Most style guides are useless.
And, no, I’m not talking about visual style guides that specify fonts and logos and CMYK codes for brand colors.
I’m talking about style guides focused on Brand Voice — Copy Bibles, if you will. I’ve seen a few scores of them over the years, and 95% have been utterly worthless.
Because they mainly consist of Brand Voice descriptions along the lines of:
- “Widget Incorporated’s Brand Voice is mainly professional with a hint of humor.” Or
- “Our voice is human and quirky.” Or
- “ACME Corp is always respectful and honest in their communications.”
In other words, these documents are often nothing but an adjective word cloud put into guideline format.
There are no hard and fast rules (or even rules of thumb) in these so-called guidelines. Nor are there any practical directions around how the brand’s “humanity” (or whatever) will be communicated in a commercial, e-mail, or Web page.
And, no, grammar guidelines don’t count. Cutting and pasting various bromides from The Elements of Style into a Copy Bible won’t auto-magically produce a recognizable voice.
None of this stuff will let a professional copywriter (let alone your average employee) create copy that sounds “professional but quirky.” Or that has any kind of distinctive personality whatsoever.
The Road Runner’s Style Guide
Want to see a style guide done right? Here’s Chuck Jone’s style guide for The Road Runner Cartoons:
What’s great about this style guide?
- Notice that these aren’t guidelines; they’re freaking rules. Rules with words like “Never” and “Always” and “All” and “No.”
- Notice also that these rules are all astoundingly specfic.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these rules are aimed at establishing the internal logic of the Road Runner’s world.
Internal Logic, baby!
Because world building is what real writers worry about. And world building is all about establishing the internal logic, the limitations, and yes, the rules of a given world.
THIS is the stuff that creates a distinct voice and personality. This is the stuff that separates Star Trek from Star Wars from Dune. Different worlds, different internal logic, different ideas about what the characters can and can not do.
It’s why J.K. Rowling spent 5 years establishing the rules for Harry Potter before ever publishing the first book:
“The five years I spent on HP and the Philosopher’s Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you’re creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN’T do. . .you can tell with The Simpsons. It’s a work of genius. You can tell that they’ve structured it in such a way that they’re never at a loss for what their characters can and can’t do. That’s why they’re so believable – even though they’re little yellow people.”
If your Brand Voice guide or Style Guide doesn’t fit this profile — if it doesn’t build a world with internal logic and hard and fast rules — then you probably need to get yourself a new style guide, if not a new ad consultant altogether.
P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Pope’s Ad Teachings blog for the image of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner rules.
P.P.S. After a bit more research, I found out that there were two more rules for The Road Runner:
- Rule 10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
- Rule 11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
Ira’s third video on storytelling is by far the most popular.
So much so that it has been featured on numerous blogs and even been turned into an Kinetic Typography video. Take a look:
Basically, Ira Glass is describing the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect.
The Dunning-Krueger effect basically says that the perceptive abilities, sensitivity, and awareness necessary to know that you suck at something, are the same perceptive abilities, sensitivity and awareness necessary to (eventually) become skilled at that very thing.
So if you have good taste — the aforementioned perception, sensitivity and awareness — then you have the potential to become good, or even great, but you’re stuck making stuff that you know kind of sucks until your craft skills catch up with your taste and ambition.
Believe it or not, that’s the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The negative side is that the totally incompetent lack the ability to sense their own incompetence. They suck like a hoover, but think they’re great.
But the positive side is only positive if:
- You retain your ambition to be great and don’t settle for becoming a hack, and
- You work through that awful feeling of knowing you are consistently creating stuff that’s “not that great,” as Ira puts it.
And while this might have very self-evident relevance for creatives and craftspeople of all kinds, including copywriters and advertising professionals, this video’s relevance to advertisers and business owners might not be so evident.
So I’m going to give you my spin on it…
From an advertisers perspective, I think this video speaks to:
- Linear, no-threshold thinking,
- Minimum Effective Dose, and
- Cumulative Effect
Linear, No-Threshold Thinking
Linear, no-threshold thinking assumes that a function is predictably scalable. That if you do twice as much, or half as much, you’ll get double or half of the result.
