Tell Your Idea to Life

compWhen you have a story to tell, you usually just tell it. But in advertising, the story is what gives your idea life. And for your idea to live successfully, you have to tell it over and over. You tell it to your partner, to your team, to your client, to your director—before you finally tell it to your real audience. You literally breathe life into your idea through these tellings, so you better get good at it.

Your job, as much as anything, is about articulation. That’s seems like a weird thing to say, but it’s true. You have to figure out how to articulate your idea in a way that brings it to life for different people. Some of those people will be creative people who understand what you mean when you reference a Wes Anderson style of art direction. Others will be MBAs who are very smart at business but don’t know Wes Anderson from Steven Spielberg. Or maybe you’re talking to a CMO who has about 2 minutes to hear your idea and just wants to quickly get the gist and understand how it solves her business problem.

Whatever the case, you have to know your audience in the meeting the same way you know your audience out in the world. What will resonate with them? (Hint: there’s a 99% chance that “it would be really cool if we…” won’t resonate with them.) Importantly, how can you articulate your idea so that what’s in your head is the same thing that ends up in their head. I tell my students this over and over in my scriptwriting class. How can you get what’s in your head into my head? 

You’ll tell your story many times. If those first tellings don’t go well, that final telling will never happen. So don’t overlook those first tellings. Give a lot of thought to how you’re going to bring the story to life for your client, in particular. They should be as engaged by your telling of the story as they will be by the final execution.

We’ve all seen ideas that could be great fall flat in meetings. It’s usually because nobody gave any thought to how to present it. Or worse, didn’t think the idea needed anything more than to be read from a paper. Ideas do not sell themselves. Stories—vivid, engaging, entertaining—sell ideas. So tell a good story each time you tell it.



Source Materials for my Storytelling Class

This past quarter, I taught a storytelling class at Miami Ad School with some really talented, enthusiastic first-quarter writers. Here’s a list of some of the source materials I used as examples and sometimes just stole from to make myself sound like I knew what I was talking about:

On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner

On Writing by Stephen King

 The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson

The Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volumes I and II, by Writer’s Digest

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon

The Moth Stories
This video from J.J. Abrams.

Various lists, such as this one by Elmore Leonard and this one by John Steinbeck

Writing samples from writers much better than myself, including Edward Abbey, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, Donald Antrim, Roberto Bolaño, Richard Brautigan, Jon Clinch, Mark Costello, Patrick deWitt, A.M. Homes, Dan Kennedy, Chip Kidd, J Robert Lennon, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Tim O’Brien, Helen Oyeyemi, J.D. Salinger, Jim Shepard, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace.

Not Closing the Loop

Years ago, I took a fiction writing class in which we looked at some rough drafts of James Joyce stories and compared them with the finals. The thing that was most striking in this exercise was that Joyce often revised his work to make it more ambiguous. He made it less clear. More open to interpretation. Which was pretty counter-intuitive.

There’s a little diagram that I draw in my class when I’m trying to explain how an ad delivers its message. I usually get semi-blank stares, but hopefully this will make sense.

Imagine all the elements of an ad, everything that carries meaning, forming a circle. So, for simplicity’s sake, lets say you have an ad with a headline, visual and tagline. Here’s your circle:

Makes sense. The loop is closed.

Now, we’ve all seen ads that explain the visual, as if the audience is too stupid to put it together for themselves. The same diagram for a see-and-say, redundant, over-explained or dumbed-down concept would look like this:

And conversely, an ad concept that’s too obtuse, where the audience can’t figure out what the hell you’re trying to say, would look like this:

That’s no good either. It’s confusing.

The thing is, going back to Joyce, that first circle, where the loop is completely closed, that’s not the best kind of ad. It doesn’t leave any room for the viewer to enter into the equation. You want the loop there, but you need to trust that your audience is smart enough to close it. It doesn’t have to be a puzzle, but there needs to be that moment of insight, of “Ah! I get it.” When that little thing clicks, little bits of pleasure fill the brain and there’s a connection to the brand. The ideal circle looks more like this:

Here are a couple examples of great ads from the last couple years. They don’t explain everything. There are layers. Like returning to a great movie, every time I watch them, I notice something different. I feel involved. I feel like my intelligence has been respected.

The first time I saw this ad (and I’ll admit I wasn’t paying much attention), I thought: “Oh, wild kids grow up and play football.” The second time, I got the story, that it was LT and Polamalu and that they’d been destined for this moment their whole lives. The third time, I started noticing subtleties, like that LT was always moving to the right and Polamalu to the left, and how it captured the personalities of the players. My mom wouldn’t get this ad. She wouldn’t know who these two guys are. But this ad isn’t for my mom. It’s for football fans. I watch it, I pick up on these things, and I feel like it’s for me. Like I’m in on it. I’m a part of the circle.

Everyone’s seen this next one. A few months ago, I was at a planning conference (peeking behind the curtain) and, as an exercise, a room full of us were asked to break down the elements of meaning in this ad. The symbols. Like you’d analyze a film in a film class. It was amazing how everyone brought their own interpretations. Balls as pixels. Brilliant color. Sharp movement. Hyper-real. Surreal. Escapism. Watching the world through a window. The whimsy of children. Even things that people read into the choice of San Francisco as a shoot location.

Some of these were definitely planned during the production. Some probably happy accidents. But what’s important is that, again, it involves the viewer. A voice-over that said, “We see the world in pixels. In beautiful, brilliant colors. Full of movement…” would have ruined this spot.

So that’s my pitch here. It’s tough to explain to clients sometimes. The safe way to go is to make sure everything is crystal clear. That’s why some clients test the shit out of commercials. And that’s why testing commercials can suck the magic right out of them. Testing is about making sure all the loops are neatly closed. But some loops should be left open.

Noam Murro on Storytelling

Every time I thought I’m going out to do something great, it turned out to be shit. And vice versa. I think that it starts with these guys (gesturing to the creatives), you know? If on the page it’s good, most likely it’ll be OK when you shoot it. You cannot take a piece of crap and make it great; throw money at it, put a great director on it. It really is as good as the page is. There is so much talk about evolution and I feel like I’m in business at a grocery store actually versus everything else that has been said here. Essentially I don’t really care what it’s going to be played on. At the end of the day it all culminates to this human experience – “Can I relate to whatever has been presented to me or not?” And I think that there’s so much talk about digital – digital schmigital. Amazon came out with the Kindle, right? But it’s still the same Anna Karenina on it. And it’s still pretty damn good.
-Noam Murro