Short Writers: Long On Science, Big On Creativityby Michael Kryton
The Internet Writing Journal, July 2001
On April 20th this year, I celebrated 22 years as a short-writer. Understand that I'm 5 feet, 11 inches tall. Short-writers are politely ignored by the literary world because of our vocation: writing commercials for radio and television, writing ad copy for newspapers and magazines, thinking in 30 and 60 second increments and conceptualizing language in blocks and banners. However, writers of novels, plays and screenplays can learn from short-writers. (Did I hear an unamused grunt?)
Short-writing is, at once, an art and science demanding an ability to abstract ideas and stories, to consolidate images and layers of human communication. It requires surgical and, always, ruthless, editing skills. The creative challenge of short-writing is as complex and dynamic as penning a screenplay like Traffic. (I sense gloves coming off.)
Commercial writers, copywriters, ad writers -- short-writers -- are scribes focused on the manipulation of the consumer mind. The science embraces the understanding of the communication path and its seven steps (refer to your expensive, marketing communication textbook): exposure, awareness, knowledge, liking, preference, conviction, purchase, or, action. (One can buy into an idea as much as one can buy a product.)
Through an understanding of the communication path, we learn to escort the reader, listener, or viewer through a proven process, drawing them to a state of "buying into" in many ways and at different times: obliquely, quickly, very slowly; it varies. Like the mind, it is linear and non-linear.
As writers, we need to understand where the reader or viewer stands relative to any particular step. Have they been exposed yet to the name and basic definition of a character, product or idea? If not, we expose them first to symbols, words and phrases that will always serve to identify the subject.
Awareness builds familiarity. Usually, in advertising, this means buying enough media to generate a frequency of communication that reaches the target as often as possible. If nothing, they will know the name.
The step referred to as knowledge is the strategic pivot that completes the first phase of the communication path. Herein, the short-writer assesses the power to persuade using unique selling propositions (USP), features and benefits.
In phase two, short-writers begin to focus on issues that lead the reader or viewer to a liking first, and then a preference for a product or idea. "More doctors recommend" gives you a reason to like that toothpaste. The young male getting the female glances (and male) as he drives away the stylish tin can on wheels begins to attract the testosterone-driven target to the brand.
Although the line between preference and conviction can sometimes be thin, it requires some aggressive, marketing techniques to push the consumer along. One can develop a preference for something without actually choosing it. If one were to hear a consumer say, "I think I might try this, I like what I hear about it," then you would have evidence of the actualization of preference in the communication path paradigm. But, will they or won't they choose?
A lower price, as an example, can cause the shift to conviction. A consumer can be motivated to consider reaching for the advertised brand as it sits in silent competition next to its rival based on pricing policy alone. Sometimes, product marketers simply increase the amount of the product you can buy at the same price as the rival brand. Bonus size! Particularly effective with shampoos and detergent.
Once we convict the target or, more appropriately, the target convicts himself, we hear cheers in the boardroom as the sales reports are reviewed, clearly showing that the public is now purchasing the product.
Short-writers look for beacons to help them sail through the fog of human thought. Over the years, I have found a beacon I call "inherent value" (IV). Defining an IV can be as simple as using the name of a business to inspire a theme: "The solution is as clear as Crystal Glass." An IV for a screenplay can be defined by a high concept question such as: what would happen if two people exchanged personalities, but not souls?
By focusing first on inherently strong, consumer/audience/character issues and values, the writer can build blocks that fit together within the human thought-matrix, which is governed by emotion and reason. We use the knowledge block to develop blocks of affinity (liking & preference), employing reasoned justification or scintillating, emotional appeal, sometimes engaging both simultaneously.
Short-writers learn to ask questions all the time, before and during the writing process. Am I a mother talking to mothers (a significant challenge for a middle-aged male short-writer)? Am I invoking a masculine read-with-authority because the client's marketing team or advertising agency wants to convey technical, product information with a clinical air of confidence?
Women are relationship oriented, and it is better to express information to them (and to portray them) in terms of how it all inter-relates. Men are task-oriented. Facts, tasks and results should read like a menu in a pool room. Then they get it. How often have you seen men just sit down and relate? Men cluster their communication, more often than not, around activity or pursuit. They may not be actually playing pool, but, without that pool cue in hand, a certain amount of confidence is held in check. Escort a group of females to a table and six chairs, and it's all they need to generate communication. Women are far more confident than men in this regard.
