while. Catch the Crocodile man on Discovery or Monty Hall on the Gameshow Network. Go see a movie once a week. See all the good ones, but catch some bad ones every now and then. Subscribe to something more than RAP. Get TIME or Newsweek. Read Teen People or Cosmopolitan. Spend a little time cruising the Internet every day. And by all means, read your local newspaper EVERY day! It sounds like a lot, but if you’re gonna be good at this, you HAVE to do it. In fact, I’ll make you this promise: if you do, the quality of your work will improve a thousand percent. Your creativity will absolutely explode every time you go to work.

Finally: if all you know is radio, how are you EVER gonna talk to the audience? If you’re spending more than 35-40 hours a week in the station, you are there WAY too much! It may be your passion in life, but it’s not the passion of your audience. If you want to talk to them creatively, you must have shared experiences. A great PD will recognize that fact immediately and kick you out into the real world every chance he or she gets.

Once your emotional vocabulary is big enough, you will never lack for creativity. Your sense of humor will improve, your ability to pull ideas out of the air will constantly amaze your friends and co-workers.

The route to creativity isn’t a secret. It’s not even obscure. You just have to have enough emotional gas to get there.

AJ Allen [ajemail[at]yahoo.com], WKLT Traverse City, MI: Our Promotions Director has never written a script in his life...he loves to jot down key words, phrases, and facts and then hand it to me with one day’s notice (sometimes less). In this case, the best place for me to go to get my creative juices flowin’ is the local mall. Once inside, I go directly to the toy stores...the isle with all the action figures is a good place to soak up some aggressive images. Sometimes I will buy an action figure and put it in the studio for an instant visual and conversation piece. If I am stuck with a commercial, I will try and visit the actual store (or whatever) and make a memory note of what it was like inside...all senses when possible. When I don’t have time to drive somewhere, and it is an A.S.A.P. matter, I whip out some comic books and/or any magazine that’s around.

James Stodd [James.Stodd[at]Red DragonFM.co.uk], Red Dragon FM: The creativity normally starts with a bit of a brainstorm within the office. This sometimes throws up brilliant ideas - often from people who aren’t normally involved in the writing process. The key elements to our promos are trying to tie in with the “feel” of the station, and more importantly, to lock into the emotions of the listeners in a way that talks to them, in particular, by reflecting where they live and how we’re part of their day to day lives. Sometimes, the creative idea stems from a film or TV show – in creating a parody. The bottom line tends to be, get it as creative as possible and be firm with the sales /promotions execs that the personality of the station must be as strong or stronger within the promo than their client.

Tom Richards [TomR[at]101-fm.com]: The best way to start is using research to tell you what the product means to the listener. In the frequent absence of those data, my first step is to call on my empathy; to imagine what it’d be like to actually need or desire the product. What does it mean to me? Is it a fun diversion, or a substantive enhancement to my quality of life? The answer gives me a clue to how I’ll proceed. From there, I try to position the product appropriately, either simply stating key features and benefits, or using imagination to “sell the sizzle.”

Example: we had a client promoting an indoor pet show, complete with petting zoo, demonstrations, sampling, reps from major pet chains—the works, all under one roof, one weekend only. My sense told me that, while the listener may not have a burning need to see this show, it could be a fun time. But there’s nothing fun about a laundry list of events, is there? So I took the angle of the guy who’s running the convention center where this thing’s going to be held—what’s going on in HIS mind? First thought: omigosh, we’re gonna have pets all over this place...AND WHO’S GONNA CLEAN THIS STUFF UP?? It went on from there, with the message not so much being that particular events were going to take place, but that it’s simply going to be a fun time, and you’d probably enjoy it even if you’re not a pet-lover.

Berlin, Jeff [Jberlin[at]amfm.com], WXKS, Boston, MA: What do I do to get creative ideas?I take long showers. I always get my best ideas there. It’s just awkward trying to capture a fleeting flash of brilliance by writing it down while you’re dripping wet; so if I’m deliberately trying to conjure up an idea, I have the cordless phone nearby so I can speak the idea into my voice mail at work. I also come up with ideas while riding my mountain bike.

My philosophy towards creativity is that it has to be transcendental, achieved without effort. The harder I try, the more elusive it becomes. My frame of mind has to be uncluttered, relaxed, and receptive. The only place that routinely happens is every morning in the shower.

Jay Lynch [jaylynch[at]katt.com] KATT-FM, Oklahoma City, OK: Typically, getting the promo copy points is half the battle. Squeezing info from a phone-tag sales staff and ever-busy Program Director can be tricky. But, when I DO get the info I need, the process ( for me ) begins with a blank stare at a computer screen while I brainstorm some new, ingenious, inventive copy or just until random typing provides a spark to go off of. If i have plenty of notice of an upcoming promo, I can usually have a concept in mind by the time I reach the OFFICAL writing phase. But usually, I have just gotten the copy points when I need to start writing. I like to challenge myself to do better each time I produce something. For instance, our every week “weekend promo” provides the perfect springboard to creativity.

