SleuthingIn other words: what’s the story morning glory? “What” being the operative word, because this phase of writing the Communication Brief pin-points the What to Say of the communication piece. It needs to be said plain and straight, no cleverness please, we’re not writing the headline yet.  That What To Say has to be clear, concise and touch on the truth of the context relevant to the subject. Imagine you’re about to walk through heavily guarded doors and into the Boss Of All Things’ office with 10 seconds to pitch your story. Ten seconds to encapsulate and captivate. This is where the double-tricolon-parallel-phrase mantra, “clear, concise and compelling writing always begins with clear, precise and insightful thinking” holds it own. To get hundreds of words and figures of data and information down to one sentence … better still … 140 characters, is more often than not a distillation process of brewery proportions. And the more stakeholders involved the better. We can all suffer the process together in a bonding experience that will not only break down those private little political agendas but also bring us all onto the same page – The Communication Brief. That one line is the key to global harmony in the office. It is also the key to starting-up the writer’s storytelling engine.

So we will do this with two case studies from my Copywriting in Action Group Project, Elements of Ingenuity: solutions toward climate adaptation. We will begin with the magic of mushrooms and make this post a mind altering experience for you. Then we will conclude with Earthwitness.com and hopefully get you to see how a genuine professional communicator identifies What To Say in order to proceed to the How To Say It phase.

CASE STUDY: MUSHROOM PLASTICS

The problem: plastic waste makes up over 25% of landfills throughout the world.

The opportunity: Mushrooms can do the same job as plastic and it’s 100% compostible, which means giving back 25% of precious land to the community and the economy.

The product: MycoBond, an organic adhesive (based on mycelium, a living, growing organism) turns agriwaste into a foam-like material for packaging and insulation.

The Facts/Stats/Virtues:
MycoBond uses a filamentous fungi to transform agricultural waste products into strong composite materials. Products include packaging, styrofoam substitute and the in-development Greensulate rigid insulation board for builders. All environmentally low-impact, 100 percent biodegradable and renewable, and part of a healthy ecosystem. Unlike other bio-plastics, MycoBond technology isn’t based on turning food or fuel crops into materials but using inedible crop waste to grow products. MycoBond materials are literally grown from agricultural byproducts and mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells (like the “roots” of mushrooms). In 5 – 7 days, in the dark, with no watering, and no petrochemical inputs, the mycelium digests the agricultural byproducts, binding them into a beautiful structural material. The mycelium acts like a natural, self assembling glue. Requires less energy to create than synthetics like foam, because they’re quite literally grown. Can be home-composted or even used as garden mulch. Three principles govern better materials: 1) they should be able to be created almost anywhere on the planet. 2) they should require considerably less energy to produce than current materials and 3) they should be able to be disposed of by nature’s open-source recycling system.

The Key Proposition? Here are just some of the better one liners class participants came up with in what was a two hour learning experience in distilling all the information into a 10 second pitch-like one-liner:

MycoBond plastic saves the environment by reducing landfill by 25% (the cliche overshadows the fact)

MycoBond is the environmentally friendly alternative to plastic, reducing landfills by 25% (maybe but not convinced)

Mushroom plastic reduces landfill by 25% (okay but there’s no seed of a story)

MycoBond is environmentally low-impact, 100% biodegradable and renewable, and part of a healthy ecosystem (too many ideas competing with each other)

MycoBond plastic requires less energy to create than synthetics like foam, because they’re quite literally grown (useful as key point in the body copy)

And so on … there were about another half-a-dozen along the same lines as all of the above. They were all correct. They were all factual. They were all benefit-focused. But none of them carried the seed of a story that you could pitch to an attention-deficit editor/creative director and point the writer in a clear narrative direction. This is when some serious clear, concise and most importantly, insightful thinking had to kick in like a 50 metre goal-on-the-run by a Nick Del Santo. And so, as always in Copywriting in Action, we kept on digging and came up with this little nugget of gold:

Styrofoam waste lasts 10,000  years, plastic waste lasts 150 years, MycoBond lasts as long as needed, reducing landfill by 25%.

