How to Break Through Writer’s Block

BlockWhether you are a writer, a blogger, or anyone in any kind of field that involves tapping into your creative side, inevitably you will at some point hit a road block (or a mind block, so to speak.) It’s that sickening feeling in your stomach when you feel like you have run out of ideas or you just cannot move forward on a project. Here are a few tips that I sometimes use when I hit that brick wall.

Location, location, location

Change your setting – sometimes simply moving to another room can bring your head to a different place. Go work in a conference room, outside, at home, at the library, or at Starbucks. The key is to find that peaceful place where you can relax, think and get into your zone.

Go old school

Shut down your computer and pick up a pen and paper. Freely jot down ideas, words, phrases, or key points. Do some free association and you might be surprised what comes out. Don’t worry about having it make sense or sound good. Just get your ideas down and refine it later.

Do your homework

Knowledge is inspiration. Make sure you have done enough research and have asked the right people enough questions to write what you need to write. Know your subject and make sure you give yourself enough lead time to do research.

Who are you?

Just as important as knowledge about what you are writing, is knowledge about your audience. Understand for whom you are writing. Consumers, media, colleagues, peers, customers, or whoever it may be, get into their heads to understand how to write in their language.

What are you?

As you need to know your subject and your audience, you also need to understand your style. Writing copy for an ad, for packaging, for a web site, for a press release, or a blog post all require a different tone and style. Understand the platform that you need to stand on and write from that place.

Don’t think too hard

Sometimes if you are trying too hard or thinking too hard, the words just don’t come. Freedom is the key here. Relax your mind and let the words start flowing.

Don’t spread yourself too thin

Focus on one writing project at a time. Switching voices from a press release to marketing copy and back again takes a change of mindset. If you have multiple writing projects due at the same time, then take a break and tackle something different before returning to your writing.

Do your work in small bites

Don’t pressure yourself into sitting down and writing what you need to write in one sitting. Great writing rarely takes shape in the first shot. Break your writing projects into bite size pieces. Even if you feel stuck, just commit to fifteen minutes to write something…even if it’s just quick thoughts, ideas, or simply a list of free-associated keywords that you want to touch upon in the piece.

Plan projects to meet your mood

If you feel stuck on a press release, then switch to a different writing project that needs doing with a different voice, on a different subject. Not to procrastinate, but to be able to step away for a bit and switch your mind to something else. Be sure to make specific time to get back to it and try again.

What’s in your way?

Stop for a few minutes to try to understand what’s blocking you. Is it a lack of information, inspiration, time, or something else? Once you can understand what’s holding you back, you can try to tackle the underlying problem by seeking more information, resources, inspiration or setting aside more time.

Inspiration through conversation

Look for inspiration through conversations with your colleagues, or if you are out on your own, talk with your clients or your virtual colleagues. Bouncing ideas around with others knowledgeable in the subject can shed new light on a new angle that will free you up and get the words flowing.

Inspiration from unusual places

Sometimes inspiration can come from unexpected places. Stepping outside of your own world or your comfort zone can help you to see things from a different perspective.

Read More

Sometimes picking up a book or reading an article or a blog can work to inspire you to relate to a subject in a different way. Hop online, google your subject, and see what chatter is going on online. Look at what your competitors are doing and saying. Try to understand what works for them and why.

Write More

Don’t see writing as a task, see it as a way of life and as a process. Write for pleasure outside of work. Keep a journal, write poems, comment on blogs, write essays about your childhood – anything to keep writing fresh, exciting and diverse.

Eliminate ADD

Remove distractions. Shut off your email, so it’s not alerting you to new messages. Shut off the ringer on your phone. Shut down your Twitter and Facebook. Clear your desk of clutter and reminders of the hundreds of other things you have to do. Allow yourself the environment to be able to focus.

Are you a morning person or a vampire?

