Production 212: Prime the Pump

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

The last couple of columns have dealt with the creative process. If you’ve been following along, the first step is to find your creativity when you Fill The Well and then to free your creativity when you Drain The Brain. Now, we need to let your creativity flow by showing you how to Prime The Pump. In the days before we all had indoor plumbing, most people got their water from a local well. If you had a nice sized farm, you probably had one just outside the farmhouse kitchen, making it convenient to get water into the house. Very often, especially if the well is a deep one, you had to pour water into the pump in order to get the water flowing up from below. This was called priming the pump. Today, if you’re having a hard time getting your car started, you might pour a thimble of gasoline into the carburetor. In financial circles, it’s a pretty well known axiom that to make money, you have to spend it. All of these are examples of priming the pump.

Just talking about these three steps can be difficult to wrap your head around… until you actually DO them, but they are, in fact, very simple things that will automatically boost your creative juice. You Fill The Well by just doing stuff, living your life the way your audience does. You Drain The Brain by shifting your entire thought process to something other than what you’re trying to create for a time, so that when you come back, you will have a fresh, new perspective. To Prime The Pump, you need to feed as many idiotic ideas as you can into the well, until you hit one that starts the process of hauling the ideas out of the well.

If you ever get a chance to sit in on a training session with Gerry Tabio, jump at it. I’ve seen Gerry a few times now, and I never get tired of his work, although watching him can be a bit exhausting. This Geraldo Rivera near twin (it’s the mustache) has more energy than any three people should. He specializes in helping organizations be more creative and dynamic. In fact, he was the person who taught me that, “there are no bad ideas.” There is one small piece of what he teaches I’d like to explain here. (This by no means is the whole enchilada. You really should see the entire presentation.)

Gerry basically shows an office or company how to get everyone involved in the creative process of problem solving; or in the case of broadcasters, creating a marketing agenda. He begins with a gigantic notepad on an easel that everyone can see. Then, after stating the desired result, he asks everyone in the room to just blurt out ideas, rapid fire. They don’t have to be great ideas. They don’t even have to be fully formed. Just saying things as they pop into your head works beautifully. He scribes these ideas on the notepad, ripping off a page when full and continuing on a second, and third, or even eleventh page.

This is where the beauty of this method of group problem solving comes in. One person’s idea sparks another person’s idea, which blows up into a third idea. It’s kind of like dropping a rubber ball into a box of mousetraps that are all armed with more rubber balls. One pops the first trap, which launches a new ball into the mix, which springs another trap… and very quickly, there are hundreds of rubber balls flying around in the box.

Gerry will then take all of the pages and tape them to a wall, in plain sight of everyone in the room. And round two begins with crossing out ideas that just aren’t feasible. Group discussions continue as ideas are highlighted, expanded upon, or deleted, until finally, you have a small handful of really exciting ideas.

Working with a large group of people can really yield some amazing results, but it’s not always convenient to get 15-30 people together in a room to help you find the right creative pitch. More likely, you’re sitting in your studio at 2 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, struggling to come up with a promo to go on the air by 3. The weight is all on you. So, while Gerry’s techniques really work well in a group setting, we’re going to adapt them to help you do more with what you’ve got.

Begin by getting a legal notepad and a pencil or pen and sitting down in a quiet place. Clear your head and just sit for a few minutes contemplating your goal. Then, begin writing. Write down every idea that flashes through your nimble mind. Now, you certainly can work on a laptop, but if you do, you cannot write an idea and then erase it. Leave it on the page until you’re done! The reason is, when you finish writing down all the ideas that come through, and you scan over those ideas, you need to evaluate them individually and let them percolate for a few moments. Very often, the dumbest idea will give birth to an excellent idea – an extension of the dumb idea will take you places you didn’t know existed, and you’ve suddenly gone from being a good producer to a blindingly brilliant producer.

Remember all those experiences you’ve gone through as you were filling your well? THIS is how you access them. This is how you dip into that well and drag out that big, fat, squirming, creative idea that wins awards and garners massive ratings. Just filling the well is not enough. You need to draw from the well regularly. The human mind being the amazing instrument it is will make those connections to find those common denominators that you need to communicate effectively with your audience. All you have to do is Prime The Pump.

By way of example, let me tell you about a promotion we just did in New York. As most of you probably know, the New York Yankees are playing in a new stadium. It was just recently announced that Jay-Z and Eminem would be performing the very first concert in the new facility, and we had tickets. Here is a very brief list of ideas I spewed when I was brainstorming a weekend promo. (There were probably another 25-30 ideas, but I really don’t have the room here.)

  • Jay dumps Beyonce for Eminem
  • Eminem challenges Jay to a “rap-off”
  • Twin sons from a different mother
  • Black and white
  • Gang fight
  • Sharks vs. Jets
  • Jay is Yankees batboy – Eminem is Tigers batboy
  • Jay & Eminem announce they’re gay
  • Jay & Eminem make a bet on a game – loser plays free
  • Eminem up at bat – Jay is pitching
  • Hot dogs and beer/Eminem and Jay

Well, you get the idea. As I said, there was a lot more, but as you can see, most of these were stupid ideas. Jay dump Beyonce? NOT gonna happen. A gang fight at Yankee stadium? That’s just too frightening to contemplate. The batboy idea made me remember that Jay is a HUGE Yankees fan and I know I’ve seen more than one picture of Eminem wearing a Detroit Tigers cap. From there it was a fast leap to a New York versus Detroit at Yankee Stadium line, and the promo began. (It’s on the CD.) Brilliant promo? Well it hardly comes up to that standard, but it does give a bit of nice misdirection that is always nice for setting up the promo.

My father had the perfect saying, “There’s no such thing as bad pie. Just some that’s better than others.” Aside from being a connoisseur of pie, my father was a pretty decent philosopher. In production, there is no such thing as a bad idea. Just some are better than others. The whole point of writing your ideas down is to give them a chance to blossom. Give them time to make those connections for you. If you have the idea and reject it out of hand, you miss the secondary or tertiary idea that is born from the first idea. Prime The Pump and just watch the ideas start to flow!

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