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This article touches a number of areas when it comes to being creative and finalizing your creative work. The content is based on interviews and my own experiences. Let’s be more creative, ship our work and get stuff done!
Shipping creative work
Now, Seth published his latest book “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.”
- Why there’s no such thing as writer’s block (also more about that below)
- Attitudes as skills
- The importance of the right kind of criticism
- And more much…
How to actually be creative
In a content performance culture, we are always looking for results. Results are necessary, but the pendulum may have swung too far from being creative to over-focusing on results only. Plus, creativity can lead to results. I had fantastic guests on the Business Storytelling Podcast livestream that talked about how to actually be creative.
And here’s the video of the live recording:
Sam Horn, author and keynote speaker, joined me on this episode and shared some of the tips to create memorable and repeatable content.
You can also listen to my conversation with Sam as a podcast version here or wherever you listen to podcasts:
How to be creative basics
Sometimes creativity is thought of as something that just happens and sometimes it does. I’ll dive into that in a later section. But there are some basics that both Adam and Sam mentioned.
Understand how the creative process works
Many of us have been in meetings where people bring sticky notes, throw snacks on the conference room table and declare that we are all now ready to brainstorm and be creative.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way to be creative, Adam explained. Here’s how creativity works:
Give the team an idea about what we are trying to accomplish and then offer them time to think about it themselves. Be sure to actually give them time, though!
Sometimes we hear this as “Bring your ideas to the meeting” directive. But, for it to work we need to be clear about what we are trying to accomplish and give a few more details.
Then make some ideas on your own, Adam explained.
The problem with allowing thinking time is that it doesn’t look productive. But it’s necessary.
On one wide-ranging change in marketing strategy a CMO and I went around to department heads and others to secure buy-in and support. OMG. That took forever. Could we just start, please? Nope. It would have never worked without their support, which we received.
And many of them spent additional time thinking about the initiative and sent more ideas and improvements. Very efficient! Yes!
On another project I was talking to an executive who was getting frustrated with slow progress.
I asked how long he’s had these ideas that we were implementing.
“I developed it over a few years mentally.”
And it’s only been six months after public rollout. It takes time and maybe people didn’t have enough time to think about it yet because they are so busy walking around the water cooler. We only have so much brain power! That’s one reason Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day. So he didn’t have to spent decision-making energy on what to wear.
Of course, one reason the old model of trying to wrap things in meetings happens so people can be billed by the hour. I had one executive who needed some help with content marketing and she asked me how much I charge by the hour.
“I don’t charge by hour. I charge by project.”
You wouldn’t want to pay an hourly rate for my thinking time. That racks up quickly. Because thinking takes time and if I already know the answer because I thought about it for another client why should it be cheaper for client no. 2?
Bring ideas to a meeting
Bring your ideas to a meeting and then build on each other. Maybe vote on the best ones. Consider sleeping on it again.
Now, this isn’t an invitation to overthink and overprocess all creative processes. Adam reminds us that some decisions do not need to go through an entire creative process. Just make a decision.
But in larger projects, it’s not good to have one meeting and always make a decision right then. As good as checking decisions off our list is, this isn’t a way to be creative.
Using better, more creative language
Sam covered a lot of the strategies to consider in her livestream interview with me. She shared how there are some rules that are worth following. For example, how you word things.
For example, coffee sleeves were branded as Java Jackets. That’s much easier to remember than disposable coffee sleeves. “Hey, let’s create some branding on Java Jackets” is easier to say and memorable too.
When Sam and I chatted about her joining me on the show, she suggested to talk about “Repeatable and Retweetable” stories. Very easy to remember and using creativity to be memorable certainly is a goal for marketers.
And at the end of the day marketers want their brands to be remembered. Using the strategies discussed can help us get there and do it in a more deliberate way.
On another episode, marketing executive Lori Cohen discussed a part of this current issue focusing on branding.
Talk to think is a thing for some creatives
Holly Adams asked an interesting question over on her blog: Do you think to talk or talk to think?