Determine your best time of day for creativity to flow. Are you best in the morning and burned out in the afternoon? Write during the time of day when you are most alert and save the more mundane tasks you need to do for when you don’t need as much brainpower. Fatigue does not promote creativity.

Take a deep breath

Relax. Take a walk. Exercise. Clear your head. Play with your dog. Incorporate a little time everyday for stress reduction. The more you stress, the worse it will be.

Feel free to add your own tips to this list….

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Crowd Sourcing’s Dark Side

11080I’m all for keeping a finger on the pulse of what consumers are saying and thinking, but there seems to be a new trend in over-reliance on crowd sourced results to direct business, especially when it comes to creative work. Crowds, especially of the consumer variety can be very useful for feedback on new products, but be wary of inviting crowds into the intimate creative places of your business. From graphics, logos and websites to tag lines, brand names, domain names and even the products themselves, many businesses are turning to crowd sourcing to get their creative work for free or practically free. As a creative entrepreneur, I find this trend a bit disturbing, not just because it degrades the value of true creative work, but because it can have a larger negative impact on businesses and their brands.

A business image is not something to leave in the hands of the masses. Brand building is a delicate thing that should be orchestrated by the owner of the brand, not by those who consume the brand. Kraft’s Vegimite/Snack 2.0 debacle is a great example of how crowd sourcing can completely backfire. This trend of crowd sourced creative work waters down what a brand truly can be. Brand building comes from creating multiple layers of elements like product, quality, message, image, graphics, website, communication, partnerships and reputation in the industry, marketplace and with consumers. Why so many businesses are leaving these crucial elements in the hands of the masses is perplexing. As someone who created and built a brand of children’s shoes from scratch, the idea of asking the general public for creative direction or creation was something I never would have even considered. The masses don’t know what is best for your business, you do. The masses are consumers, not innovators. In most cases, consumers can’t imagine what they haven’t already seen before.

Can’t afford a professional? Just ask anyone for a free opinion
So many social media sites have opened up the flood gates to this kind of thinking. Certain LinkedIn discussion groups have become a hotbed for free crowd sourcing of creative work. I’ve seen people asking for marketing plans, brand names, domain names, and logos all for free. There has been one discussion that has been going on for over a month now from someone asking for “suggestions” for a tag line for his music company. To date, there have been 272 responses coming free from the likes of a student in Malaysia, a “Change Communicator,” a “Senior Solutions Specialist,” but more surprising is that supposed Marketing Experts, Copywriters, and Brand Strategists also added their suggestions. For Free. I understand the whole concept of giving in the social media world, but expecting professional results from people willing to simply throw out random suggestions for something as important to a brand as a tag line is simply unrealistic. The results of this person’s request, even though there were 272 of them were pretty terrible. They were terrible because none of the respondents knew anything about this guy’s business, what his goals were, who he was, what his message was, who his market was or what image he was trying to project. These are all the things that a professional would take into consideration carefully and spend time contemplating before even suggesting a solution.

This isn’t work, it’s a contest

I got an email the other day specifically addressed to me inviting me to enter a contest to come up with a new domain name for someone’s business. I was told that I would get $10 for my submission, and then if it were chosen as the best, I would “win” $500. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link to see what this was all about. There were very specific parameters for this project. It was a domain for a new dating website, but it wasn’t just a domain they were looking for, actually it was a brand name. It had to be nine letters or less, had to be a .com address, had to be available, had to be unique and not trademarked or used by any other business, and it had to capture the essence of the philosophy of their site. There was also a long list of words that could not be used. It was suggested that the estimated work time on this project would be ten minutes. That’s right, I said ten minutes. It was also stated that this was the second contest they were holding because the first one “did not generate the kind of results that they were looking for.” Hmm, you think they mean PROFESSIONAL results?

