I help people with book titles and taglines. It’s not a linear process, and progress is impossible to measure. That’s a feature, not a bug.
I had this insight recently when working with a client on a tagline for his business, along with some other language. (A tagline is a short description of what you do, one that typically appears on business cards, websites, and ads, just after the company name — like SyFy’s “Imagine Greater.”)
Our process looked like this:
- Discovery. Interviews with company executives, sales folks, front-line employees, and clients.
- Ideation. Come up with a bunch of possible taglines, share with client.
- Hassle it out. Meet with client and another staffer, consider possible taglines, pros, and cons.
- Road-test it. See how people react to the one we came up with.
This is very similar to the process I do in helping authors with book titles, except that with titles the discovery, ideation, and hassling it out all happen in the space of 90 minutes, rather than over a week or two.
Let’s shift to the “hassle it out” session, which we did today. The client, his direct report, and I met in a room where I connected my laptop to a large TV screen. We look at my ideas so far and went over pros and cons; which words were resonating and which weren’t. We came up with some more ideas. Then thing things bogged down; everything we came up with seemed to be variations on a theme, some not so promising, and some terrible.
He looked at me and said, “Do people usually get stuck like this?”
As I thought about it, the surprising answer was, “Yes, they always do.”
People are by nature linear thinkers. The inclination is to look at things that are close, but not quite right, and try to improve them. It’s a form of optimization. And it nearly always lands you in a rut of the kind we were trapped in.
So, how to get out of that ditch?
You have to take a step back.
You have to look at things askance.
You have to take a completely different approach to the same problem
From my experience, these are the things that will help you unstuck:
- Trust. If everyone doesn’t trust each other, nobody is going to take risks. You’re going to have to have a bunch of bad, stupid, or totally off ideas to get the right idea. You can’t do that if the others are waiting to jump on you for being wrong.
- Three people in the room. Two people are too few, and too likely to get into a dynamic of pulling against each other on a single dimension. A third person breaks the log-jam, gets everybody off balance a bit. Four people can work okay, too, but with more than four you’re more likely to find yourself building a consensus, which is no way to get to a creative solution.
- A sense of humor. I make puns and jokes continuously. It can certainly be annoying, but in these stuck-in-a-rut situations, I apply my instinct, which is always to come at things from an unusual angle.
- Stories. Tell stories about clients, about the business, about similar situations. Stories get you thinking about emotions, and thinking about emotions can get you to a different kind of answer.
- A good thesaurus site. A thesaurus site allows you to type in the words you sort-of like but which aren’t quite right, and see some alternatives. You can surf connotations and see words that would not have occurred to you. Some of those words will get you going in a new direction. My latest favorite site for synonyms is wordhippo.com, based on a recommendation from Ann Handley.
- A different kind of writing. You’re probably not just writing a tagline. If it’s a company identity, you’ll be writing a short company description (sometimes known as “boilerplate”). If you’re coming up with a book title and subtitle, you also need to write flap copy. Writing that copy may suggest some ideas you didn’t think of before. (Charlene Li and I came up with the title “Groundswell” when writing flap copy for our not-yet-written book.)
The answer you get to with these methods is likely to be completely different in form or emphasis or wording from what you’ve been working on already. The process seems completely non-linear. It’s not “converging on an answer” — it seems to come from left field.
But I am convinced that not only are these methods for getting out a rut going to help you, but that to come up with a creative answer, you must come up with a bunch of ideas and get stuck first. The process of getting stuck and getting unstick is what kicks loose the best ideas.
(And, as I joked with my client, if we took a direct and simple path from the problem to the answer, you wouldn’t think I was worth what I charge for generating a few short but important words.)
This process works. It’s not comfortable to get stuck. But once you realize it’s an essential part of getting creative, you can power through to a solution that’s much better than that lame stuff you came up with on the first round of attempts.