“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” – Julia Cameron
The two black men, clean-cut and well-spoken, casually stroll down an upscale California street.
Mostly-white yuppies step into and out of restaurants and clubs on this busy Saturday night. Well-dressed 30-somethings stroll about, window shopping.
Now, one white couple comes from the opposite direction, walking toward the black men. The camera zooms in, showing the white woman suddenly clutching her bag and the arm of her male companion just a little bit tighter as they approach and then pass the black men. The camera pans to the men.
“Look around!” says one of the men to the other. “You couldn’t find a whiter, safer, or better lit part of this city. But this white woman sees two black guys, who look like UCLA students, strolling down the sidewalk and her reaction is blind fear. I mean, look at us! Are we dressed like gangbangers? Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared, it’s us: the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the trigger-happy LAPD.”
You may recognize this scene. It is at the beginning of the 2005 Academy Award-winning film Crash.
And it was at this exact point that I recall thinking, “Oh brother, here we go. Looks like I’d better get ready for a politically correct Hollywood preachfest.”
I had it all figured out. I knew where it was heading, and I was ready to tune it all out.
But that’s when something very interesting happened. Back to the black men talking…
“So, why aren’t we scared?” asks the first man.
And now, the big surprise when the other one replies…
“Because we have guns?”
And then the two men run into the street and violently carjack the white couple’s BMW SUV, throwing them to the ground and screeching away. Wow! I didn’t expect that! NOW, Crash most definitely had my attention. Not because I was glad to see the black men fall into stereotype, but because I’d been perfectly set up to anticipate just the opposite.
In films and books, it’s sometimes known as a “ deus ex machina”… You may think of it simply as a plot twist… But in copywriting, it’s defying what Michael Masterson has termed the “Categorical Imperative”.
When readers start knowing where the copy is going… when they can predict the next step in your story… they tend to dismiss it – tune it out, just as I was about to do with Crash . They might still be reading, but really, you’ve lost them.
You see, the mind tends to simplify its work by slipping incoming ideas into pre-existing slots (“categories”) it has already created. It does this so it can shift its attention to something else (anything else). And it will do this with promotional information as well as other experiences.
In order to circumvent this tendency of the mind, strong writing – and, in particular, good sales promotions – must avoid a straight-line, logical approach.
Instead, use “indirection.” Approach the reader in a way, or from a place, he doesn’t expect. And then, keep changing things up. The overall effect is to keep the reader from anticipating where the promotion is going and keep his mind from wandering.
In his engaging new book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer explains how Russian composer Igor Stravinsky used what I’ll call the musical equivalent of indirection to overcome the Categorical Imperative of his listeners.
It began in 1913 with Stravinsky’s audaciously shocking ballet music, “The Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du Printemps”). Instead of lulling his audience to sleep with predictable chords and rhythms, Stravinsky constantly changed time signatures and added unpredictable and off-beat accents.
Traditionalists at first rejected ” Rite” as a dissonant disaster, but most soon realized the genius behind it. American composer Aaron Copland has since characterized “The Rite of Spring” as the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century. It was further popularized through Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
With his background of having worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Lehrer explains how the brain actually generates dopamine – the “pleasure” neurotransmitter – when presented with interesting, new information. Usually, dopamine release is triggered during enjoyable experiences, such as eating and having sex. It also gets “fooled” into being released with drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, and amphetamines. But Lehrer points out that not only enjoyable experiences but also new experiences and new stimuli trigger dopamine release. [Full disclosure: I too worked in Kandel’s Columbia University lab some years ago.]
“Stravinsky forces us to generate patterns from the music itself, and not from our preconceived notions of what the music should be like,” writes Lehrer. “By abandoning the conventions of the past, he leaves us with no pattern but that which we find inside his own music.”
“Stravinsky’s greatest fear was dying the slow death of predictability. He wanted every one of his notes to vibrate with surprise, to keep the audience on edge.”
So, how can you use “Stravinsky’s Secret” to make your writing as fresh and compelling as “The Rite of Spring”?
The best way to defy the brain’s Categorical Imperative is with indirection. Go back to your copy and mark any areas that are boring, obvious, or predictable. More likely than not, here’s what has happened: You’ve fallen prey to writing clichés.
Michael Masterson explains it in AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting:
“When a prospective customer reads your copy, you want to get him excited about your product or service. You want to say something fresh and tantalizing to engage him. But when you use clichés, something else happens to your prospect. A little switch inside turns him off. He says to himself, ‘I know this already… I don’t need to give it any more attention.'”
Just like I was thinking at the beginning of Crash . Just like Stravinsky’s audience was probably thinking when they heard the opening notes of ” Rite .”
In your writing, the solution to the Categorical Imperative is to drill down, examine what you really wanted to say, and then say it in a fresh, new way or from a new angle.
What you want to do is direct the prospect’s thought process in such a way that he’s uncertain where he’s being led.
In AWAI’s copywriting program, which catapulted my own career, Michael Masterson gives six ideas you can use for indirection:
1. Paint an image in your reader’s mind that shows him all the benefits he can enjoy.
Example: “You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…” From Bill Bonner’s famous promotion for International Living. Bill is evoking certain thoughts and feelings in the reader in order to gain his attention. He doesn’t want to initially admit that he’s selling a newsletter.
2. Ask the reader a question or make a statement that challenges him on a subject related to your product or service.
Example: “This invitation isn’t for deadbeats, rip-off artists, or ‘gentlemen’ who hate to get their hands dirty.” From Popular Mechanics’ promotion of the Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia. Here, the copywriter wants to align himself with the emotions of his target audience before he lets them know he’s selling an encyclopedia.
3. Raise a threat or warning that begs for a solution (provided by your product or service).
Example: “Your wealth is in imminent danger.” From a Swiss Money Strategies insert. This gets the reader’s attention by evoking a whole range of fears. He can’t quite know from the headline what it is the copywriter is selling. Something financial, but what?
4. Make a surprising or alarming prediction that leads to your big promise.
Example: “A bank run like no other will hit every major bank on earth in 1999. A worldwide panic is now inevitable…” This prediction of catastrophe forces the prospect to read on to learn what the solution might be.
5. Share a new piece of information, which will benefit the reader.
Example: “This may be the most startling health news you have ever heard…” In order to know if it is the “most startling” (a pretty bold claim), the prospect has to read on.
6. Debunk a myth with evidence that demands the reader’s attention.
Example: “Conventional wisdom: You can’t push an insurance company when it comes to collecting money. Wrong ! Here are two proven ways to get your check within days.” By contradicting what most people think is true, the copywriter forces the reader to listen to his “proof.”
“When you use indirection,” Michael explains, “your copy will be infused with life. Your words will be fresh and thought-provoking. And your reader will keep turning the pages.
“Remember, as a copywriter, you’ve always got to keep your reader from getting ahead of you. If he can anticipate what you’re going to say, he’ll assume he knows what’s coming – and you’ll lose him.”
So whatever you want to call it – indirection… the plot twist… or even “Stravinsky’s Secret” – approach your reader in a way he doesn’t expect. You’ll then start triggering that dopamine release Jonah Lehrer writes about – literally making reading your copy “a pleasure”!
Result? Your sales letter gets read throughout, response rates skyrocket, and so will your sales and royalties.[Ed. Note: Charlie Byrne is ETR’s Editorial and Creative Director.]