More is better

Would you rather savor one incredibly delicious meal created by a talented chef or would you rather stuff yourself with unlimited piles of junk food? Crowd sourcing is like a junk food feast. The premise (I think) behind crowd sourcing is that if you get a ton of responses, you will have a bigger pool to choose from, increasing your chances of getting the results you are looking for. More is better, right? If the goal is to find quality creative work, then the answer is no. Anyone willing to enter a “contest” is not going to be giving you professional work. They’ll spend the ten minutes to take a chance – kind of like buying a lottery ticket. But let me let you in on a little secret: Believe it or not, great graphics, design, writing, naming, branding, and marketing all take talent, experience, creativity, knowhow, and time. Instead of blowing your budget on a contest that generates piles of amateur entries, spend your money on talent. You know, someone who will spent some time THINKING and talking to you about your business and what you hope to achieve. That my friends, takes more than ten minutes.

I’ll pay you if I like you

There are numerous sites popping up that are going beyond the bidding wars of sites like elance or odesk for creative work, but they actually solicit suckers to do the work up front, upload it for all to see, and only pay the one that is chosen as the best either by the poster or by votes from the crowd. Would you walk into competing bakeries, eat their respective cakes, and only pay for the one that you think tastes best? Would you expect to have several landscapers come to your house, plant their gardens, build their stone walls and only pay the one who you think did the best job? This is called working on spec. I don’t understand how this approach to hiring creative work is acceptable. It’s a cop out really on the part of the hiring person. They apparently are not willing to take the risk or the heat of hiring the wrong person. Maybe it comes from a lack of confidence in knowing what is good creative or not, but if you do your homework, look at experience, previous work and get recommendations from others who the creatives have worked with, then educated choices can be made. Anyone who is willing to put their time and energy into creating something without knowing whether or not they will be paid is clearly either desperate or an amateur looking to build a portfolio.

I’m not a real ______, I just play one on the Internet

Ah, the self proclaimed guru problem again. I recently wrote about that subject here. But for true designers, writers, marketers or anyone else who offers creative consulting services to business, the guru problem has invaded their potential for livelihood like Kudzu in a Louisiana swamp. Again, it’s a matter of research. Know who you are working with and find out if a person has ever done what they profess themselves to be.

The bottom line is that you have a choice. It all depends on what your goals are. You can risk your budget and/or brand on a contest with amateurs who will only spend a few minutes on your project, or you can do your homework and hire a professional who will take a vested interest in your business’ success. Your success, image and happiness is their success, image and happiness. Don’t underestimate the power of talent.

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Does An Idea Have Value?

brightideaA similar question was recently posed in an online discussion. Some people answered this question quickly by saying that ideas are worth absolutely nothing until someone puts money down on the table for them. I wholeheartedly disagree. Value is not just about dollars and cents. Value can be about potential – for change, innovation, meaning, emotion, function, or design. Even in the context of business, these elements, especially in today’s economy are the keys to business success. It’s the businesses that understand that, the ones that have the intuition and sense to see and believe in that potential, that will be the ones that move on to create the future in business world.

In Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, he states his theory that right brainers will rule the future in business. Pink argues that outsourcing (finding manufacturing overseas for cheaper production) and automation and computerization (replacing the information based knowledge workers) are forcing the Information Age to give way to a new Conceptual Age that values creativity, innovation and inventiveness. Ironically, it’s those intangible things like ideas that cannot be replicated or automated, that will give a business its greatest value.

Every business starts with an idea. It can be an epiphany that wakes you up in the middle of the night. It can be inspired by something you see or hear. It can be born from a desire to try to do something better than how it’s been done before, or to invent something that never existed before. But how do you know when an idea is just an idea or when that spark is something that has potential to be big and worth turning it into a business? Oftentimes, that’s where the strength of the conceptual side of the brain kicks in. Studies, focus groups, and market research can play a role, but if an idea is so innovative that there’s nothing to compare it to, then research results may not reflect an idea’s full potential for success. Likewise, if a business relies too heavily on consumer input, especially with a highly innovative idea, the results may be the same. Consumers know what they have seen before. They are not innovators, they are consumers.

