Creativity isn't magic. Creativity is taking what you know to be true -- whether factual or instinctive -- and looking at it from a new perspective. It's rearranging what you know to solve problems, create new opportunities, influence established ways of thought.
And contrary to popular belief, being "creative" is not just the responsibility of copywriters and art directors. No matter what your job or profession, being creative is part of it. The following are some helpful pointers to get your creative juices flowing.
Borrow without embarrassment. No, I don't condone plagiarism, but I do encourage you to look for ideas in both usual and unusual places. Some of my best direct mail creativity has resulted from borrowing words, visuals, concepts from such unexpected sources as movies, construction signage, even my teenagers' conversations. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open.
Get more information than you need. You never know which piece of information will trigger your creativity. Ask for product sheets and test results. Review what the competition is doing. Read your company's "white mail"—both compliments and complaints. Talk to customer service representatives and sales people.
Talk to customers. Don't settle for written summaries of focus groups. Call customers and talk to them about their "dreams," their needs, their objections to buying. These are the folks you're trying to influence—not some brand or product manager sitting at headquarters.
Put yourself in the shoes of your customers. Use the product yourself. Call the 800 number you've been writing about and see what actually happens. Create an obstacle to buying and think of five ways to handle the objection so everyone comes out a winner.
Just do it. When I first stared writing direct response copy, I couldn't bring myself to putting anything on paper until I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. As you might have guessed, I spent a lot of time staring at a blank sheet of paper. Today, I start writing knowing full well that the first paragraph of my letter or the headline to my ad is probably going to appear after I've written a page or two.
Go for a walk...Take a shower. Clean out your files. Once you've assimilated as much information as you can handle, give your brain a break. Almost every writer has stories about discovering "breakthrough" ideas while standing in line at the grocery store, jogging around the park or doing something totally unrelated to the project at hand.
Forget cute. Forget clever. The goal of direct response creative is to generate results, not entertain. Just because it's not cute and not clever doesn't mean you've missed being creative.
Also forget trying to come up with something that absolutely has never been done before. While it's not impossible, it's unlikely that your most successful work will be totally original.
Break rules when appropriate. Direct response copywriting is based on dozens of tested tips, techniques and formulas. True creativity comes from knowing when it's appropriate to break these rules to gain attention and generate response.
Caution: Don't break rules out of boredom; have a good reason.
Step outside your own personal preferences and habits. Never read The Wall Street Journal? Give it a try. Hate classical music? Tune some in. Go to a movie you normally would never go to. Shop at a new grocery store. Break your daily routine by taking time out in the middle of the morning to do something out of the ordinary. Often a new perspective in your personal life will give way to new perspective in your work.
Brainstorm ideas with someone else. Being creative doesn't have to be lonely. In fact, quite often the more, the merrier. It also helps to brainstorm with people who have nothing to do with the project you're working on. It could be a spouse or a friend.
Make lists. Whenever I start a new project, the first thing I do is make lists. A list of everything I know (or want to know) about the targeted audience. A list of all the elements of the offer. Lists of features and corresponding benefits, objections to overcome, competitors with which to deal. The beauty of having lists in front of you is that you start to see connections or groupings that otherwise are difficult to identify.
Think positively. Forget all the reasons why it can't work, you can't do it, it costs too much, there's not enough time, etc. For the moment, who cares? Instead, focus on positives—solutions, opportunities, possibilities, rewards— to "unblock" your creativity.
Judge not. The worst impediment to creativity is the fear of failure. Of not pleasing the creative director. Of having someone laugh at your work. If you believe you have a viable, creative idea that does the right thing for the right reasons—and you, indeed, have reasons—why judge yourself as being wrong before you show your work to anyone?
I recently read How to be More Creative by David Edwards which sums up three major misconceptions about creative: (1) being creative means being artistic; (2) creativity demands great skills; and (3) creativity is a function of intelligence. The truth is you don't have to be a Monet, you don't have to have spent years studying under the Masters, and you don't have to be brilliant to be creative. It's a part of all of us.