The other day, I directed via remote patch an 8-year-old actor who was lending his voice to our spot. Every time I work with kids, I end up shaking my head and saying, “I will never work with kids again.” They’re notoriously flaky, they can’t follow exact direction, they have short attention spans, and their range is often limited. Most of them act like children half the time.
When you’re directing any person, you have to figure out what works for them. With voice-overs, they tend to break down into two groups–actors and announcers. An actor is someone who likes to be directed with motivation and emotion–a little sadder, say it with more empathy, see if you can do something more cowboy. An announcer, on the other hand, likes specifics–emphasize this word, go up instead of down on that word, use an accent. It’s important to understand what direction works better for the talent you’re working with.
For the 8-year-old, we realized pretty quickly that he wasn’t responding to announcer direction. No surprise there, really. I’d tell him to emphasize a word more, and he’d give me the exact same read. I’d tell him to do it with more energy–exact same read. But then we started playing around a little. In the spot, we have a little boy ghost. So we told him “Pretend you’re a ghost telling a secret to another ghost.” His read changed. Instead of telling him to be louder, we said, “Now tell the same secret to another ghost, but it’s very windy out and he can barely hear you.” For more energy, we asked him to “Tell the secret to another ghost, but you’re being chased by a dinosaur through the jungle.”
It was a blast. And we got an awesome range of reads from him. He ripped off over 70 reads in a short amount of time because he had a great imagination–most kids do.
We always talk about how this business requires creativity at every phase of the process. This was the first time I had to be so creative while giving direction to talent. But it was also the most fun I’ve ever had at the studio. And maybe the first time I didn’t say, “I’ll never work with kids again.”
I encourage my writing students to really experiment with their process. I find that things like the time of day that I write, what kind of mood I’m in, where I am, what kind of music I listen to, whether I’m writing or typing, whether I’m writing with a pen or a pencil or a crayon– all these things can influence how I write and bring out different voices.
Sometimes I write down the page. Just one thought per line, kind of like a telegram. It’s not a magic trick, but sometimes it helps me focus on each sentence. Evaluate each sentence on its own merit. Cut out the fat. And get the transitions right.
Here’s a trick I sometimes use. Not always, but it’s worth trying.
Usually when I sit down to write, I realize I have a range of voices to explore. Say I’m writing headlines for a chocolate company (or playing with layouts, if you’re an art director). Here are three areas off the top of my head that I could explore:
Chocolate is an almost sinful indulgence.
Chocolate is something I enjoy alone when I’m feeling content.
Chocolate is something I share with friends during the good times.
Here are three very different ways of writing about chocolate. And depending on the brand, they could all be valid.
That’s when I make my playlist.
Even if I’m only dealing with print, I’ll take my areas and make a playlist for each area. For the three areas I’ve listed above, maybe I’ll do a Genius playlist on iTunes based on the following:
Sinful indulgence = “Justify My Love” by Madonna
Alone + feeling content = “Peng!” by Iron & Wine
Friends + good times = “Suddenly I See” by KT Tunstall
Then I’ll listen to these playlists as I write. This does two things for me:
It keeps me from falling into a rut of writing a certain way. For years, I would write almost exclusively to jazz. No matter the assignment, I’d break out Miles Davis or Chick Corea. But I’ve learned that if I were writing lines for a motorcycle videogame, “Kind of Blue” might not put me in the same frame of mind as “Wildflower” by the Cult.
It lets me stumble upon (and steal) ideas. While doing this playlist exercise a couple days ago, I was listening to an Iron & Wine song and heard the lyrics “the Pearly Gates have some eloquent graffiti.” I’d never really noticed that line before, and the word “eloquent” fit really well with what I was writing. Not sure I would have stumble upon it if I hadn’t been listening to “The Trapeze Artist.”
Copywriters: the next time you’re absolutely stuck with your copy, try this.
Go pick up a novel of a writer whose style you admire. Say it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez – he’s about as unmarketing-speaky as you can get. Open to any page. Now copy the words of the page into your own notebook.
When you’re finished, start writing what you need to say about your product. You’ll find you’re doing it in an entirely different voice.
You can do this with Hemmingway and Steinbeck as easily as you can with Dan Brown and David Sedaris. Go ahead and try some poetry. Works with Sandberg and Billy Collins, too.
Art directors: Do the same by taking out a big book on fine art. Or photography. Or design. You don’t have to recreate each painting. But you can try. Sketch out the composition. Study the shadows and the colors. Spend a half hour with a particular style. Then jump into your layout while it’s fresh in your brain.
Small trick. But it works. And it’s much better than staring at a blank page, or just writing and laying out what you think the client (or the awards show juries) expect.
Whenever a producer puts together an ensemble cast – especially on sit-coms – one of the characters is bound to be “the dumb guy.” Woody on Cheers. Bull on Night Court. Joey on Friends. Even Michael Scott on The Office. It’s a good character because it’s kind of a sounding board for the audience’s reality. But it’s also cliche.
A few years ago (before he killed his career), I read an interview with Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld. He said that he really came into the character in about the third season. He said it dawned on him that Kramer wasn’t slogging a few paces behind the rest of the cast. He was wildly racing blocks ahead of them. If you watch the early Kramer vs. the Season 4 Kramer and beyond, you see what I mean.
Kramer was still filling the role. Technically, he was the “dumb guy.” But the blocks-ahead-vs.-steps-behind approach made him unlike any other ensemble cast “dumb guy” ever seen, and one of the most memorable characters on TV. And it’s because he took the cliche and turned it on its head.
I bring this up, because turning the cliche on its head is a great tool for you to use. If your CD or a professor points out that one of your ideas is cliche (chances are, you know already), don’t immediately abandon it and rack your brains for a replacement out of thin air. Start by admitting that you used a cliche for a reason, so on some level, it works.
Take that cliche and turn it on its head. Kramerize it.
When I played basketball with my dad when I was young, he liked to post up and, when he got the ball, intentionally step on my foot before making his move. I called it dirty. He called it experience.
There are a million tiny things you can do to help sell your work. Here’s perhaps the smallest.
Before you present a campaign idea, do a little setup. Sometimes I put these paragraphs on a board, or hand them out so people can read along. Title or tagline at the top, then a few sentences that walk from the strategy to the execution (in as direct a route as possible–weed out all the tangential stuff). Maybe include a nice mood photo. This is pretty much standard. I have even played music while I read the setup.
So here’s the little trick. End the paragraph with your tagline. It’s stupid, I know, but think about when you’re reading a book, and somewhere in the prose of the book, you come across the title. It jumps out at you, and you start to think there’s something meaningful in that sentence. Like a theme. Like something deep. Like an answer, maybe. Sometimes it’s the little things.