In the early 1970’s Xerox created the Alto, considered by many to be the first PC for desktop use. Unfortunately for Xerox, they lacked the vision to see the full potential and the ability to innovate quickly enough to bring it to market.

They were left in the dust when in 1979 Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs visited Xerox and was said to have taken inspiration from their innovation and in turn incorporated similar technologies into the MacIntosh. So when answering the question of the value of an idea, just ask yourself what that idea was worth to Apple. The rest is history.

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Has Social Media Cheapened Creative Talent?

pulpfictionOne of the basic concepts in social media and online networking and marketing is about giving, yet there seems to be a lot more taking going on lately. Although I agree that the participation in the social web absolutely needs to have that element of helpfulness, it doesn’t mean that professional creative services should be expected to be given away for free or for a few bucks. Here are a few recent scenarios that have come to my attention:

In various LinkedIn discussion groups:
Someone asking for “suggestions” for a new tag line for their company.
Someone asking for “suggestions” for re-branding of a web domain.
Someone asking for the best solutions to market their brand.

Craig’s List:
Someone asking for product designs on spec: Create it, design it, give it to us and if we like it, we’ll pay you.
A prominent children’s brand looking for a product designer to work unpaid for 3 months which “may lead to a paid position.”

Numerous online news or information sites:
Writers provide free content or content for a few bucks an article in exchange for “exposure.”

Online printers:
Offering a free clip art logo with every printing job.

These are just a few of the myriad of examples of businesses looking for and/or taking free or nearly free, design, marketing or content to build their own businesses. There’s nothing wrong with helping people, offering advice and yes, sometimes offering limited services for free or at a discount, but there seems to be a disconnect somewhere that discounts talent and quality which, in turn, devalues and cheapens creative work.

A good example here is the case of the online printing service offering a free clip art logo with every printing job. This company is not a graphic design house, they are a printing house. A more appropriate offer might be to giveaway an extra few pieces of whatever is being printed. Giveaway the printing, not low level clip art logos. Yes it’s a logo, and yes, the customer might need a logo, but it’s not doing the customer any favors by offering them a logo that looks like it was designed by a 5th grader. There actually is no value in doing that, because even if their customer doesn’t realize the low quality, the marketplace probably will, and a poor unprofessional image will be projected.

It seems that it’s becoming a common practice to not only ask for, but expect creative work for free or virtually free. There is that old saying that “you get what you pay for.” This isn’t to say necessarily that the more expensive something is the better, but it’s safe to say that most professional quality work is not going to be found for free. The problem here lies in when businesses don’t see or know the difference between professional quality work and low level work that appears to fill a particular need at a particular time for a bargain or lower than bargain price. Is it really still true that content and quality is king or is a bargain the new reigning ruler? Is this a larger cultural question? Let me know what you think…

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Butter Your Bread With Innovation

breadnbutterThere often comes a time during the life of a company when the need for a new product smacks them in the face.  Maybe their current product line has reached the natural end of its life cycle and it’s time for an infusion of something new. Or maybe they are seeking to expand into a new market. This is when a fork in the road appears, and what path is taken can determine whether a company succeeds or fails.

Some brands choose the path of building their product line by shopping around and purchasing products already on the market for inspiration or in many cases, to directly knock off. Some brands, for fear of scaring existing customers away or because of insecurity, rely too heavily on focus groups, consumer input and data to determine product direction. Although keeping a finger on the pulse of the competition and consumers is important, it shouldn’t necessarily be used to dictate the direction of a new product. But there are other, perhaps braver brands that choose to take the path of innovation. These are the brands that most often end up being the leaders and the trend setters.

Originality and innovation are what makes a brand shine. True innovators are creatives who are always looking, not necessarily just at what the competition is doing, or listening only to what their existing customers are saying, but they are looking and listening to what the world in general is doing and saying across many industries and platforms. They are the ones who often do things in spite of what the competition is doing, rather than because of what the competition is doing. And if the formula is right, that innovation is what can turn into a company’s bread and butter.