But more often than not, there are thresholds and inflection points, and diminishing returns which make linear, no-threshold thinking dangerously misguided. If you buy a ticket halfway to Europe, you don’t end up with a half a European vacation; you just end up stranded at sea. 80% of the parts of an engine don’t get you 80% of the horsepower.
And to borrow an example from my partner, Roy H. Williams, if…
“Reliable data tells us exactly how many motorcycle riders have died trying to navigate an S-curve at 100 miles per hour. The straightforward logic of traditional accounting, with its linear, no-threshold thinking, predicts one-tenth as many deaths at 10 miles per hour.
But we know this is ridiculous. The number of riders that die at 10 or 20 miles per hour is likely to be zero. There is a threshold speed at which the curve becomes dangerous. Any extrapolation that crosses that threshold is certain to be inaccurate.”
These kinds of thresholds are inevitable when dealing with human response. Especially when it comes to advertising. There is a threshold of interest, relevance, and impact for ads: the threshold which moves an ad from background noise into conscious awareness. If any ad fails to reach that threshold, it becomes essentially invisible, and would require nigh-unto-infinite repetition to get results.
And assuming that you have given your ad writer something worth saying, then the factors which determine whether your ad crosses that threshold are what Ira Glass might call the taste, ambition, and honesty of your ad writer.
If your ad writer is a hack — if he accepts adspeak, hype, and advertising cliches, or tries to bluff with fluff on the production side — then your ads are never likely to cross the threshold of impact. And no matter how much frequency you load into your ad schedule, your ads won’t move the needle on sales.
If your ad writer aspires to be great and has a modicum of talent and craft skills, then your ads will likely cross the impact threshold. As Leo Burnett said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
And of course, it’s not only a matter of impactful vs. not impactful. It’s also a matter of how impactful. The more impact your ad carries, the less repetition is required. LBJ’s “Daisy” ad is a classic example of an ad so powerful, it only required one airing to make an impact (pun intended):
And, this is where talent and craft really take over from taste and ambition. The more skilled and talented your ad writer, the more impact he (or she) can bake into your ads.
Minimum Effective Dose
What do you think will happen to your headeache if you take 20 mg of Ibuprofin?
Nothing, right? Because while Ibuprofin can be a godsend for getting rid of headaches, the minimum effective dose is 200mg, with most adults taking 400mg or more.
If you take significantly less than 200mg, you’ll recieve no benefit.
Simlarly, If you go the gym for a day or even a week and complain that it didn’t work, you simply didn’t meet the requirements of the minimum effective dose. You’ll see some benefits at the end of a month, but plan on 90 days for real changes that others will comment on.
And it’s no coincidence that Stephen King compares writing to weightlifting. Want to be a professional writer? Better be prepared to put the time in every day becoming a “stronger” writer. Just like Ira Glass says about doing great creative work.
The same thing applies to Advertising.
Most mass-media branding campaigns require enough frequency and duration—enough of a minimum effective dose—to really work their magic. You might get lucky and see some results in 90 or 180 days, but plan on a full year or longer at a high enough frequency of ads to get a minimum effective dose.
And just like with working out (or, in Ira’s case, with doing great creative), there’s a certain level of frustration and chickening out you just have to work through. Be prepared for this chickening out period, and take Ira’s advice: fight your way through it.
Cumulative Effect is the other side of the coin from Minimum Effective Dose. Assuming your ad passes the threshold for relevance and impact, and that you’ve scheduled enough frequency to give the audience a minimum effective dose, the persuasive power of your ad will build over time.
You might just be starting to see results at the end of a year, but those results will accumulate and build. You’re not starting over each year, you’re standing on the persuasive results you gained from the year before.
For Ira Glass, the cumulative effect of doing a lot of ambitious work and working through your frustration period is to breakthrough into the ability to speak in your real, authentic voice, and to do interesting and special creative work that matters.
For advertisers, the cumulative effect of your advertising is certainly about increasing your market share and moving the needle on sales. But it’s also about finding your advertising voice and hitting peak stride in your ads and campaigns.
Most TV shows, and especially most comedies, get better after a season or two. The Simpsons first season wasn’t as good as what was to come. It took a season or two to really hit its stride. Same thing with Seinfeild. And most advertising campaigns are like that. The results build with time, but so does the authenticity of the voice and the impact of individual ads.
And that folks, is what I took away from Ira’s third video on storytelling. If you saw something else in the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.