Good question and I would say I fall into the talk to think category.
And I actually think that helps me collaborate. I learn and uncover out loud. I was told before: “You have to say
Sure, sometimes people will pick on it and push back on something they thought they heard.
“I disagree with that opinion, Christoph.”
“What opinion? I was asking a question.”
Questions certainly can show your bias and agenda and that’s okay. But they are also tools we use to gather details and then form next steps.
Some people call that wishy washy but it’s just one of different styles.
The other – as Holly mentioned – is to think to talk.
The important part here is to know when that’s somebody’s style.
Also it’s interesting that generations of children have been told to “think before you talk.”
That’s good advice and thinking about the words we are going to say is important. I do that too but I don’t let it stop me from talking to think.
Is that the right thing to say?
One thing I love about talking to learn is that you aren’t always looking to say “the right” thing.
It’s about moving the conversation forward and learning. It actually helps me enjoy the journey.
Either way, the trick of collaboratively communication is that people in a group should try to understand:
- their own style
- the impact it has on others
- the style of others
- those style’s impact on themselves
- how to work through the differences
- how the conversation helps us move toward a business goal
Different styles are okay and it’s super helpful to understand and work with them. And of course that’s a two-way street for all involved.
Once aligned with moving toward a business goals we can have a high-performing team.
Some of you want structure. Structure for everything. To create something new, we need to have a process. Step 1 at this time. Then Step 2. Step 3. This meeting only has a minute left. You know what I mean, right? There’s a reason for structure. Use it! And Adam and Sam discussed some of that structure in their episodes.
Don’t forget about the information creativity, though.
But not everything happens in a structured environment. Stories happen when they happen. Not necessarily when it’s convenient for the storyteller or brand journalist.
I’m usually most creative in the spur of the moment; when it’s unscheduled. Though, sometimes scheduling time to just think helps, too.
Structure and creativity: Accidental collaboration
Some of the best ideas and projects have happened outside a structure – (i.e.: meetings, official brainstorming, etc.).
For example, I was once researching and writing a script and ran into somebody else in the hallway. I asked an off-handed question related to what I was working on. That led to an impromptu exchange of ideas.
It was “building on the other person’s ideas.”
“Here’s my idea.”
“How about this…”
“And then we could do this…”
“And then this…”
“Is that possible?”
“Maybe not to that extent, but this would be…”
“Let me sketch that out.”
Later the phone rings.
“I just thought of something else… what if…”
“That would work with what I just thought of…”
Then somebody else stepped in:
“Hey, did I hear you guys talk about…”
“What do you think if we do…”
You get the idea. When you mix people with varying backgrounds, in an open environment that allows time for exchanges like this, results can happen. Authentic stories are told and told in new and creative ways.
Just be aware that interruptions can also hurt other projects or thinking time.
Structure and creativity: The meeting after the meeting
A related topic to this is when things happen after “scheduled” collaborations/interviews/etc.
The scheduled event is over and another meeting, related to the first meeting, happens in the hallway, for example.
First of, years ago when I worked as a newspaper reporter during interviews:
I would interview a person. It’s an OFFICIAL interview, right? I would get some good information. Then the interview is over. You shake hands. “Thanks for the interview” and then walk out the building together to get to your respective cars.
And then, the conversation returns to the topic discussed in the interview (what else would you talk about, right?) and the person shares something else essential to the story. If it’s essential why wasn’t it shared earlier?
I’ve also seen this happening during other non-journalistic projects:
Here’s the scheduled meeting to collaborate. Please submit Idea A, now B in 10 seconds and so forth. Sorry, out of time. What are the action steps? There’s some progress. We might even call it a success … until the meeting is over and two or three people just chat about things and come up with the best idea, yet. Fingers crossed that they spot the idea and figure out a way to bring it back to the entire project team.
This is another reminder why to follow Adam’s process mentioned earlier.
