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Why getting stuck is part of coming up with great titles and taglines

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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  1. This method absolutely works, and it’s the same one I use with clarity sessions to arrive at succinct wording, taglines, and analogies. It’s messy, but when the epiphany comes, it’s delightful!

  2. When I was at ACE Limited (now Chubb), the company was embarking on a new advertising campaign. The CEO, a very smart guy, talked all the time about how important insurance was because it allowed companies to mitigate risk. If companies had to keep cash on hand to deal with every contingency, they would never have the capital to advance the business, etc., etc. The marketing company listened very carefully and came up with a brilliant, simple, two-word slogan: “Insuring Progress.” (The English teacher in me itched for “Ensuring Progress,” but I understood why they made the word choice they did.) I’m sure they got this great result because the CEO was “the decider” on this project, and he was willing to let the marketing company play around with words without interfering and to listen when they proposed a solution. And, as the post suggests, that tag line was the foundation for an entire identity campaign that showed HOW the company helped businesses advance by assuming some of their risk.

  3. I think you also need to be mindful of how easy it is for people to misunderstand your title or your tagline.

    When I started VISIONeRY Pty Ltd back in the last millennium with an eye on aiding businesses with their communications by getting them to abandon written reports, emails etc in favour of using video over the Internet (and especially videophones, now called smartphones), I had the tagline “Text is dead – the future is video”.

    The first half prompted the common response “If you think texting is dead, you haven’t been around any teenagers lately!”

    The second half prompted the common response “Ah, so you’re one of those guys that makes promotional videos.”

    Now my company’s business cards carry the tagline “The written word is dead”. Which usually starts some interesting conversations.