A lack of innovation most often happens when companies get too big and cumbersome or overly secure and complacent or are too new and insecure. A lack of innovation happens when companies depend too much on data and focus groups or what the competition is doing rather than on what a truly talented creative team can invent. It also comes when the desire for what may seem like guaranteed money supersedes the desire for great product. But ironically, if you have great a product, the money will come and that great new product could turn into the new bread and butter for the company. Innovation doesn’t come from looking at what’s flying off the shelves today, it comes from an ability to imagine what will fly off the shelves tomorrow. Innovation doesn’t generally come from consumers. Consumers know what they have seen, what they have used, what they have bought before. They generally don’t imagine what doesn’t exist yet. That is where designers, inventors and visionaries come in. Innovative product and strong brand identity come from creativity, inventiveness, perception and innate intuition and bravery about what direction to go in or what to create.

The most successful companies are the ones that are able to strike that magic balance between maintaining a core product that sustains them (which had its roots in innovation) and being willing to take the greater risk that comes along with breaking the mold. Valuing and putting faith in the importance and abilities of a talented creative team can be the ticket to a brand’s long term success.

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Excuse Me, Your SEO is Showing

underwearshowingNot to date myself here, but I started writing before SEO was part of modern vocabulary. I learned to write with conviction and clarity, to creatively communicate meaning, and to carefully choose words that would draw in a human reader rather than attract a robot. I learned the craft of writing as an art, not a science.

Writing has changed now with the desire to have a strong online presence and to show up first in a Google search or on Digg’s front page. Writing, at least the online sort, seems to have taken a turn for the science, often abandoning the art. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of SEO in online content, but it seems that SEO has become of primary concern in most online writing. There are an overabundance of SEO keyword dense headlines and articles floating around out there, and it always seems so obvious which are written with SEO as the primary goal.

Keyword driven headlines and content may be search friendly, but when they show up in a search, are they compelling enough for a human to respond, click and read? Or does that not matter anymore? Copyblogger recently posted an article by Dave Navarro about the importance of headlines. In the article, it was stated that, “it’s well known that many Digg users vote on articles based on article titles and descriptions without ever actually reading the stories.” I find it a little disheartening that people aren’t reading content anymore, just headlines. If this is true, does this mean that the written word, the actual meaning the words has taken a backseat to searchable terms?

The creative soul that I am can’t help but want to make a pretty sentence that a human might read and respond to. I admittedly spend way too much time crafting and editing everything that I write. I have to consciously force the science in once the art is done. In my book, art comes first and science comes second. Just the same, the scientists among us also have to try to remember to bring art into their writing. Take the SEO formula and add a few swipes of a paintbrush to it, so it is compelling and appealing to humans as well as robots. I guess the trick is for the artists and the scientists to begin to mingle and mix it up a bit. You know, like in the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial: you got peanut butter on my chocolate or you got chocolate in my peanut butter. Maybe art and science should rub up against each other a little bit more. When the two elements are put together in the right amounts, they can actually taste pretty good.

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How To Stand Out Like A Genius In A Crowd Of Clowns (literally)

I saw this amazing video and it made me think about what it means to stand out from the crowd.Take a couple of minutes to view this to the end and read on…

Here is a guy who juggles. Big deal, a juggler, right? I can go to Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston on any given day and see jugglers juggling while telling jokes, dressed in silly clown outfits, on a unicycle, or while standing on someone’s shoulders. But when I saw this guy juggling, I was amazed and riveted because I was seeing it done in a way that I have never seen it before. This juggler takes it and makes it his own. He, I would say, is a juggling artist. It’s part juggling, part dance, part performance, part conducting, but it’s all passion.You can see it on his face. The guy is lost in what he is doing because he loves what he is doing.