Sometimes people are much more involved in those “secondary” ideas. Think of the reporter heading back into the newsroom. He is talking about the “after-the-interview fact.” It seems essential. And often is. Same with that second example: That group is now talking about the “secondary” idea. It’s what got them excited, maybe even pumped about the project.
From there, take that momentum and fascination to make sure the idea happens.
Structure and creativity: Who works at 3 a.m.?
A video editor once said “I edit an entire piece at 3 in the morning while in bed.”
I do that, too. You probably do, too, if you edit, write, put together presentations or other such things.
One time, I was pushing a presentation time and the PowerPoint hadn’t been created, yet. But really, it was done – in my head. I just hadn’t put it on the slides.
I go back years ago, when a longtime newspaper person told me that so and so would leave the newsroom, write the story in his head, come back inside and quickly type it out.
So, why do these things happen? I’m guessing it has to do with that people are more relaxed. Their brains are thinking about the project. You are past the “I need to answer that now” part and can now just talk (or collaborate). There’s time to think!
Sometimes, you need scheduled events. For example, when ideas aren’t just happening, a process like the one discussed above and below can be implemented.
The same process to be creative may not work for everyone. The key is find what works for each person and a team.
Finding ideas in other niches
Ideas are everywhere around us and one strategy that I love is linking ideas, which Jim Link discusses in his book “Idea-Links.”
The book explains the structure of linking ideas from one area to projects in another unrelated field.
By looking at the world and making mental notes of things around us, we can actually implement ideas from unrelated fields and advance our own industry’s current state.
The book, for example, mentioned how the Prius gives its driver instant feedback on how much fuel is being used. The book mentions how drivers like this and even try to get more miles per gallons out of their vehicles.
The book talks about how this phenomenon could be used in other industries. For example, in a home: If you keep this light on here’s how much the bill will be.
Another example that I found interesting was of the Oregon Ducks college football team. The team ran plays every 13 seconds, which compares to an average of more than 34 seconds for other teams.
How did the coaches speed up the game so much? They looked at other industries that were fast. And who is fast? The fast food industry, of course. McDonald’s, for example. You drive up and say “One No. 2, please.” And they know you want a drink, fries and two cheeseburgers.
Speeds up the process, doesn’t it? The team took that concept and translated it to the field. Instead of calling a play through a number of words, they communicated it through one sign!
The coach took a process from another unrelated field and applied it to his own profession.
The book puts structure around creativity. Some people, who we might call creative, already do some of this but can’t explain what they just did when they do it. This book puts a process around creativity and how to find new ideas, store them somewhere for later recall and then implement some of those ideas.
We all can be creative when we realize what the best process is for us and our teams. Let’s create better content and user experiences by being more creative and drive results that way.
How to overcome writer’s block
You might wonder: What would a guy (me! ???) who blogs 15,000 words per month have to say about writer’s block?
It’s true that I hardly ever sit in front of my computer and don’t know what to blog about. Ever really. I usually have to prioritize what I want to blog about. Too. Many. Ideas ?.
But there was a time when I had writer’s block. And then I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and more of a storyteller and the writing became easier. ? I no longer had to live up to writing superstars – as long as I shared a story that helped people or that people cared about I got five stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️. It’s a bit about framing and mindset. So let me share when I had writer’s block and then how I routinely overcome it.
Writer’s block happened in these instances. I’ll then immediately share my solution.
1 – I was overthinking things
Is this the right friendly voice or whatever the alleged brand voice that nobody uses is supposed to be? Will this be worded in the way the boss likes? Thinking = good. Overthinking = bad!
Related reading: Who is actually your audience? Hint: Shouldn’t be the boss
Solution: Figure out the best workflow. One that doesn’t put you through Approval Hell! Get buy-in first. Devise a plan to avoid the nit-pickers. Don’t get me wrong here: There’s a difference between nit-pickers and tough editors. The latter ones make things actually better – now. And the former just change things on preference and often to justify their involvement. (I’ve actually had an editor tell me this before. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ for transparency.)
Write for your actual audience.
