How to Write a Better Headline Than This Piece of Shit — Part Three
Just joining? Dive in! No need to catch up — shelf parts one and two for now.
Professional writing — not to be confused with amateur writing — is the art of telling stories. The difference between storyteller and writer is the difference between programmer and developer; between architect and construction project manager.
If you aren’t the one who decides the fundamental pieces of your story, it’s hard to call what you did writing. Even if you typed every word.
There’s always safety in doing exactly as you’re told — so, don’t.
You won’t learn anything, change anyone, or advance anywhere unless you poke and prod, starting the uneasy process of impacting change.
But most of us can’t yet cash that big of an asshole check.
You may have to choose to obey the prescriptive orders of a distant commander. Just remember that their goal (don’t stand out, don’t get fired, go home at 5) is opposite yours (stand out, get promoted for it, go to bed drunk at 2 a.m.). So, plan fora large liquor bill and a small highlight reel.
Two for the money, one for the show.
Almost everything good I’ve ever done came from a compulsion to prove my critics wrong.
They have client’s disease — you would too, by the way — and people with chronic illnesses are the most skeptical of the doctor treating them (you).
No one gets better until they believe it’s worth the fight. Perhaps your personal project can serve as the proof you know your stuff?
So, back to the Bacardi flavor launch and their abbreviated, four-sentence communication priority list. Now it’s my job to expand their list into conceptual thoughts, then re-synthesize those concepts into one sentence that incorporates all four of theirs.
That’s the job. That’s what they’re expecting.
The biggest cliche advice in advertising is, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” It’s terrible advice. You shouldn’t ask for either one. That’s not how forgiveness works. And if you have to ask, you already don’t have permission.
At least silence gives you plausible deniability.
But, remember earlier? We talked about how violating your audience’s expectations (in a way that’s both generous and on-theme) is, fundamentally, the most important thing stories must do.
Well, your client is the audience now. Violate their expectations for the right reasons, in the right way.
Once you know their expectations (and decide it’s worth the fight), violate a few and see how they react. That’s the only way to move any client closer to telling a story anyone gives a shit about — or what they’d call a “campaign that generated impressive WOM.”
Time for the CTA to GTFO.
Every ad and all the art ever made in human history is, one way or another, a call to action.
Or it’s not art.
Ads are to art as strippers are to dancing. It’s more of a technicality, really. But a necessary one. In order to be worth a damn, ads must contain some form of real art that gives a gift to the reader.
That’s why the call-to-action is an alarmingly dumb construct. The concept of the CTA is based on the outrageously flawed assertion that the best way to inspire a behavior is by directly ordering someone to do it.
Uh, quick question. When you’re in the middle of living your life, has someone ever called, out of nowhere, and asked you to buy something? How’d you react?
Exactly. And you even knew that person.
The best way to lose credibility is treating people like they’re stupid. That’s because we generally treat people as smart as we are. Talking down to adults is like using your puppy/baby voice talking to your parents.
Instead, we get direct orders from web pages, tweets, billboards and any other garbage people (hi!) put ads on.
It’s a coin toss if I’ll listen to my own parents’ , and I love them. If Mom and Dad get 50/50 odds at best, your brand doesn’t stand a chance. In the words of Kendrick Lamar:
Hold up [brands].
Even if you’re not smart, you can look it. Here’s why. Imagine you’re at a sports bar, settling in to watch the NBA Finals. You scan the room for a server to take a drink order, then your eyes find the walls and scan for specials.
Which poster speaks to you?
Okay but now that you chose a drink, are you sure you can take it from here? Or do you need another poster for that?
If you have to pee, do you need a sign that says “pee now,” or do you know what to do when you see a toilet?
Good ads, they work like toilets, don’t they? Poetry. It’s everywhere.
Our priorities were: new, premium and party-starter. Taking that information, it’s tempting to dive into a robotic list-making endeavor and generate a matrix of themes and synonyms, then combine them in different orders until the resulting sentence checks enough boxes.
Might not be the most artistic solution, but it’ll sure as shit clear an inbox.
I made robot-lists like that all the time. Hell, I’ve been promoted for it! And what a tremendous setback that was. Speaking of expectations…
All you have to to be is who you say. So be as honest as you legally can.
Decide the value you’re most excited to contribute before you start, then say out loud that value you intend to contribute and lay out what’s required for it to go well.
Don’t earn a reputation for advanced competence doing something you hate. That’s not making art. Art is the act of turning pain and chaos into symmetry and beauty. But if if you take the strategy and turn its symmetry into your pain, you’re doing it backwards. Chaos comes first.
