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

Man in front of blackboard with huge, muscular arms drawn on board

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…

Fredricks Communications Tips Graphic

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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Assure, Ensure & Insure – What’s on Second in Your Marketing?

Screenshot of Abbott & Costello, "Who's on First," YouTube

 

Assure, ensure and insure are some of my favorite tricky words. When I see them in marketing materials, they remind me of the hilarious Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First” routine.

  • “To assure against natural disaster…” – Who?
  • “We ensure you that we know what we’re doing with…” – What?
  • “We insure exceptional quality in all our products and…” – I don’t know?

You don’t insure your boss you’ve given her accurate information. Granted, there are days when some of us think (or dream) we’d benefit from our boss’s death; unfortunately, you can’t purchase an insurance policy to guard against her untimely demise.

The word is assure – “I assure you, boss woman, this information is accurate.”

  • Assure means to provide some level of confidence.
  • Ensure means to make certain. 
  • Insure means to protect against loss.

You insure your car and house, ensure the bills are paid on time, and assure your clients your creative ideas will cut through communication clutter and be effective.

When I see advertising, marketing or public relations that wants to insure me I’ll get the best service, assure the best raw materials go into a company’s products or ensure clients against unforeseen circumstances, I smack palm to forehead, feeling sorry for the poor copywriter who doesn’t understand the difference between the words.

Forget who’s on first in your online and offline marketing materials and your organization will look just as laughable as the great comedic duo.

* Click the image above to watch “Who’s on First” in its entirety on YouTube.

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Tip Tuesday: In Copywriting, “Up” Gets the Thumbs Down

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Elevate your copywriting – down with “up.”

All due respect to Mick and the rest of The Stones, but I do not want you to start me up. More specifically, I don’t want to see the phrase “start up” in any advertising, marketing or PR materials. In Mick’s words, it’s enough to “…make a grown man cry.” (Well, this one, anyway.)

For some reason, we Midwesterners love to add “up” to “start whenever we can:

  • I wandered over to start up a conversation.  /  I wandered over to start a conversation.
  • We started up deliveries in the southern part of the city about a month ago.  /  We started deliveries in the southern part of the city about a month ago.
  • There’s a dude in a mask with a chainsaw coming! Start up your car and let’s get aych-e-double-toothpicks outta here!  /  There’s a dude in a mask with a chainsaw coming! Start your car, and let’s get aych-e-double-toothpicks outta here!

In each case, dropping the “up” makes the sentence shorter. (We’ll tackle the overuse of exclamation points in another Tuesday Tip, mmmmmmm-k?) The only time “start” and “up” should show up as a pair is when they form a compound adjective – “It’s a start-up venture.” And, let’s face it, the only place it has to go is up.

There’s no downside to dropping “up” from your advertising, marketing and public relations copywriting. I’d lose that if I were you.

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Why, How and Other Questions About Writing a Press Release

 

One of the most basic tools of marketing is the press release. With a well-thought-out, well-written release that’s thoughtfully distributed, you can gain extra exposure for your company, product or service.

So how do you do it?


First Thing’s First

This post assumes that, before you even start thinking about a headline or lede (we’ll get to that in a minute), you’ve done all your research, gathered all the pertinent information and interviewed the right people.


Why?

The most important questions for a press release, just like a news story, are Who?, What?, Where? When?, Why? and How? We’ll also get to those in a minute, too.

Right now, I want to focus on a different Why? –

Why write a press release at all?

There are lots of answers to that, beginning with the obvious one, to get more sales. It’s true that a well-written and well-placed press release can garner extra exposure for your brand, your products and your services. It can also be a step in a longer process that ultimately leads to more sales.

But here’s an even better answer: do it right, and aside from a relatively modest investment in time and/or money, the exposure for your brand, your products and your services will be FREE.

Unless I’m sorely mistaken, that’ll sound pretty doggone good to every business owner and marketing manager on the planet. And it’ll sound like angels from heaven if your business has limited funds for marketing.


Reasons for Press Releases

I’ve written all kinds of press releases during my career. Here are just a few types:

  • New company / organization
  • New facility / location
  • New president / CEO / manager / employee
  • New product/  service
    Improved product / service
  • New money- or time-saving process
  • Annual report release / annual meeting announcement
  • Official statements
  • New company / organization name
  • Event
  • Endorsement

The most important thing about any of these types of releases is what’s called the “news hook.” This is the result of one or more of the answers to the previously mentioned Who?, What?, Where? When?, Why? and How?

Which brings us to what’s called the lede. (That’s journalistic jargon for lead, or first, paragraph. By the way, never use industry jargon in a press release.)


The 5 W’s and the H

My background is in journalism, and I’ve found it’s useful, not to mention effective, to craft press releases in the same way I would a news story.

Now, finally, about the Who?, What?, Where? When?, Why? and How? and the answers that will establish newsworthiness.

  • Who – Who is the newsmaker? Who did something worth reading about (think person or company) or to whom did the news happen (think earthquake or wildfire)?
  • What – What did that person or company do that’s worth knowing?
  • Where – Where did it happen?
  • When – When did it happen?
  • Why – Why did the person or company take this action?
  • How – How’d they do it?

