Be a Student of Life
No, I don't mean they sponge off of other peoplegetting something for nothing, like maybe some of us did in our college days. I'm talking about sponges in the absorbing sense.
Direct mail writers need to drink in as much of the zeitgeist, the pop culture, the of-the-moment nuances of what's happening around them as they can. Why? Because to be successful, copywriters need a vast reservoir of knowledge to draw on. Knowledge as defined as everything and anything you can take in and store away.
My experience is that the old expression "it just popped into my head" is really true. You can't explain how. You don't know why. But if your sponge is saturated, you're more likely to have those delightful light-bulb-over-your-head, "gee-where-did-that-come-from" moments.
So how do you go about filling your sponge? Where do you go and what do you see to pump your subconscious full of little time-release inspirations?
Does sitting in front of the TV night-in and night-out do it? Maybe.
Should you see every movie that comes out whether you want to or not? Perhaps.
Do you force yourself to listen to every jive radio station to hear the latest in urban music? Possibly.
You have to do whatever you have to do. All I can share with you is a list of some of the things I rely on to stay plugged in. You might scratch your head and question my selections, but this is what works for me, in no particular order:
"The Charlie Rose Show." Five nights a week on PBS television, this program is the most refreshing and eclectic interview forum I've found. Rose covers the waterfront with his mix of guests. And you can't help but feel more "absorbed" after each show.
"Late Night With David Letterman." As different from Leno as New York is from L.A., Letterman just seems to get more out of his guests. Plus, I like the mental exercise of trying to tie the significance of show Music Director Paul Schaffer's musical selections to the guest or comic bit they accompany.
"The Rush Limbaugh Show." Politics aside, the fact that more than 2 million of the folks who might be receiving your direct mail package listen to this show means you better know how they think, what they think and what makes them tick.
The New York Times. Especially the "Arts & Leisure" section on Sunday and the "New York Times Book Review." One for a window on the current entertainment scene, the other for a quick read on the books you know you'll never have time for.
The Christian Science Monitor. For my money, the most concise and clearly stated reporting on news, trends and the arts. And the "church talk" is confined to one page in the back of the paper.
Time. Of the big three newsweeklies, Time hits my hot buttons more consistently.
"Meet the Press." Two words: Tim Russert. If feathers are going to get ruffled on the Sunday shows, it's more likely to happen here.
"CBS Sunday Morning" With Charles Osgood. Pleasant surprises that linger on every week. A true TV magazine, without the bravura and sleaziness of "60 Minutes."
The Atlantic Monthly. Another pleasant surprise. You never know what will be covered. But you know it will be done well. Always informative. Always eye-opening. Always worth my time.
"All Things Considered" on NPR. Ditto. I never miss an afternoon.
Then there's "event TV" that I think you just have to watch to stay current. The Oscars. The Tonys. The Emmys. People's Choice awards. MTV Music Video awards.
Occasionally, but not regularly, one of the morning shows"Good Morning America" or "Today." Then, if you have time, "Live with Regis and Kelly." And later in the day, "Oprah." I say occasionally, because too much of any of these can be too much.
And, even if you're not a huge sports fan, it doesn't hurt to experience the excitement and the emotion of Monday Night Football, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finalsand, whenever possible, ESPN SportsCenter, where you'll be treated to some of the wittiest writing anywhere.
Now I can't specifically say what each of these experiences will do for you. I can't point to one and say, well, here's where I came up with this headline. Or my control package for company X was based on such and such.
My point is that, taken as a whole, absorbed into your system and stored away, these wide-ranging influences can give you a pretty good sense of what's going on out there. And, who knows, the cumulative effect could just lead to an epiphany someday that makes the difference between a big idea and a mediocre one.
Good copywriters should be students of life. Always learning. Always looking. Always asking questions. Playing devil's advocate. Asking the "what if" questions. Trying new angles. Looking at things in a different way. Putting themselves in other people's shoes. Playing roles in your head.
But you can't do any of that if your sponge is dry. At least I can't. I need the stimulation of all that I've listed above. I need the controversy. I thrive on the debate. I like the feeling of discovery, and the view from the other side.
Now you may have noticed that conspicuously missing from my list are primetime sitcoms and Hollywood movies. And for you, they might be essential. But for me, they're mostly a waste of time. Unless I just want mindless escapism. But as fodder for future ideas, I've found them of little importance. (Are you really going to use "Hasta la vista, baby" in a direct mail piece?)
So there you have it. Soak your sponge. Absorb whatever works for you. The more full your range of experience, the greater your chances of coming up big. And that, after all, is what direct mail writers get paid for.
Gotta run, it's time for Rush!
Ken Schneider is an award-winning direct mail writer/designer specializing in magazine, book and newsletter promotions. With more than 35 circulation direct marketing awards, he has been honored more than any other individual or direct mail organization. He splits his time between Houston, Texas, and Aspen, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.