Here’s a quick recipe for standing out from a crowd of clowns:

1. Do something you are passionate about.

2. Mix in some innovation and originality.

3. Add a dash of artistry and smarts.

4. Leave out any artificial ingredients.

5. Mix well and serve.

I’d love to hear from you about what you do and how you try to stand out from the others…

(By the way, the juggler is Chris Bliss)

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Are You a Thought Leader or a Thought Follower?

photo by Cheryl Andonian

photo by Cheryl Andonian

For anyone who spends any amount of time working online, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is a social media elite, the who’s who of bloggers and social media mavens that many in the blogosphere turn to for direction, instruction and advice.  I have spent countless hours reading what some of the go-to people have to say, and much of it has been extremely useful. I have learned a lot and have had the opportunity to put in my two cents through comments on their blogs, and well as writing my own commentary on my blog.  The so-called “thought leaders” of social media have quite a flock that follows their every word.

I do find that the term “thought leader” a little disturbing, with somewhat Orwellian undertones.  To me, it implies that there is an inner circle that needs to lead all others in how they should or shouldn’t think. Experience can produce knowledge, but sometimes it can also produce a closed mindedness and a sense of ownership and entitlement. I would suggest that what others outside of the elite circle can bring to the table is innovation.  Sometimes those that don’t have as much experience or that are coming in from the outside have the ability to view things with open eyes. They don’t have those preconceived notions about what should or shouldn’t be done. Those that have set the rules and would like to let all others know what those rules are and how they should be followed should listen a little more carefully to what outsiders or lesser-experienced people have to say.  The so-called thought leaders may feel like social media methodology is their baby, but the baby eventually grows up and starts dating.

This applies to any field, not just social media.  I got into a discussion with my son’s teacher last year, and I was trying to make a point to get him to look at something in a different light than what he was used to.  His response to me was “I’ve been doing this for thirty years.”  And that was that, discussion over. That statement was enough of an explanation for him to me as to why he didn’t have to listen to my perspective. Well, thirty years ago, teaching was different, school was different and kids were different. We have to be able to keep our minds open to listen to those who may be from outside, but may be able to offer a fresh outlook or a new way of doing things that could be just as valid (or more) as a well worn methodology.   An outsider’s view can sometimes shed new light onto something that otherwise, if you are too close, you cannot even see.

Social media is a relatively new concept.  It is ever-changing and evolving rapidly.  The rules, technology and methods change and mutate.  Read what others have to say, whether they are the “thought leaders” or not, insiders or not. Take what you can use or relate to and discard the rest (or even better, throw in your own comments), but don’t discount or accept anyone’s opinion based on his or her popularity, name recognition, or subscriber or follower count.  Don’t always take the safest route; let your own brain be your thought leader.

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Tools Are Cheap, Creative Talent Is Precious

tools4saleThroughout my colorful career, I have come across countless “specialists” and have hired my share for various outsourced projects, sometimes only to find that they weren’t really the talent that they professed to be. Everyone has a special talent or two, but some people believe that if they learn to use a tool, that that will give them the talent they yearn for, and will make them a specialist.

Creative talent is something innate, something that’s in your genes. It can be refined with training, education, access to tools and practice, but it’s not something that can be acquired. It’s important to know your limitations, to know what your talents are and what they aren’t. Find what your innate strengths are, focus on those, and refine them. Partner with other talented people who have natural abilities in areas where you are lacking in order to fill the gaps that are missing in your own skill set. Don’t be afraid to partner with other people, just know who they are and know what their work is to make sure they actually have the level of skills that you need.

People who work outside of a creative field (the ones who primarily use that other side of the brain) often don’t understand the talent and the process that go into creative endeavors. Knowing how to type doesn’t make you a writer, knowing html does not make you a web designer, knowing how to take a picture doesn’t make you a photographer, knowing how to hit a nail with a hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter. Tools are easy to come by. True creative talent is rare.

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