You don’t necessarily have to include all of the 5 W’s and the H in your lede all the time. In fact, including them all in your lede will make for a mighty long paragraph. For example, sometimes where something happened isn’t crucial to a reader’s understanding of the story, i.e., the message you want to convey. If that’s the case, leave it out. Same goes for any of the other 5 W’s and H.


Other Newsworthiness Cues

There are other criteria, but in my experience they almost always come right back to one of the 5 W’s or the H.

Search the Web for “newsworthiness” and thousands of entries come up. The answer in a blog post from the State University of New York, Nassau Community College is as good as any. Here are some of its criteria, paraphrased for our purposes:

  • Impact – How many people are affected, and to what extent?
  • Proximity – Is it happening close to the audience, either geographically, demographically or in terms of industry sector?
  • Timeliness – Old news stinks like the proverbial fish wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. If your press release isn’t relevant right now, don’t waste your time writing it.
  • Prominence – People like to know what the big names in their industries are up to, whether the big names belong to people or companies.
  • Novelty – “Firsts,” “lasts” and “onlys” are news. New products, services, and in public relations, new BENEFITS, are all newsworthy.
  • Audience – Which of your target markets are you trying to reach?. If it’s not going to be news to them, don’t bother.

With those answers in mind, you’re ready to tackle the all-important paragraph.


The Lede

This is where you either hook or lose your two most important audiences:

  • Gatekeepers – Editors, news directors, bloggers and anyone else who will decide whether they’re going to run your release, or some edited version of it, in their publications or on their sites.
  • Target Market Members – The people you actually want to reach with your message – customers, prospective customers, investors and other stakeholders.

Think about it. With all the messages each of us is bombarded with every day, hour, minute and, with our mobile devices, every single second, you’d better make the first sentence or two pretty doggone compelling or you’ll lose the reader you so dearly want to influenece.

You need to grab attention, and that’s the job of a good lede. Keep it clear, concise and interesting – creativity can come in here, too – and make sure you give them the most important information first. That might be all they read.

Which brings us to release structure….


Upside Down is Rightside Up

You want people who read your release to take something away from it, preferably that’s going to help you form a stronger relationship with them. It needs to convey that your product, service, company or organization is better, easier to use, less costly, more deserving of their support and so on.

They have very little time; when they see your release in their favorite trade pub or online, they might read the headline and the first sentence or two.

If those are good, really good, they might read on. If they’re not, they probably won’t.

Given that, it’s critical that you start with the most important information first, in your lede. Continue with important, but not key, information in the body, along with supporting or clarifying information. Save your brand / company description or overview (known as “company boilerplate”) for the end.

Coincidentally, this is exactly what your first audience – the gatekeepers – want. They’ve been trained to write, edit and judge the quality of news stories in exactly the same way.

It’s called the inverted pyramid –

Fredricks Communications inverted pyramid for press release post

 

The Workhorse of Your Release

What doesn’t show up in the inverted pyramid is the headline.

Send a release with a bad headline, and the gatekeepers are going to toss it in the round file.

To get them to read on – to sneak one past the goalie – make sure you dedicate enough time to writing a good headline.

In my experience, the best headlines are straight-forward, factual and clear. There’s always room for creativity, but don’t get too fancy. If there’s ever a question in your mind, stick with the facts.

I usually wait to write the headline until the very end of the process. By that time, I have a really good feel for what’s in the release and how it flows, so I’m more apt to come up with a better headline. It might be different for you, with the headline you develop setting the stage for writing the press release.

Do whatever works to get you where you want to go – an attention-grabbing headline.

And don’t sweat it if a gatekeeper changes it. This happens all the time. What’s most important is your release makes it into print or online.


The Goalies

Editors, news directors and bloggers deserve a few more words.

As the gatekeepers to their audiences, they take their responsibilities very seriously.

If they don’t like your release, for whatever reason, they won’t run it and you won’t get to the audience you really want to reach – your customers, potential customers and other stakeholders. If you haven’t demonstrated newsworthiness for their audiences, your lede is buried in the fourth paragraph, you haven’t followed their preferred style and it’ll take too much time to fix it, you’re trying to get more news about something they’ve already written about before, hello circular file.

Aside from a good headline and a great lede, you can get closer to their good sides by making it easy to find key information:

  • Company logo and your contact information at the top.
  • A dateline. This is a line at the top of your release, usually right in front of the first sentence, that includes the place and date the release was written and allows the gatekeeper to find that information immediately.
  • A release instruction, i.e. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE or FOR RELEASE NOV. 3, 2018.
  • Proper grammar and make sure you’ve spelled everything correctly.
  • Proper style, such as Chicago or Associated Press. (The vast majority of publications and editors I’ve run into over the years have followed AP.)
  • Information flow. Make sure each paragraph is connected to the previous one with transition statements, that all the paragraphs related to one point, product aspect or service benefit are grouped together, and that it’s easy to read and understand.

These examples of releases Fredricks Communications has done for clients should give you an idea of what I’m talking about:


Who Again?

Let’s focus on a different Who? for a second, as in Who is going to write this press release?

