TOSS THAT LINE
Unfortunately, competent feedback is harder to get than enriched uranium.
There are two major fallacies wrecking the feedback loop: the Dunning-Kruger effect and the Peter principle.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is the observed phenomenon that, when people do hard things, the least competent folks are most likely to highly rate their performance (see: Trump, Donald). Meanwhile, those who are, in truth, very competent are, paradoxically, more likely to sell their talents short (see: Williams, Robin).
This false equivalence gets assigned because of our tendency to mistake things we saw happen for things we made happen.
Think of writing like driving. Commuting every day could make it tempting to believe you’d be a great race car driver. After all, you watched yourself drive a sedan flawlessly for years.
But the competent people already know why it’s hard; they know firsthand how far they have to go. Simpletons see the summit and make no note of the mountain. Hence, the fluffery.
But professional storytelling only shares one thing in common with that crap: it uses language. Experience hitting golf balls doesn't qualify you as the Cardinals’ next pitching coach.
If your personal history and experience with writing is texts, tweets, emails and academic papers, remember to stick to your areas of demonstrated experience.
Another thing drove me to write.
In 2010, three Italians won an Ig Nobel Prize in management science for their experiment proving a terrifying truth called the Peter principle (or Dilbert principle). Its meaning is that organizational systems are (perhaps unknowingly) designed to reward employees with promotions until they reach their lowest area of competence, at which point they stop earning promotions because they’re no longer able.
So, you get promoted until you’re no longer good enough to get promoted. This is not the case everywhere and every time, but rather, an observable and provable management principle.
Of course, you could be the one employee who outfoxes the challenge at every rung of the ladder. You could make it all the way to the top. But according to my math, that only happens to one person per company. It’s far more likely you won’t win the lottery, and even if you will, it’s probably smarter not to play.
Which brings me to the advertising industry. Ads are a fascinating display of a culture’s psychological dirty laundry. Because persuasion starts with identifying pain, so ads are a great way to monitor societal symptoms of us all losing our damn minds.
In the Beginning
At my first agency job, writing was considered a necessary evil and box-checking device. There were lots of smart, talented artists who didn’t have much of a choice, but there were also hypnotized trolls feigning understanding of a topic they refuse to discuss at any length (art).
So, we used words to satisfy communication priority lists. We were programming the English language. Just give us the rules and we’ll run them through an algorithm who chews on them, then spits them out as words in a complete-ish sentence.
The algorithm’s name is Jake, and the sum of his life’s work as an artist lead to this amazing opportunity. He cannot wait to barf your buzzwords back onto your lap, and his only question is, what’s for lunch?
We set that precedent with the client. Once the knot is tied, it’s hard to untie it left-handed under your desk when the teacher isn’t looking. At that point, it’s too late. You’re better off just doing what you’re told if we’re being honest (we are).
That’s not what I did.
I learned many, many hard lessons by refusing to accept being coached by people who have never played my sport. And sometimes, it felt like I fought those headline battles for no real reason (until now, suckers!).
Here’s an example from a new Bacardi flavor launch in 2012. My job, boiled down, was to write the headline that goes on posters at bars telling people to drink our new sugary poison-swill. I’d also write the other words on the poster that no one reads.
In the creative brief, this was the section on why our consumer should care, verbatim:
1. This is a new product offering.
2. This product is premium and attracts high-end consumers.
3. Use 7 words or less and make it a BOLD call-to-action.
4. Highlight our USP — that it’s the ultimate party-starter.
And here’s a forensic artist’s incredibly realistic rendering of how those turned out:
Our near inability to deprogram habits is the fundamental flaw all marketing and branding exploits.
Some writers are good at looking at a matrix of themes and writing lists of 100+ lines that combine them in different orders with different synonyms. Some chess players are also good at weightlifting.
So, what’s my advice? Glad you asked!
Don’t think about what words say.
Words don’t say, words mean. The words on that list state all kinds of confusing nonsense in an attempt to explain cause by stating affect.
Instead, think about the psychology of the client and context of the list they puked in your general direction and be cynical; no one can hear your thoughts and the sharper the barbs, the easier they are to remember. Plus, this is far cheaper than therapy. Or in my case, more therapy.
Careful not to become a cynic in real life, though. Clients aren’t enemies. They just haven’t mastered the subject, and if we’re being honest (we are), they probably think they have. That’s just science. Science isn’t good or bad, it just is.
Teach your process before presenting your art.
People need to understand the truth of what the stories we tell are made of, and we should tell them before they become too lost to trust us (see: News, Fake). After all, it’s always harder to break a habit than to form one.
By the way? Our near inability to deprogram habits is the fundamental flaw all marketing and branding exploits. It’s also the fundamental flaw your addictions exploit, and not just your shopping addiction. It works because learning is already hard enough; but then it gets exponentially harder once you first must unlearn something else to make room.
Often, we refuse to learn when the information doesn’t confirm our beliefs. When we’re presented with new ideas that conflict with our old ideas, our fight or flight response — the same one that’s displayed when you see a shark, spider or snake — is triggered.
Fight or flight? Those are pretty shitty options if you ask me (you didn’t).
Writing is acting, not reacting.
Reactive behavior is the cause of most problems in general, but particularly this one. Instead, get out in front so you — rather than your non-artist colleagues — choose the important part. Unless you’d rather just flesh out their ideas like their scribe.
Practice deliberately choosing your role.
No one knows what the fuck writers are supposed to do anyway. Articulating your role early and often gives your team a chance to push back (forming an argument around a concept is integral to learning it), but more importantly, gives a framework for understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with each thing you do, ask, present, or say in front of these nervous people.
If you have this conversation up-front and find they politely disagree what role you should play, then politely run away.
And now for part three, we'll discuss why it's vitally important that you write what you say what you mean what you feel what you know.
In that order, too. That's right champ. We're doin' this! Lemme explain...