 I decided long ago that you can smoke with the actual production, but if the message isn’t there, you’ve got nothing more than polished nonsense. On the other hand, if you have great copy and slap it together “rip & read” style, that makes it blend in with all the other mediocre white noise passing through my listeners ears.

I try to have a gag or slant. Simply just doing it in the cookie cutter style of radio can be left for the robots down the dial to do (and trust me, there’s a lot of cookies ‘round here). I suppose my mojo comes from a deep-rooted desire to out-do and exceed what’s “acceptable.” Because I push myself to the next level, more often than not, the end result is a fresh, creative, smokin’ piece of art worthy of tons of RAP Awards.........or maybe not. The most important thing is that I’ve put myself into my work, so much so that’s its merely an extension of the twisted space between my ears.

Jay Rose [jay[at]dplay.com]: If you stare at a blank screen long enough, and concentrate hard enough, eventually you’ll achieve a state of self-hypnotic trance where brilliant ideas will flow up from your subconscious like (fill in raunchy simile here). Unfortunately, when you awake, they’ll all be concepts like “Penguin should buy option on three stooges in the fountain.”

This is less than helpful.

The important thing is to keep writing. Don’t let the screen remain blank. Free associate, and kick out as many ideas and lead sentences as you can. If an idea doesn’t go anywhere, shrug and try something else. Eventually, you’ll hit on one that’s worth expanding. And if the idea you’re trying to expand just doesn’t seem to go anywhere, save it as a file, but go back to free association and try something else. Beware of the “right” solution when it’s the only solution you’ve got.

Dennis Holcomb [DENHOLCOMB[at] aol.com], WMUZ, Detroit, MI: Time and time again, people in and out of the business keep asking this question...where did you come up with that? Who’s idea was that? It has been my experience that the very best ideas for how to sell your clients products come from the clients themselves, getting to know to your client’s business, demographics, and so forth. This will generate more creative copy than you can wiggle a waveform at. No one knows what is happening in the marketplace like the client. Pick up the phone and engage in a little creative dialogue. Trust me, if you and salespeople are not doing this to some degree, you’re missing out on the wealth and experience of the business owner. After all, we may know radio, but your client knows his business. Real ideas come from the marketplace.

Johnny George [HOTAUDIO[at] aol.com], Susquehanna Indianapolis: As Imaging Director, I meet with each of my PD’s (2 for 3 stations) weekly and pull together our input to develop promos, sweepers & liners for all the levels necessary to service each of our highly promotional stations. The PD lays out the outline of what is needed for each level. This was previously discussed with him by the Promotions Director earlier in the week. Since we have to produce this week for what hits the air next week, we are always preplanning for what’s coming up. So when we meet, we may already have found a variety of drops, ideas & concepts for that particular meeting of the minds.

We search the Internet for key words that may spark an idea or direction. We retrieve sound bytes/drops that may add to the entire picture. We then lay these all out as the PD gives us the specifics. We then write the promo in a group session amongst the 3 of us and build the promo with these ideas. All 3 of us are veteran broadcasters with a minimum of over a dozen years each. (I feel as old as dirt when anyone asks—I’m on my 31st year.) Of course in this type of creative meeting, no idea is a bad idea. We always have a DAT & CD player available, a computer for writing copy or pulling up old promos from years past, and an open forum. Since our VO guy is as close as an ISDN line, we can move quickly on any late-breaking notable ideas of local/national charm.

I keep copy of old liners/sweepers, promos, etc., from years past that are above average and may spark another idea or can be reworked for today’s lifestyle. It’s funny how so much really doesn’t change.

After all is said and done and the copy is faxed off to our “voice” — the next level of creativity happens in the actual producing of the promo. That simply is experience. Strange things happen when your idea is laid at the feet of an outside voice who didn’t go through the original brainstorming session with you. A whole new perspective can be achieved. Sometimes it happens; sometimes not. But it’s this factor that can add that zest or sparkle to a mundane idea that no one thought of before.

Fortunately, I have PDs that trust my judgment and hired me for it. If I feel I may have crossed a line or I need to run a different spin past them, I don’t hesitate to bring them back to the final gate in Imaging. However, I gotta say....it’s sometimes easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. ;-)

Shawn Kelly [shawnkelly_98[at]yahoo .com]: How does one get the creative juices flowing? It’s not a hard thing to do. There is no such thing as an uncreative person. It’s true; you just need to know how to get your creativity back! When you were a kid you were very creative. That time of your life was creativity at its highest. The problem is, as we got older we were given choices we had to make, we were made to do things a certain way. We lost our ability to imagine on the fly, if you will. We were no longer allowed to pretend. You must get that back in order to be creative.