2- I sat down without a plan
Here’s a keyboard. Please write something.
That hardly ever works. Probably the reason why many make an outline first. I do outlines too. Usually in my head. For example, I wrote this post in my head while driving to the gym and while lifting. I then wrote it on the stationary bike on my phone.
I used similar strategies as a journalist. While driving back from a crime scene I would organize the story in my head and then just kind of spit it out and write it.
The actual content writing doesn’t that long but the process to get there can take some time. And while that process can run simultaneously to other things if it doesn’t happen we can easily end up with writer’s block.
Solution: Thinking time matters. Account for it in your content writing process. You might also need some time to uncover unique facts and details if you are ghostwriting for somebody else!
3 – I picked the wrong time of the day.
I write, edit, workout much better in the morning. That’s why I blog in the morning. Same with editing. Or going to the gym. There’s a better outcome when I do those things early. I’m really good at sitting on the couch in the evenings though. ??
Solution: Only create content at the most productive time or close to it. Don’t use this as an excuse though. I also can’t usually blog in the morning because I’m in meetings and things like that. So I moved blogging to early morning. Before the kids are up. Close enough! But it cuts into what used to be known as sleeping time.
4 – There is no story there
Most of my stories and decisions on here are self-motivated. No bossy editor tells me what to produce next. My call. But there are situations out there where editors demand stories because they are demanded from them – for example.
Sometimes it’s hard to push back but creating CRAP (Content Really Annoying to People) doesn’t help anyone. People won’t consume it. It won’t show results and can even kill a content marketing strategy. “See, it’s not working.” ➡️Because we created stuff without an audience-centric purpose!⬅️
Solution: Get away from that editor. Okay, not always an option. Ask questions:
- Why are we creating this?
- What’s the goal?
- What’s going on that is unique or new?
As long as you can get the boss to answer these questions that can help us get something halfway interesting.
Those are the top 4 things that have caused me writer’s block. Today, it’s rare. One last more tip that works for me. I do this:
A story happens that I think (not overthink) people might care about – I produce and then share it.
And don’t forget about who your audience is
All this creativity also needs to consider who we are trying to reach and what they are like. Author and top creative director Mat Zucker had some thoughts on understanding your audience in his book and on this livestream of the podcast.
For example, when his team was working on radio commercials to be run in Virginia they called a local library to hear the accent and get a better feeling for mannerism in Virginia. Smart.
Know your personas
Personas are used to understand our audiences – basically the people we are creating content for and the ones we’d like to become our customers. The more we know about the people we are producing relevant content for, the easier that content creation and conversion path can become. We know how to frame the content and what stories to pursue and publish. Because we know them, their preferences and likes. But there’s a fine line…
I’m all for people buying my products and services but connecting with people online through relevant content is about much more than just the sale. In fact we should start with building the audience first and then focus on selling. Joe Pulizzi’s “Content Inc.” book – released in September 2015 and with a second edition out in 2021 – discusses this topic at length.
Personas can help us understand our audiences better.
Personas often describe the following as it relates to our audience members:
- Age (ranges)
- Education levels
- How they talk to each other and how they likely want to be talked to
- Technology use
- Likely social media networks and other media consumption
- Other relevant information
Some of those traditional things could be more useful in my opinion. Always weigh how the information included will actually help you create better experiences for them. For example, it’s very helpful to me as a content strategist to know:
- What their problems are
- And how they align with what I can do for them
- Their communication preferences
Personas help content creators and remind them how and where their target audiences can be reached. Most importantly, they help content producers create content that those audience members actually want to consume.
At the end of the day, there are things we can and should consider when it comes to being creative to help our business thrive. And while we should consider the things that work and have worked we also need to move forward and try different ways to build the brand and reach the right audiences.
When he worked at the Henry Ford Company, certainly the teams considered the innovative work that has come before them and remembered the story form the past to move forward into the future.
Being creative is hard work, but the journey can be fun with a great team and in a great company. Here’s to creating experiences that make a differences and that are enjoyable for all involved.