Truth is, writing press releases isn’t difficult. Anyone who knows what they’re doing can get it done.

The real question is how good, and how effective, do you want your release to be?

If you want to sneak your release past the gatekeepers into the hands and heads of your target markets, and ensure the information sticks once it’s there, I recommend working with a professional PR writer.

If you decide to write your press release yourself and run into a snag, give me a shout.

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Tip Tuesday: You Might Be Fortunate to Read This Communication Tip on Writing…

Fredricks Communications Tips Graphic

But It Is Not Fortuitous.

When writing copy, be careful with the words fortuitous and fortunate.

Fortuitous events happen by chance, randomly. While they need not be fortunate events, they often are, e.g., “It was purely fortuitous that the meter reader came along less than a minute after I returned to my car.”

Although fortunate events may be fortuitous, they might not be, e.g., “I was fortunate to return to my car just before the meter reader came around on his top-of-the-hour pass.”

When you mean random and unlucky, write random or one of its synonyms – accidental, haphazard, arbitrary, unplanned, unintentional. When you mean random and lucky, write fortuitous. When you mean lucky, write fortunate. Better yet, just use plain ol’ lucky to be sure everyone knows what you mean.

 

Adapted from “Common Errors in English Usage,” by Paul Brians.

Here’s a Quick Tagline Scoop

Picture of yellow lab lying down

I recently saw this tagline on the side of a truck from a local animal waste handling company – “Got Poop? We’ll Scoop.” My suggestion –

We’ll Take Your Pet’s Business

When a Fake Google Rating/Review Shows Up…

Google Rating Screenshot

 

Fredricks Communications received a fake Google rating last week from someone named Blaine Houston. Mr. Houston gave FredComm two stars out of five with no accompanying comment. Only problem is, I’ve never met, let alone provided advertising, marketing or PR services to, anyone named Blaine Houston.

Before I get to my response to Mr. Houston, let me just say this is frustrating stuff. You work your backside off, try to provide the best possible customer service, eat, sleep and breathe quality work, and something like this happens. Well, as the old saying goes, it happens. Sadly, that is a fact of business these days.

If it happens to you, here’s an informative blog post about how to get rid of one – How to Remove Fake Google Reviews.

As for that response –

 

Dear Mr. Houston:

Thank you for taking the time to let Fredricks Communications know you are less than happy with… something… at some business… in Fargo, N.D.

Since we’ve never met, and Fredricks Communications has never served or done business with you, I’m left to assume something went wrong when you were attempting to rate another business – a slip of the thumb, perhaps? – and your two-star review mistakenly was connected with my business, instead.

I notice you’ve left less-than-positive reviews for 47 businesses in the Fargo, N.D. area. Perhaps the review you gave my company was meant for one of those?

Regardless, I share your frustration with having a poor experience with a business. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to mistakenly give a different company a poor rating that could impact it negatively and make it look bad in the eyes of its customers and prospective customers. And, finally, I now know firsthand, and all too well, how frustrating it is to get a poor rating that my business did not deserve or earn.

If we ever meet, I’ll be happy to tell you about my company and offer you a wide range of services related to communication, messaging strategy, advertising, marketing and public relations.

Again, thank you for your time. Fredricks Communications wishes you all the best.

Sincerely,

Martin C. Fredricks
President

 

Make sure you always respond to Google ratings or reviews, or reviews of your business on any other platform, whether they’re fake or genuine, good, bad or indifferent. If it’s a bad review, your response needs to include what you’re going to do to make the bad experience better, if possible, or to make sure it never happens again. Maybe offer the reviewer some sort of incentive to return.

Bottom line, always show people you care and you’re paying attention, whether you’re business is an advertising agency, a steakhouse or a cleaning service.

 

Personal logo for Fredricks Communications owner, Martin C. Fredricks IV

Can Your Brand Join the Cult of Cults?

In branding, “cult” is anything but a four-letter word.

Achieve cult status with your brand, and you’ve found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – word-of-mouth.

A cult brand brings out passion in its users or adherents. They LOVE it, need it, would never use anything else, see their choice as the source of pride. It becomes part of their lifestyle.

More importantly for you, cult users talk about the brand every chance they get, and insist – not advise, not suggest – that theirs friends, family members and coworkers use it, too. They’ll even go so far as loaning their own <your-brand-here> to other potential users to try it out.

Many cult brands start on a shoestring, with no venture capitalists financing them early on. They’re fighters, survivors, and they never stop going at the competition. They do more than what it takes, go several extra miles to make customers happy and keep them that way.

According to Jay Conrad Levinson, there are seven rules to building cult brands. You might also call them “truths of cult branding.”

  • Consumers want to be part of a group that’s different.
  • Cult brand inventors show daring and determination.
  • Cult brands sell lifestyles, not products.
  • Cult brands listen to the choir and create brand evangelists.
  • Cult brands Always create consumer communities.
  • Cult brands are inclusive.
  • Cult brands promote personal freedom and draw power from their competitors.

Remember these rules/truths. Then think Volkswagen Beetle, Macintosh, Harley-Davidson, iAnything.

And now, think your brand.