That’s what I do to get the so-called juices, flowing. I go back to being a kid. I take my laptop and go to the park down the road for a few hours, and it’s amazing how much copy I can come up with.

You have to get away from your present surrounds to get going. If you take a lot of work home, don’t write at the same time or in the same room. Go someplace different to write a spot. What do you do when you are at work and have to have something done ASAP? Take a clipboard and paper (or whatever you use) and leave the building! Even if it’s to the parking lot. Get away from your surrounds and your creativity will come back. It’s still inside all of us, it really does want to get out.

Monica Ballard [nlpmuse[at]hotmail. com], AM/FM of Greenville, SC: In addition to the Creative Whack Pack, I also recommend The Observation Deck by Naomi Epel. Another resource is either book by Roy Williams (The Wizard of Ads) or log onto his website at www.mondaymemo.com. More idea fodder and games are at www.thinksmart.com to reach the Innovation Network. You can find a pattern for a dodecahedron from the book A Whack On The Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. You put a different picture on each of the 12 sides, give it a toss, and whatever side ends up on top, you must relate the picture to the problem. Find a metaphor! How is trying to buy (or trying to win) a car like a...(wait, let me find a random word in the dictionary)...a tumbleweed? Or like the cup of coffee on your desk? If the business or promo situation you’re writing for had a theme song, what would it be? Not always enough time for games? Schedule quality time to practice. Our team has an “Out Of The Box Lunch” every other week to listen to The Cassette and play creative thinking games. It’s important to flex those creative muscles whenever you can and “program” those feelings of resourcefulness with a key word and gesture. Gradually, the brain will snap into that state whenever you need it. Ideas will naturally and easily bubble to the surface and become more obvious.

Todd Richmond [ToddWMPI[at] aol.com], WMPI-FM, Scottburg, IN: When I’m asked to write something “creative” or “funny” for a client by the salesperson, I ask them to give me at least three days to come up with it, but I’ll let you in on a little secret...some of my most creative ideas just happen to me right off the top of my head.

Now that’s not to say my creativity flows freely like Niagara Falls. I often work very hard to write and produce exactly what I feel is “funny” or whatever. But frequently I will pick something out of my world or something out of the client’s copy or...well, something...and I find myself beginning to form the basis for what I hope becomes “that kinda funny commercial I heard the other day.”

When I really need something funny and I need it fast, I look at my Program Director. Okay, I’m just kidding. My favorite place to develop creative stuff is in the car. I spend a lot of time there—it takes me about 30 minutes to get to work. I’ve been inspired by billboards, road signs, bumper stickers, funny looking drivers, and all kinds of intriguing sights outside my car window. That’s why I enjoy spending that half hour either listening to sports talk or putting my brain to work coming up with something creative. Amazingly, I can do all this and still keep my car on the road.

Ben Blankenship [bigben[at]bigben productions.com], Big Ben Productions: A lot of the time I just sit down and clear my head and let the ideas flow freely. Many times though, I get a kind of block, and the best way out is to listen to work that others in the industry have produced and let that spark my creative side. I also keep a bank or file of ideas that have hit me during off times so that I can refer to it later. This has always been a safe bet. Most of the time though, I’m fired up when I get hold of a project and can’t wait to leave the gate running!

Andrew Murdoch [andrew[at]silk.net], SILK FM: Once I receive a script, the creative process usually starts just by reading it (absorbing it). Generally I get a few ideas about voices, music and sound effects. Then I just start laying music and effects down (plus drops for promos). At this point, anything goes. I throw in different styles of music and end up with a lot of stuff I wont use, but it helps me get the juices flowing. Once I have a more concrete idea of what I would like the spot to sound like, I bring in the talent. Once they have had a chance to get a feel for the spot, I let them experiment with where they want to take it. I’ve found that if you empower them to make their own suggestions on the read, it usually brings out other interesting ideas. Once the voices are done, then it’s just a matter of getting the commercial to feel right—just keep adding or removing effects and music, play with panning and levels till your ears say, “I can live with that.” (I always feel that I could have done something better, but with tight deadlines, I’ve learned to be content with the best I can do with the time allowed to do it in.)

I’ve left out the writer because you should have already talked with them about where they wanted to take the concept. I also find that if you are in on early brainstorming sessions with creative and sales, you start thinking about what you will use even before the spot hits your overstuffed in basket! It’s tough to find the time, but it allows you to really jump into the spot when you do get it.

A positive fun attitude will always let you brain work easier and faster. Have a laugh for God’s sake. We often forget that radio allows us this perpetual state of adolescence. Try to stay loose and ideas will come to you. If nothing is, read the script again then put it aside. Move on to the next one. You can’t force ideas; they just happen. And something probably will hit you when your not thinking about it. If you’re really under the gun, go to industry helpers like the RAP Cassette. They can shake you out of brain lock.

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