Want people to describe your work with radiant adjectives like efficient, compliant and approved? Me neither. Avoid regurgitating the marketing buzzword(s) du jour. Write anything and everything else first. Make them make you do it.
Language can’t be programmed.
Writing is far more important than the phonetic sounds it represents. You’re a real-deal storyteller, same as any novelist, columnist or screenwriter. You follow all the same rules of persuasion they follow, only you do it while stuck in Adlandia, a place where storytelling gurus are never found in decision-making positions.
Guess it turns out liberal arts schools don’t churn out a ton of CEOs. Who knew?
Without a healthy respect for the principles of story, you’ll end up writing nonsense no human has ever said aloud. My own attempts at this resulted in some seriously weird lines. Using the same priority list above, I’d get going on a list of lines and they’d be roughly this awful:
Make new friends! Start the party!
New friends make a premium party!
Premium friends, premium party!
Premium friends bring premium Bacardi!
If you just read any of those thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a real headline and it almost works!” then you’re in the camp I call the Majority of Living Humans, or the MLH. The MLH unite around one commandment: when humans talk to brands, brands shall not talk human back.
Why does stuff like this happen so often? Why are most ads complete garbage? Because we allow it. We paddle ten miles up shit creek and turn around, pinning our hope for a safe return on some schmuck’s ability to dictate how we use oars via email.
It’s worth being a fighter, if only for its own sake. As long as you avoid cheap shots and fight fair, you eventually won’t lose a battle. Here are some examples of my prouder Bacardi moments when we solved our paddle problem (despite poor swamp wifi).
They’re the patient, you’re the doctor.
If patients wrote their own scripts we’d run out of drugs — so you write the script (or the ‘script’ pun just now).
To blossom into the local story guru who’s trusted by nervous clients and coworkers for leadership through the battlefields of language, you have to make mistakes and learn what to do when communications are down and bodies start flying everywhere. Not real bodies; like, on a plane.
But speaking of the other kind. Be sure to dissect a few cadaver stories before you cut into a live one. You need to feel — not merely see — the vitals up close.
Anytime you tackle new mediums for storytelling, carve out some time to learn the genre and all its conventions.
Stories are asymmetrical. They’re told with words, made of gifts, and remembered by meaning. This meaning comes in many forms: irony, drama, tragedy, pain, beauty, or maybe even something crazy I’ve never heard of. Just remember: gifts given, not received.
A lot of writers get attached to their ideas like children. But if a child pops out who looks like someone else’s kid, that’s a tough dilemma for a parent. Do you accuse them of plagiarism and make a scene, or do you just raise the story as your own?
I have an easy way to choose who lives. Round up both kids and have them stand back-to-back. Then kill the shorter one.*
I’m kidding! Kill the parents and raise both kids as your own.**
Just hide the bodies better than these idiots.
As a former speechwriter, I fantasize about how fun it would be to write for Donald Trump. The sheer size of Trump’s…time.com
*Please don’t kill anyone. That metaphor got weird.
**Sorry for making things weird a second time.
If you take nothing else home from this piece, remember this one rule:
Write the way you talk.
Unless you’ve heard a human person say it — as in, out loud in a real conversation — then write something else. And don’t stop until you’ve found a way to give your reader a tangible gift; something measurable and real they can take home.
Here are some gifts your headline and story can and can give — capped off with some awkward examples.
TEACH STUFF THAT SOUNDS COOL.
BAD: Charter DVR is a new and improved way to watch TV!
BETTER: Time-travel was impossible. Now? It’s a button.
EXPLAIN SOMETHING WITH A FAMILIAR METAPHOR.
BAD: So good, you’ll think Grandma made it!
BETTER: Granny’s pissed we stole her recipe.
WRITE THE OPPOSITE OF EXPECTED.
BAD: The new Corvette can really fly!
BETTER: Cars can’t fly. But this is a Corvette.
MAKE YOUR READER LAUGH, IF NOTHING ELSE.
BAD: A ball in the hand beats two in the net!
BETTER: Jokes are hard. Telling one takes balls.
IMPLY A FASCINATING BACKSTORY.
BAD: You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.
BETTER: Want the needle? Burn the damn haystack
Here’s where I hide my valuables.
Here’s a pile of brands who hired me to write stuff the last couple years.
Here’s where I fire tweets aimlessly into the void.
Here’s how to hire me.
email@example.com | Available by contract anywhere in the world, except Florida.*
*Miami doesn’t count.