Always the big question: what current, general perspective does the consumer/audience have regarding the idea or product around which I am creating messages? Is it new and forward thinking? Is it trendy or nostalgic? Is it plugged with social politics? Is it really sensual? Or is it gratuitously pornographic? Short-writing is long on psychology, but any good writing is.
Activation methods and tone & manner are all tools and beacons qualified short-writers use to churn out the messages that actually work. Activation methods are chosen to appeal to reason or emotion or both depending on the nature of the message. Imitation is an activation method employing well-known personalities to convince you a product is worthwhile. If a famous, popular model uses a particular eyeliner, it is possible that young female teens will want to imitate her.
Motivation through psychological appeal is an activation method you would see manifested in the lifestyle, chewing gum, commercial that uses Xtreme snowboarders in faraway mountains pulling big-air moves supported by a killer, music track. My scripts have often called for a track that is "highly syncopated, supporting adrenalin tension." The objective is to make the product appear "cool" enough so that you remember the brand name and reach for it at the inconvenience store.
The tone and manner of the previous example would be described as the Xtreme sports action, music-video style in which the message and images are presented. This is where the art takes over. Tone & manner may be defined as a simple, direct-to-camera delivery of a serious message from a former drug addict asking young people not to engage in the use of dangerous substances. From a novelist's perspective, tone and manner can be defined as a first-person narrative. In film, tone & manner was taken to new heights in the movie, Traffic. The ground-breaking style embraced ENG (electronic news gathering) and surveillance techniques.
Short-writing is manifested within a pressurized, script development vacuum where creativity gets compressed. It avoids lengthy plots, multiple conflicts, and fleshed-out, character relationships. It is lean of, but not completely devoid of metaphor, simile, or alliteration. (In fact, alliteration thrives in short-writing much as it does in poetry and lyric.)
Out of necessity, short-writers are single-minded with their creativity. It teaches them to be intrusive and efficient. They establish contexts, situations and relationships quickly. Their writing, ultimately, reflects the currency of thought and feelings in a world pursuing possession, convenience and better self-image.
A radio station manager once said to me, "If you can say it in a minute, you can say it 30 seconds. If you can say it in 30 seconds, you can say it in fifteen, in ten, in five." He's right. We live and write by the notion that we have six seconds to get your attention and have a favorable impact. The first, six seconds makes and breaks careers.
As small as the canvas may be, there are layers upon layers of communication at work in radio and television commercials: language (spoken and read), symbols, sound effect (or audiographic) -- even silence. The effective use of a sound effect replaces many words. A picture is worth ...
Silence arrests the ear and reengages the mind, whether it occurs in radio, television or film. Silence is difficult to create in a literary work, but not impossible to the accomplished writer who commands language. From "Under Milkwood" by Dylan Thomas: "Tis spring; moonless night in the small town, starless and bible black; the hunched courters' and rabbit's wood limping invisible down to the slow black, sloe black, fishing boat, bobbing sea."
A short-writer can use a gunshot followed by silence to reinforce the announcer-driven, voice-over which tells you that, in some countries, "your first offence for drunk driving is your last: death by firing squad." BANG!
What can we learn from short-writers? Perhaps the best lesson is the age-old notion that the best work comes from the practice of keeping it simple. Inherently, there are many complex issues within one idea. If we learn to write from a position of strength and move slowly out, in a sense, working in ever-expanding, concentric circles, we stand to realize a work that has more depth wherein ideas relate more strongly and appeal more readily to the audience. (Is it me, or are there some television shows that are over-scripted and hard to follow? Is this why many of them are failing?)
The communication path may appear to be clinical, but it is the best, linear expression of the communication process I have had the pleasure to work with over the years. It forever guides me to the right questions. Inherent value (IV) stimulates my creative thinking in seconds. Take these tools and try them on your next newspaper ad, short story, lyric, novel, screenplay -- in short -- wherever your keystroke or pen takes you.
** Michael Kryton is a Canadian based, short-writer living in Edmonton. His radio commercials have won awards in New York, Hollywood, and Toronto. He has also written and produced television commercials, outdoor billboards, newspaper and magazine ads, as well as songs and jingles for a number of regional and national clients in Canada. He is currently scripting and co-hosting a television program on Demolition Derbies to air on various cable networks this summer.