Just finished up the much ballyhooed second-ever Copywriting Sweatshop. It was fun, invigorating, and a shuddering success.
And — hey — I learned some cool new stuff, too.
My old pal David Deutsch was in the audience. I’d asked him to fly out, as a fellow “A List” copywriter, to sort of watch my back while I rambled and ranted and did my schtick on the stage. David and I have been discussing copy for almost twenty years now, and we’re dead serious about it. (At last count, he had six controls for Boardroom, which has got to be some kind of record.)
Anyway, after lunch on the final day, I asked David to grab a mike and join me under the bright lights up front… because I wanted the crowd to hear what we’d been talking about during breaks.
This was a subject that caused a curious reaction in people. For veteran pro writers, our eyes all lit up like Xmas come early. For non-writers, it seemed… a bit weird.
The subject? Improv.
More specifically, improvisation… as in attempting comedy without a script.
It’s definitely an art form (and one dominated by British and American actor/comedians). On TV, you may have seen the Drew Carey-hosted show “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” (which was a rip from the English original, as most of the good stuff on the tube is these days). Actor/director Christopher Guest (the gum-smacking lead guitarist from Spinal Tap) has put out a major Hollywood release about every other year that is primarily improv — no actual scripts, and lots of spontaneous brilliance from the crew. (“A Mighty Wind”, “Best In Show”, “Waiting For Guffman”, and of course “Spinal Tap”.)
Monty Python worked a lot with improv.
So the pedigree is golden. Most actors fear improv, though, cuz you gotta think fast and rely on your wits. (Something many actors lack. Without a script, they are helpless.)
Yet, there are nevertheless some fundamental rules to doing improvisation… and it is the #1 Rule that copywriters get kinda excited about.
That rule? Whenever you are teamed with someone to create a bit, spontaneously… you NEVER contradict your fellow actors. The line you rely on is: Yes… and…
In other words… you build on what the other guy just said. As David illustrated at the seminar, one guy might say “Gee, it’s cold here in the Artic”. And it would be verboten for the other actor to then shake his head and say “No, we’re not in the Artic, we’re in a desert.”
That would be “bad comedy”… and leave the first actor out in the cold, scrambling to figure out what the hell to say next. Contrariness throws the whole scene off the rails, and while it may be odd and absurd, it ain’t funny.
No. What you might actually say is: “Yes. And look at those penguins over there. They seem… hungry.” Or something like that.
The key is to build on the previous entry. The reply then might be something like: “Yeah… hungry and looking at us funny…” Now, the story is going somewhere.
Improv scares most people even more than simple public speaking (or handling snakes, the other top fear). There’s a sense of being so… naked and vulnerable.
No script. No road map. No way to predict where the scene is gonna go.
For trained comedians, heaven. For most folks, hell.
For people addicted to contrariness and stubborn negativity, it’s like entering another universe.
I took exactly one improv class, around three years ago. Loved it. Chicago’s Second City improv group came to town, and after the performance, they offered an one-time workshop. On-stage. It was easily the toughest class I’ve ever attended.
But that single rule — yes, and — intrigued me.
Turns out it’s intrigued many other marketers and writers. David is serious about it, and well into a months-long study of improv. My pal Eben Pagan (of Altitude fame) studied it, too. The list goes on.
Why the fascination with improv… a bizarre art form that seems miles away from the dreary and unfunny world of advertising?
Dude, it’s all about facing the blank page.
Sitting down at your desk with an ad to write… and not having a clue how to begin.
Well… in improv, nearly every second of performance time brings that identical problem to your plate. What are you gonna say now?
And you can’t plan ahead, because you must wait for your fellow actor to finish before you open your mouth or engage your brain. Which you gotta do, like, immediately, to keep the flow going. Bang, bang, bang.
It’s the ultimate blank page.
The concept of using “yes, and” to move ahead appeals to all writers… because it’s so friggin’ positive. It’s easy to be cynical and jaded — it’s the refuge of all scoundrels who can’t create anything, but consider knocking stuff down to be just as valuable a skill. (It isn’t.)
I realized, smack in the middle of that class, that I’d been using that same kind of positive “move it along” tactic myself… every time I sat down to write copy.
You can almost feel the enthusiasm in the simple words “yes, and“. Salesmanship thrives on enthusiasm, and shrivels under the cruel heat of negativity.
A great ad may indeed start with a not-so-good platform — in fact, most ads address some kind of urgent, dire problem. And yet, the greased slide of the sales pitch MUST steer the process into positive territory. A solution. The restoration of hope. A pleasant picture of better days, resolution, redemption, and success. (You didn’t know advertising was a distant cousin of epic drama?)
“Sure”, you might write to your skeptical prospect, “things are tough right now for you. But soon, you can start doing this. Yes, and also this. And this. And that. And also this other thing…”
You build on the tenative spark of hope your hook or USP offers, and keep building until you’ve presented the promise of a whole new life to your reader. A positive, enthusiastic transformation. (Yes, even if you’re just selling dumb little widgets.)
I’m not convinced that David and I convinced the audience at the Sweatshop of the critical nature of “yes, and“… but we at least made them more aware of the role of positive action while creating ads.
The way to break through the paralysis of the blank page… is to get high on the happy hormonal flush of building toward something nice. You can start small… but make your promise, your presentation of benefits, and your entire sales process heave and swell with each new paragraph. Bring on your hidden goodies with panache and enthusiasm and unexpected revelation.
People out there are bored, worried and clueless. As a writer, you have an opportunity to reach out and give negativity a wedgie.
And it won’t be able to get you back, if you’re climbing up and away on cool drafts of blooming good vibes.
“Yes, and” is all about working with your reader.
And anyone with a drop of salesmanship in their veins has got to be nodding right now, thinking “Yeah… and thanks for reminding me.”
Stay frosty… and watch out for penguins bearing silverware…
P.S. The other top copywriter in the audience was my longtime friend David Garfinkel — another “ringer” I asked to hang out so I could bounce things off him, and know that I had multiple professionals in the room keeping me in line.
“Garf” and I are teaming up to do a presentation at another upcoming seminar down in Los Angeles starting Wednesday, October 17th. More details to come. The seminar host insists on all speakers doing hands-on workshops, so in many ways this will be a condensed version of the Sweatshop concept. (The good thing about a real Sweatshop is that it lasts all weekend. David and I will not have that luxury, but we are plotting evil ways to force-feed advanced skills into a large, startled crowd in less than two hours. It’s a spectacularly high-wire-act tactic that only super-creative types could ever come up with…)
This will be an event for the history books.
I’m also gonna jet down to the Altitude event, right after finishing my speaking gig at the Big Seminar in Atlanta this coming weekend.
No peace for the wicked, and all that.
This Fall has become a major season for stunning new revelations in advertising and marketing. It’s always been the “main” seminar season, but this year is just nuts with opportunity and specific direction. Even if you can’t make any of the many events being held, at least be hyper-aware of any post-event material being released.
Just don’t risk falling behind, all right? Things are moving faster than ever, especially online. Watch this site, and your other “go-to” sites, to stay hip to what’s happening. It’s always a good idea to stay current, but it’s now a hard-core requirement for serious marketers.
Plus (warning: blatant pitch here)… we’ve still got a free “look” equal to two months of content down at the Carlton “Radio Rant” coaching club. No risk, killer info and advice, a chance to get your copy personally critiqued by me, and much more… this month, for example, I did a shocking co-critique show with Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero, who brings a unique female-based attitude to copywriting. Important stuff, presented with flair, mystery and fun. (That show is still posted, but you gotta hurry.)
Check it out: www.carltoncoaching.com.
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[…] Ms. Hollywood Headache wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptActor/director Christopher Guest (the gum-smacking lead guitarist from Spinal Tap) has put out a major Hollywood release about every other year that is primarily improv — no actual scripts, and lots of spontaneous brilliance from the … […]
yeah…and thanks for never giving ME a wedgie!
Just as I always thought, writing is like improv. As is playing live music such as Jazz.
I like the idea of getting the mind moving into overdrive to get the ideas flowing, and improv is the best way, IMHO, to do it. Great insight into writing copy that I neve put together myself, but makes so much sense.
Another one knocked out of the park. It’s a long fly ball… it’s going, going… it is gone!
Why does it take so much energy to get some people to see the genius of improv? Is it a world view thing? Yeah, seems simple.
Don’t you just hate being right all the time? “Yeah… and thanks for reminding me.” Great post John!
I’ve already left a comment under your annoucement of Gary Halbert’s death.
I just wanted to say I thought your post of Gary Halbert’s hot 20 clicks on his letter site was a fantastic testimonial for Gary.
I’ve blogged about it and put it on Digg too.
Thanks again John
I always knew writing was related to improv.
Could you give some resources to study and practice improv….like some books or online sites.