How to Energize Your Creative Powers

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My wife and I were driving to one of our usual restaurants a few days ago. Like most people, we fall into a daze whenever we travel along familiar roads. But about halfway there, purely on a whim, I turned onto a new street. And we both instantly perked up.


Along the way we discovered a beautiful suburban neighborhood, a quaint old bookstore and a new restaurant where we had a fabulous meal. It turned a routine evening into an adventure. These places were there all along, of course, but we never would have known about them if we hadn't tried something different.


The same is true when it comes to advertising and marketing. When you're feeling like you're in a creative daze, take a new path. Do something different. That's one way to discover fresh ideas and energize your creative powers.


Here are a few others:


* 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 in order to understand his work better. You don't have to be so extreme, but you should read books, attend seminars, talk shop, keep up on your field and get as much experience as you can. Knowledge fuels your creative fire.


* Get off auto pilot. Robert Frost once said, "The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts the moment you get up and doesn't stop until you get into the office." It's good to have formulas and rules, but never rely on them blindly. 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.


* Stop avoiding failure. Long, long ago, while I was in high school, I took a driver's education class with a friend. With a death grip on the wheel, he sat bolt upright, swerved back and forth on the road and slammed the brake at every intersection. He was so fixated on not making a mistake, he couldn't focus on just driving. Likewise, if your direct marketing programs are built around the idea of avoiding failure, you will be unable to concentrate on marketing. You certainly will not realize your 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 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 generally get trivial results. And this only discourages 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. While analyzing a fundraising appeal, I concluded that prospects may harbor doubts about how funds are used. In ordinary direct marketing, doubts are usually put to rest with a guarantee. I suggested enclosing a buckslip with a detailed guarantee about the application of funds. They hesitated, since it seemed like a radical idea. But this old idea used in a new way helped lift response significantly.


* 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 best? Who says only direct mail will work? Back up. Think things through from the beginning. What are you selling? Who would buy it? What ways are available to reach those people? What offers could work? False barriers blind you to alternatives. Ask yourself how you normally would do something. Then look for other ways. Often you'll find them.


* Set the right conditions. 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. 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.


I must admit that while driving along unfamiliar roads, I often get lost. But that's OK. I always find my way again. And I always discover something new.


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