That’s 127 characters (with spaces). The reality and the possibility in one neat, forward moving line that makes the benefit as real as the current reality. How To Say It  was textually and visually articulated with a before and after scenario:

MUSHROOM PLASTIC

CASE STUDY: EARTHWITNESS.COM

The problem: 1) the top down approach to climate change is way too slow and 2) most people don’t believe in climate change unless they can see it with their own eyes.

The opportunity: 1) a grassroots bottom up approach is literally in our hands in the form of a mobile phone and 2) build a website that shows climate change all over the world.

The product: Earth Witness Website: A Web portal giving everyday citizens a chance to play a role in the protection of the planet.

The facts/stats/virtues: camera phones would be fundamental to the project. And for a lot of us, they’re as close as we have yet to always-on, widely available information tools. Open-source hardware hackers have come up with multiple models for usable, Linux-based mobile phones, and the Earth Phone could spin off from this kind of project. At the other end of the network, there’d be a server for people to send photos and messages to, accessible over the Web, combining a photo-sharing service, social networking platforms and a collaborative filtering system. The online part of the Earth Witness project would be created by the users, working together and working openly. That’s enough right there to start to build a compelling chronicle of what’s now happening to our planet. This site could also serve as a collection spot for all sorts of data about conditions around the planet picked up by atmospheric sensors attached to cell phone that could measure temperature, CO2 or methane levels, and the presence of some biotoxins. All of this data could be mashed up with online maps for easy viewing and analysis. The impact of open-access online maps has been phenomenal. Earth Witness would link what you see with what millions of other people see around the world. Mobile phones puts us all at the front line of environmental protection.

The Key Proposition? Here are just some of the better one liners class participants came up with in what was yet another two hour learning experience in distilling all the information into a 10 second pitch-like one-liner:

Save the world with a smart phone and one website (yes, but “save the world?”)

The power to save the world is in our smart phones (it’s right but it’s another “save the world”)

Everybody can prove climate change is real with their smart phone (now we’re onto something, but it’s not there yet)

Earthwitness.com proves to the whole world that climate change is real and enables us all to take action (yes, but can we simplify)

Seeing is believing (yes, but we over-simplified to the point of simplistic)

We were starting to get to a potential story but it was not being articulated with enough accuracy and precision. The last three one-liners had the raw material, and participants were encouraged to merge the thoughts into a streamline of meaning:

Seeing is believing climate change is real (Yes! But that’s half the story. The website also shows the ingenious climate adaptation solutions that are out there)

The Key Proposition: Seeing is believing that climate change is real and climate adaptation solutions are real too.

upload-reality

One streamlined and silky line of just 94 characters (with spaces). How To Say It  was textually and visually articulated as a two sequential spreads:

In 59 characters of conclusion, everything has a story and it all begins with What To Say.

~ These artworks are purely hypothetical and created for educational purposes only ~

39 Comments

  1. Melissa says:

    The examples from the class workshop with your annotations are really helpful. Even when writing just one sentence every word is so important. Each needs to have a reason to be there.

  2. Karl says:

    This has helped me understand that even the Key Proposition is a story too, thanks Nic.

  3. Christopher says:

    It really helps me to see the way you write in order from start to finish.
    Thanks for writing this.

  4. Melanie says:

    I like the thinking process behind these… to see how easy it is to slip from ‘too much information’ to ‘too little information’ to ‘not the right information’… It really is an in-depth process to nail it.

  5. Simon Carr says:

    This post is such a good example of proses of distillation, and the importance of the right word for the right application

  6. Getting to the key proposition feels like an arrow finding a target. An upside down pyramid with a lot of information needing to filter down into one pithy articulate and accurate description. Loved the lists of possibilities generated – powerful workshopping – looking forward to practising this on current and future projects.

  7. Ben Cullen says:

    Absolutely the most important part of the brief, and the hardest to get right. Look forward to tackling this issue in-depth. Great to see examples of it being worked through with commentary.

  8. Alex D says:

    I liked the format of this article and how it shows the internal process for the development of an idea into clear copy. Patience, research and experimentation are what I took out of this (and learning to let go of having to get it right the first time!). Also the willingness to constantly assess, critique and rethink your writing throughout the development.

