copywriting insight
The ah-haa-oh-yeah! of copywriting: five insights on insight.
September 30, 2014
copywriting the no
Positive copywriting and the power of NO!
October 28, 2014
Show all

Copywriting, ideas making and the act of seeing

copywriting and seeing

Whenever you’re looking for an idea, what you’re actually doing is trying to see the invisible. When you see it, then as a communicator, you express it in words and/or pictures that make the invisible visible. We usually start by seeing what has already been seen before and imitating it for our own purposes. Many stop there. Hence the cliché, the me-too and the fashion-following. Real talent only shines through when you look deeply, investigate thoroughly and pay close attention to anomalies or coincidences that might otherwise be missed or dismissed. But how do you “see”?

Let’s begin with the problem of not seeing. This surprising fact was demonstrated in what has become one of the best-known experiments in psychology, The Gorilla Experiment, designed and produced by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons of the Visual Cognition Laboratory at the University of Illinois. This experiment reveals two eye-opening surprises: (1) We are missing a lot of what goes on around us and (2) we have no idea that we are missing so much. This experiment has been used by everyone — from preachers and teachers to corporate trainers and terrorist hunters — to explain what we see and what we don’t see. This test was even conducted on 24 credentialed radiologists at Boston hospital, where 83 percent of radiologists failed to spot the dancing gorilla in CT scans of a patient’s lung, despite running their eyes over it four times on average. This particular study shows that narrowing your attention tightly on one thing (in this case, cancer cells) makes you prone to missing things which are obvious in retrospect.

If you want to test your own visual awareness, now is a good time to watch the video and see what you see (or don’t see).

Spoiler alert for those who didn’t view the video — — — — —The original Gorilla Test showed that approximately 50% of viewers did not see the gorilla pass through the frame. Of the 50% who did see the gorilla, none of them saw the colour of the curtain change, nor did they see one of the basketball players exit the screen. Little wonder this experiment is so popular with training programs. It reveals vividly our failures of perception and the limits of our visual awareness. Daniel Simons’ research shows how our beliefs and intuitions about the workings of our own minds are often mistaken and his Ted Talk: Seeing The World As It Isn’t, explains why that matters.

And it matters greatly to us in the communications field, where story, meaning and value are the essential ingredients of a properly performed communication piece. A narrow field of vision equal to the size of a thumb at arms length (as Daniel Simons demonstrates in this video) will always make us prone to missing what’s happening in the bigger picture.

So how do we train our mind to see the things less seen? Psychologist, William James, had the answer way back in 1890 when he wrote in his seminal book, Principles of Psychology:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back the wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.

A lot has happened since 1890 and ‘there’s now a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that human attention is a trainable resource and that certain forms of meditation constitute a viable form of such training’ according to David Levy, Professor Computer Science, University of Washington.

I have chosen the most recent of these studies, published in January 2014[1], as a compelling example of what has become commonly known as “mindfulness”. The Relationship between Meditative Practice and Self-Reported Mindfulness: The MINDSENS Composite Index study had 174 subjects participate in an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program based upon the practice of breath awareness. The aim was to evaluate participants’ pre-and-post-mindfulness training in (1) stress levels (2) medical symptoms (3) anxiety (4) pain and (5) mindfulness skills. The findings showed that breathe awareness (shamatha meditation in Buddhist practices) increased mindfulness skills and reduce clinical symptoms. It also found that more than 8 weeks of stable shamatha meditative practice is needed to achieve an increase in the Five Facets Mindfulness (FFM) — Observing, Describing, Awareness, Non-Judging, Non-reactivity and Decentering — as shown in this table comparing the Meditation Group (MG) with the control Non-Meditation Group (NMG):


As you can see, the MG’s FFM scores were higher than the NMG. Little wonder Mindfulness Rooms are now set up at Google, Apple, IBM and KPMG. What the study emphasises is that frequency and lifetime practice are directly associated with higher mindfulness skills. This MINDSENS study only reinforces the findings of many previous studies — that mindfulness is an inherent capability that can be learned and practiced.

One well-known example of mindfulness training is The Mindfulness in Schools Project. In his Ted Talk, the project’s co-founder, Richard Burnett, reveals some valuable benefits being mindful bring to the classroom, and he shows a simple way to bring more awareness to how we respond to our everyday experiences (this post will conclude with that practice).

According to Richard Burnett, the mind is a constant stream of narrative busy planning, remembering, analysing and judging. This constant chattering of the mind is like a forest full of monkeys, restless, capricious, whimsical, fanciful, inconstant, confused, indecisive and uncontrollable. Buddhist literature calls this “monkey mind”.

Burnett identifies another mode of mind he labels ‘the sensing mode, which directs attention to the present moment reality of the breath’. This presences the faculty of attention to the here and now, which enables you to not only see more details but also see with a more open, spacious mind.

In my own experience, that’s when seeing the invisible is most likely to happen. Observation of my own monkey mind has revealed that only when it slows to stillness does light shine through the tiny and temporary gap between the thoughts. That light is the ‘inspiration’, ‘flash of insight’ or the ‘ah ha moment’. Many a copywriting problem has been solved in sitting meditating (there’s also meditation in action but that’s for another day). The beauty of mindfulness practice is it’s sublime simplicity and at-call accessibility, as if our creator made it a standard feature in the human being.

Here’s the practice:

  • Sit upright and comfortably (this allows the blood to circulate more easily and keeps you alert)
  • Rest your eyes in a dull gaze (its better to have them open so you don’t doze off)
  • Pay attention to your breathing (the simplest, most accessible and freest focusing device ever devised)

That’s all. As an optional extra to measure the development of your attention:

  • Count each in and out breath (this measures the development of your attention span)
  • When you lose count, start from the top (this will give you the average number of breathes)

Try this extra step for a week and compare your average number of breaths at the beginning of the week with the average at the end of the week. The result will show you how much your attention has expanded in that time. It might only be a difference of one breath, but that can be the difference between seeing and not seeing.

See you when I’m looking at you.


[1] Published: January 22, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086622


  1. Sandra says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post as well as watching all the TED clips. Mindlfulness, yoga, meditation – its only after I practise that I realise how scattered my mind was prior and at what a ridiculous pace i was running. I’m impressed to read that some people do this every day. That is something to personally aspire to for realistically, a couple of times a week probably doesnt cut it in todays overstimulated lifestyle. Before bed is a great idea. Thanks.

  2. Rebecca L says:

    I have been experimenting with different styles of meditation for the past year, but mostly doing it in the evening before going to bed. I really like the idea of incorporating it into my copywriting practice, not only for general health and wellbeing, but to support both focus and creativity in my work. I have never meditated with my eyes open before though so I am looking forward to experiencing that! Nic I have a question – do you meditate mostly when you are having a creative block, or do you include meditation more systematically, eg. each morning before writing?

    • My experience is that a regular meditation routine is essential for developing focus and equanimity. Of course, there are peace days and agitation days and you meditate your way through regardless. From a Buddhist point of view, meditation is not about blissing out but watching the mind at play and seeing that it’s all illusory — thoughts and feelings come and go. So those agitated days a perfect for watching (like an action movie) and knowing it’s not real. When it comes to creativity, I have found that quality ideas come when the mind stops for a millisecond — and this has happened while sitting in meditation, riding along the bay and faced with a dropdeadline. They’re all times when the mind has stopped for a millisecond for light to shine through. Regular meditation practice allows this to happen because we watch and learn how our mind works.

  3. Jessie L says:

    I love this article. I begin each day with a meditation, and I notice that when I fall out of this practise my day is a lot more frantic and confused. I will definitely bring it to my work space.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *