Easy Ways to Energize Your Creative Powers
by Dean Rieck
So far, we've discussed The Creative Conspiracy and The Technique Trap. We've looked at the three levels of creative mastery and the way creative people act. And we've reviewed a few of the bad habits that can limit your creativity.
In this session, we'll discover a few basic ideas for becoming more creative every day. The important point to remember is that everyone has creative abilities. It's a natural and necessary part of being human. The only difference between those we call "creative" and everyone else is that creative people use and develop their creative skills. Usually this is not a conscious effort, but a natural result of their personality and upbringing.
However, everyone can energize their creative powers, including YOU. To a great extent, it's a matter of replacing the bad habits that are holding you back with good habits that make you a more creative and productive thinker. Here are some suggestions:
Learn your craft. You can't be truly creative in any field until you have mastered the tools of the trade. Robert Irwin, an artist and MacArthur Fellow, spent two years, working up to 15 hours a day, painting the same picture over and over again in order to understand his work better. You don't have to go to such an extreme, but you should certainly read the books, attend the seminars, and get a few years of direct marketing under your belt.Talk shop with your clients and coworkers. Surf the Internet. Keep up on your field. Try out as many techniques as you can. Work in as many media as possible. Become familiar with how the whole marketing process works, from product development to marketing strategy to ad creation to fulfillment. This knowledge will be the fuel for your creative fire.
Get off auto pilot. Don't allow yourself to settle into a rigid pattern. It's easy to get comfortable with your tried-and-true rules, checklists, and formulas. People in direct marketing are especially guilty of living by the rules. But no formula is foolproof or applicable to all situations. So you have to keep mentally active. If a formula works, great. But it's better to have dozens of formulas to choose from. They're tools, not the word of the Almighty.Question your own expertise and the advice of the experts. Stop looking for just one right answer. Don't settle for the first idea. Set aside those pet techniques now and then. Banish those clichés. Borrow good ideas from others, but try out your own, too.
Loosen up. Early in my career, I was working on a national direct mail campaign with an ad agency. After looking at two ideas I submitted, the creative director handed back the pages and gently said, "Okay. Now give me about fifty more ideas." I was dumbfounded. "But these are what I think will work." He nodded, "Okay. But come up with fifty more anyway. Forget about what will work. We'll think about that later."
It was difficult for me, because I didn't want to submit any idea I wasn't sure of. I was trying to create and evaluate simultaneously, judging and editing my ideas before allowing those ideas to breathe and live on their own. Sometimes the best ideas don't immediately square with the tried and true. And many of the best ideas seem outright crazy at first glance.To maximize your creative output, come up with lots of ideas first, then figure out which are best and how to make them work later. Creating and evaluating simultaneously is like driving with your foot on the brake.
Stop avoiding failure. Long ago, while I was still in high school, I took a summer driver's education class. A friend of mine took it with me. No one in the class was a particularly good driver, but my friend drove like a maniac. With a death grip on the wheel, he sat bolt upright, swerved back and forth on the road, slamming the brake at every intersection. He was so fixated on not making a mistake, he couldn't concentrate on driving.Likewise, if your direct marketing programs are built around the idea of avoiding failure, you will be unable to concentrate on marketing. You will certainly not realize your full potential. Instead of avoiding failure, strive for success and accept the occasional failure as part of the learning process.
- Focus on important problems. Recently, a business mailing around half a million pieces a month came to me for advice about improving their response. They showed me test after test where they had changed the envelope color or modified minor copy points. "We just can't seem to change our response," they lamented. I could see why immediately: they had no offer! When you focus on trivia, you will generally get trivial results. And this will only discourage future creative thinking. Success breeds success. So tackle the big issues first. That's where the real results come from.
- Find new uses for old ideas. I was working on a package for a fundraiser. In analyzing the organization and its donors, I thought that one barrier to response was that people may harbor some doubt about how funds are actually used. In ordinary direct marketing, doubts are usually put to rest with a guarantee. So I suggested enclosing a buckslip with a detailed guarantee. They hesitated, since none of us had ever seen this before. But this old idea used in a new way helped lift response by a full percent.
- Learn about the creative process. No matter how talented you think you are, learning about how creativity works will always help you generate more and better ideas. If you're a salesperson, you learn how to sell. If you're a boxer, you learn how to throw a punch. If you're a surgeon, you learn anatomy and surgical techniques. So if you're in a creative position, shouldn't you learn how to create? Read books on creativity and problem-solving. Scan newspapers and magazines for stories on how businesses solve problems in creative ways. Ask people about problems and how they solved them. Your mind is your most important tool. Learn how to use it.
- Keep your head clear. You need information to light your creative fire, but too much will dowse it. Knowing too much is just as dangerous as not knowing enough. Trivial issues take on more importance. Indecision sets in when you have too many alternatives. Gather information at the beginning of every project, but then set it aside before you get hot and heavy into the creative process. A fresh mind produces fresh ideas.
- Break down false barriers. When someone asks you for ideas about how to sell a new product, do you immediately start writing a sales letter? Who says a direct mail package is always the best way? Back up. Think things through from the beginning. What are you selling? Who would buy it? What ways are available to reach those people? Maybe it's TV or radio or print ads or telemarketing. False barriers are barriers you can't see but that are blinding you to alternate ideas. Ask yourself how you would normally do something. Then look for other ways.
- Set the conditions you need to create. For most people, this means comfortable lighting, pleasing sounds and colors, plenty of space to spread out and work, information and equipment handy, and no distractions such as endless phone calls or people dropping by. But the right conditions vary from person to person. Beethoven poured ice water over his head. Kant wrote in bed. Balzac drank cup after cup of coffee. Hemingway merely got up at dawn and sharpened 20 pencils. Find what works best for you.
Are you starting to feel more creative? Can you feel those creative juices starting to flow? Good. You're on your way to becoming a creative mover and shaker.
Here's a little assignment to help this good feeling continue: Every day do something different. It doesn't matter what it is. Move your desk to the other side of your office. Come into work an hour earlier. Instead of writing yet another 6" x 9" direct mail package, try a self-mailer. Talk to the new guy in the office next door. Read a book on welding or candle making or stamp collecting or anything you know nothing about.
All of this seems like pointless activity, but you'll find yourself seeing things differently. Thinking different thoughts. Coming up with new ideas. And many a career has been built on a single great idea.
In the next session, we'll see how you can get your staff to think and act more creatively as well.
Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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