  9. taryn says:

    I enjoy seeing the concepts develop and for me, I really need to grasp that the first two or three ideas are unlikely to be the winners!

  10. Jessie L says:

    Not having been through the process myself, I loved reading the various one-liners that were presented by the classes. For some reason I was of the belief that the key proposition should magically appear if you were skilful enough, as opposed to being teased out.

  11. Richard C says:

    There’s a true art to this and I love the challenge. Sticking to the mantra and practicing is key to disciplining myself moving forward.

  12. Jo Rittey says:

    Distilling the essence or drilling down through the layers also allows us to really get inside the idea. We pick it up, turn it over, look at it from all sides. I can see how nailing the key proposition can really guide the rest of the copy.

  13. Colette Easdown says:

    Clear, concise and insightful is a great way to look at addressing the message. Drilling through reams of text to get to the point becomes tiresome. Using CCI when constructing messages will help me stay on message and keep my readers focused.

  14. Julie Wood says:

    This really brings home the need to drill down what we’re trying to say and articulate it in a clear and concise manner. Not a skill that comes naturally to me (as I’m someone that waffles on!), but hopefully through this course that will change.

  15. Sergio Vazquez says:

    A concise and clear Key Proposition is not only the vital starting point to any creative work, but also it helps to keep you on track further down the path. As mentioned in one of the comments, we should always be able to rely on this ‘compass’.

  16. Kirby Fenwick says:

    Given the information overload that makes up our world today, being able to tell the story succinctly and directly is so important. With both of these examples what I noticed was that while the information was important, how it was constructed was more so. The creation of the hook is vital.

  17. Vishaal Mody says:

    The ‘What To Say’ part is more or less similar to the ‘Elevator Pitch’, i.e. a quick summary of marketing something and portraying its value proposition.

  18. Renee B says:

    I like the idea of starting wide and narrowing the concept down, the key however is once you’ve narrowed it down that you still maintain the aspect that there is a story to tell

  19. It’s quite simply the difference between amateur communications and professional communications.

  20. Kat says:

    A bit embarrassed to admit that I never write communications briefs (and clients rarely provide more to go on than ‘make it punchy!’) It means there’s often a lot of guesswork involved in producing solid copy, which this process eliminates.

  21. Lucy says:

    It really is amazing how distilling the key proposition really brings the rather dense information “alive”. Whilst the key is quality writing, this is dependent upon the process of close reading of the brief and working through ideas and words.

  22. Nicole Sykes says:

    This is one of the things I struggle with the most when I am writing, what to say and how to say it. Now, I can keep this article in mind when I am writing.

  23. Carinda Palmer says:

    The use of a short sharp headline in both examples tied in with an interesting image worked well in both examples. There was quite a bit of body copy surrounding it but I felt drawn in to read the story… so it worked! 🙂

  24. Nuranti Mandrini says:

    Like a compass to a traveler, well-written brief will keep us on track with our goal, especially when we’re juggling with so many tasks. Your approach to a better writing (and campaign) is surely fundamental.

  25. Allison says:

    It’s very useful seeing how you coach the students through the process. I find it helpful to see how the copy moves past the cliche and into something more resonating.

  26. Michael H says:

    Insightful post, especially for extracting key propositions from large copy. I enjoyed seeing how suggestions from the class were critiqued and cut down to size, eventually getting to the heart of the matter. I must say the first proposition for Mycobond rung truer for me than the second for the Eyewitness website, which i felt read confusingly, like I had to reread it a few times. The visuals in the What to Say stage really bring it all to life. The large, evocative headlines and images for the Eyewitness copy, conveyed an urgency to act, that we must see it for ourselves. Looking forward to analysing more case studies like this.

    • NICOLAS says:

      I see your point about the truer ring of Mycobond than Eyewitness. It’s much easier to work with a quantifiable proposition (reduce landfills by 25%) than a qualitative one (seeing is believing).

  27. Anagha says:

    Interesting read! I believe that identifying key points/ ideas in a sea of words is a challenging task, albeit crucial for the, What to Say, phase.

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