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Creativity Muscles: We All Have Them. We All Can Build Them.

Creativity is not a birthright.

It is not something you’re born with.

It’s not something you either have or you don’t.

Even so, you’ve probably heard something like this before: “Oh, wow, she’s sooooo creative,” or “I have no idea where he comes up with his ideas. I could never do that.”

I can’t say this strongly enough –

BALDERDASH!

Let’s Make That Baloney into a Sandwich

Creativity is something we develop, so I’ll revise my previous statement. We are born with creativity; it’s called imagination. And that means every single one of us is born with the potential for creativity.

Every. Single. Rootin’ tootin’. Ever lovin’. One.

Whether it’s creating campaign concepts (i.e., coming up with The Big Idea), copywriting, graphic design, photography, videography, audio or a thousand other endeavors, creativity is in our hands, our heads and our hearts. All we need to do is look for it or, alternatively, be willing to let it in (or out, depending on your perspective).

To put it yet another way, we all have a set of creative muscles. And like literal muscles, we can exercise them, build them into something awesome with practice and repetition.

Take a Whack at It

Roger von Oech’s timeless book, “A Whack on the Side of the Head,” is a great place to start.

Von Oech, founder of Creative Think, says creativity is the result of thinking about what you already know in new ways. “Look at the same thing as everyone else and think something different,” is his advice.

He also defines 10 mental locks that keep our minds from making creative connections:

  • The Right Answer
  • That’s Not Logical
  • Follow The Rules
  • Be Practical
  • Avoid Ambiguity
  • To Err is Wrong
  • Play is Frivolous
  • That’s Not My Area
  • Don’t Be Foolish
  • I’m Not Creative

Fuhgeddaboudit

Like Von Oeck, I suggest turning those “rules” on their backsides.

  • There is no right answer, or, there’s always more than one right answer.
  • Creativity can be illogical, and that makes all kinds of sense.
  • Rules are made to be bent, broken and beaten into submission.
  • Be practical and see how far you get. Hint: not very. Besides, what seems impractical right now might be the most practical idea or solution in the world once you’ve tested it out.
  • Be ambiguous. Equivocate. Confuse things, stir them up and see what you wind up with.
  • Make mistakes. No one ever learned much from their successes.
  • Fool around. Have fun. PLAY with your ideas and thoughts, fer cryin’ out loud.
  • Approach everything as if it is your area. Pull the totality of your life’s experiences into looking at things in different ways.
  • Edison failed 1,000 times before inventing the light bulb. Some great fool, eh?
  • Not creative? Rubbish.

Release yourself, let your mind wander, follow paths that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. You might be surprised where you arrive.

What is “Creativity,” Anyway?

Dictionary.com defines it this way: (Creativity is) the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.

  • Imagination? Yes, absolutely.
  • Original ideas? Well… maybe.
  • Especially in art? No siree.

Are artists creative? Without question. But you don’t need to be an artist to be creative in your work.

Mathematics jumps immediately to mind. (I can’t personally attest to it; there’s a reason I work with words, not numbers. Even so.) Without creative problem solving, it’s unlikely Katherine Johnson would have ever figured out how to get NASA’s ships into space, into orbit and back again. (Check out “Hidden Figures,” the book or the film.)

Your accountant wouldn’t be able to use combinations of rules, regulations and programs to your advantage come tax time. A logistics manager wouldn’t be able to come up with more efficient delivery routes. And so on.

Creative Connections

Some say there are no new ideas, that new ideas are simply combinations of old ideas or new applications for old ones. I think there’s something to that. How many TV ads have you seen lately that combine two seemingly disparate ideas into something new?

Familiarity or expertise breeds creativity. The better someone knows a topic, practices a skill or understands a concept, the more likely it is they’ll be able to make connections between old ideas that lead to new ones.

An oldie but a goodie is the milk mustache and overall health. Got milk? More recently, an insurance company developed the personification of mayhem with hilarious effect. Another pulls together the idea of insurance and replacement of damaged takeout. Good stuff, even if you don’t like the pizza.

Think. Or Maybe Don’t Think So Dang Hard.

In my view, creativity is simply the difference between stop-criticize-worry and allow-imagine-innovate.

Whatever works. The point is, when you give yourself that whack, you’ll have to think something different, or think differently, or don’t think at all and just let your mind wander, instead. You’ll be forced to be – drum roll, please – creative.

Do your reps. Build up your muscles. Don’t give up. And always, always remember, you can do it.

Heck, anyone can. How do I know? Because I was one of those “I’m-not-creative” guys myself once.

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Tip Tuesday: In Order to Achieve Greater Impact…

To be more concise and effective, always edit out “in order” and simply leave “to” in your advertising, marketing and public relations writing.

You’ll improve the impact, the POP!, of your writing without changing meaning almost every time.

Example:

  • In order to achieve invigorating writing, use active voice.
  • To achieve invigorating writing, use active voice.

Example:

  • We provide technical training in order to increase your efficiency and reduce overall costs.
  • We provide technical training to increase your efficiency and reduce overall costs.

But what about that pesky “almost” above?

Purists will spew some grammar mumbo-jumbo about how “in order to” is a subordinating conjunction. Huh? They’ll also say that when you drop “in order” you lose the underlying meaning of the phrase, which more clearly conveys intent than “to” alone. Your intent is to achieve invigorating writing, they’d say, and “in order to” conveys that more clearly. Same goes for the desire to increase efficiency.

They’re right. After all, they’re purists; being right is their job.

But who the heck even knows what a subordinating conjunction is. Right? Plus, here’s the thing –

Randomly ask 100 people which is more correct in those situations – “to” or “in order to” – and I’ll bet 99.99 percent of them won’t know the difference. Or give a rat’s patootie.

Which brings us back to Rule #2 for marketing writing: brevity.

(Rule #1 is to answer the Golden Question of Marketing – What’s in it for me?)

Dropping “in order” keeps your copy shorter, punchier.

It might not seem like much,  but over the course of a longer brochure or training video, dropping the two extra words makes a difference.

If you’re writing a novel or an in-depth assessment of foreign affairs, by all means, write “in order to.” I don’t want you starting any wars because the intent of your sentences wasn’t absolutely clear.

Otherwise, go with “to,” especially in advertising, marketing and public relations.

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Tip Tuesday: The Magnificent Seven of Copywriting References

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“Which reference books should copywriters have on their bookshelves?” I often get this question when I speak to groups. The quick answer is always, “Depends on the copywriter.”

As for this copywriter, I wouldn’t, and sometimes couldn’t, do the job without these seven magnificent tomes:

  • Dictionary – Once upon a time, this one was obvious, but with the advent of online resources like dictionary.com and thesaurus.com, many writers have ditched their big, heavy, bulky dictionaries. Not me. Dictionary.com is great for making sure I’ve spelled words correctly, and thesaurus.com for identifying synonyms I already know but have slipped my mind. But for alternative or deeper meanings, or spelling variations, I keep the ol’ Oxford American close. Granted, I don’t use it very often, but when I need it, I’m glad it’s at hand.
  • Associated Press Stylebook – Thanks to a former NDSU journalism professor, Lou Richardson, I learned how to use this invaluable handbook. Most news organizations in this region, along with many across the country, adhere to AP style, so I’ve referred to mine nearly every day of my writing career. AP purists will realize that I don’t follow it religiously from what they’d consider AP style errors in this post. All I can say to that is, marketing writing isn’t always the same as journalistic writing.
  • The Gregg Reference Manual – The Gregg is handy for just about anything you either can’t find in the AP or when the AP rules don’t apply, like formal business communications.
  • The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer
  • The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnik
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert W. Bly – This is a great primer on marketing writing for the beginner and the seasoned veteran alike. I read it cover to cover – twice – before I started my first copywriting gig, and I still look back at it occasionally for specific thoughts, ideas or direction.

While there are more books on my shelves that I reference from time to time about advertising, brand development, copywriting, marketing and sales, like –

  • Newswriting from Lead to 30 by Metz
  • Positioning by Ries and Trout
  • Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage
  • Masello’s Roberts Rules of Writing
  • Made to Stick by Heath & Heath
  • A Kick in the Seat of the Pants and A Whack on the Side of the Head by Von Oech

– the seven at the top of this post are what I find indispensable in my day-to-day writing life. They’re my Magnificent Seven, constantly protecting me from the Malevolent Mistake Gang of bandits.

But only one copywriter really matters, and that’s you. Find the references that work for you, and for your purposes, actually read and use them, often, and your work will be better for it.

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