Let’s talk about what some people consider to be a filthy, dirty word:
It’s not outright rude, and it’s not a euphemism for the ol’ horizontal tango…
But still, for some folks in business, the words ‘improvise’ and ‘improvisation’ have unholy connotations.
They suggest a lack of foresight, an improper approach, a sense of ‘winging it’.
But what’s seen as a negative by some is of course a positive trait to others.
I’m firmly in the second camp, and if you read on you’ll discover why you should be too.
Improvising is a struggle for some, a reflex for others
The benefits of being able to improvise well are clearly important to us as people, and as marketers.
There’s the ability to react to challenging situations…
To be able to think on our feet…
To adapt to change…
To save time and resources…
To experience excitement, and risk, while being rewarded (the fun stuff, thrill-seekers!)
But conventional wisdom – especially in business – insists we focus on the opposite to improvisation.
We’re told we should always be ahead of the game…
That when we react to a situation with improvised, ‘off the cuff thinking’, we’re merely responding to a mistake we made earlier.
It’s as if ‘reacting’ is inherently the wrong thing to do. Instead, we should have ‘acted’ correctly, the first time around.
So we’re taught to plan ahead (always).
To organize (everything).
To track, to record, to schedule, to automate…
Until our lives and businesses become smooth-running, meticulous systems with everything in its right place, everything prepared for and optimized, with little room for improvisation or maneuver.
And this is apparently the path to success.
Of course, that’s not really how it works, despite our best efforts.
Truth is, it’s in our nature to improvise – to adapt, to change…
It’s in our DNA to act instinctively, and deal with the consequences.
Back in the loincloth and cave days, if we stood still, we’d die.
As Pearl Jam once said: it’s evolution, baby.
And historically, many successful businesspeople – as well as many leaders, sports coaches and artists – have been great improvisers…
…Jobs, Churchill, Mourinho, Bowie, for instance…
Partly out of necessity, but partly because their flair for improvisation has led them to that life. So it’s a bit chicken-and-egg.
But it’s not just the great and the good – we all have an in-built flair for improv.
Because, in spite of our progressive schooling, our never-more-connected world and our advanced state of civilization, we’re still constantly at the mercy of our fight or flight instincts.
Whether you realise it or not, you’re a born improviser…
This is something you should embrace – especially if you’re a marketer or copywriter.
And there’s one particular practice favoured by skilled improvisers that you can use every day in your biz.
It’s called ‘embracing constraint’.
In his book Do: Improvise, Robert Poynton discusses how improvisation is connected to creativity…
And, he says, one of the key ways skilled improvisers improve their creativity is to embrace constraint on a regular basis.
How to embrace constraint and look great doing something easy
Poynton uses the example of two people playing the popular improv game ‘Last letter, first letter’.
This is where the first word of every speech has to begin with the same letter of the alphabet as the last letter of the last word of the previous speech.
So, Person A begins: “Do you take sugar?”
Person B responds: “Regrettably, I do, even though it’s bad for me.”
Person A: “Everything’s bad for you.”
Person B: “Usually.”
…and so on. You get the picture.
I watched a couple of friends who practice improv comedy try this recently, and quickly understood what Poynton means when he says that the constraint – being made to use the last letter of the previous response – made this look
…so difficult that it wins them the goodwill of the audience before they even begin….
What the audience doesn’t realise is that the constraint is there to give them some structure to work with.
This has the double benefit of making it look more difficult while actually making it easier.”
He goes on to explain how it’s like when artists choose a particular material – like paint, clay, the guitar or whatever.
The limitations imposed by the tools they’re using stimulate creativity by giving structure and form to the artist’s idea.
Similarly in marketing, the constraints you find yourself working within at any given moment create useful boundaries you can use, like pouring your ideas into a cake mould or ice cube tray would.
(…if your ideas were cake mix or water. Um, bear with me on this metaphor, I’m sticking with it…)
How you can use constraints to create better marketing
Like many marketing tactics, this one’s all about questioning your approach.
Start by thinking about the different restrictions associated with your marketing, and how they actually guide you to create something from almost nothing:
- Budget – how does that affect your marketing? Does a small budget mean less opportunity, or just a different opportunity?
- Your reach – how does your potential reach influence the style of your message? Does it enable you to take a more personal approach, or are you addressing thousands with a great offer, and asking them to self-select, to qualify themselves to be in with a chance?
- The location of your ad or article – how might you adjust your style for the audience you’ll encounter in different places?
- Format – are you using a short, surprising message because you have less space to grab attention, or do you need to draw the reader/viewer in with a story on a sales page?
- Funnel position – where in the funnel is this message? Do you need to refer to something your audience has already seen, or do you need to hold something back?
Focusing on constraints like these actually gives your marketing the direction and shape it needs to be more targeted, to become more specific to your audience or niche, and the personality it requires to stand out and make an impression.
Here’s the key:
Instead of seeing them as ‘limits’ on your messaging, when you embrace these constraints, they become guidelines and inspiration for better work.
Then there are the constraints imposed by your audience…
- Their language and style of communicating – are you speaking to conservatives, millennials, environmentalists, new parents or surfers… what are the emotional trigger-words and search terms you need to include? What must you avoid?
- Their beliefs – is there a widely-held belief that exists around products or services like yours, or about your competitors, or about a particular problem in your market that’s not been reliably solved (yet)?
- Familiarity with you or your product – do they know who you are at this point? Will they view you with suspicion as a ‘new kid on the block’, or can you draw upon trust or authority you’ve already established with this audience? How will this affect your message?
- Their budget and previous experiences of similar products – are you addressing a jaded, cynical group who’ve tried everything else and been burned before… or are you educating curious people who maybe aren’t yet aware they even have a problem?
These factors all influence how people consume and respond to your marketing.
And, rather than being restrictions on what you can and can’t do, they actually give you direction…
Which is crucial, because of course too many options often results in no action taken.
It may sound a little ‘self-help guru’ to see things this way, but…
You should aim to see each constraint as a gift, or as Poynter calls them, “offers”.
Because it’s these constraints/offers that give your marketing its shape and direction, rather than just picking a direction at random and hoping you make it home.
They’re drivers of creativity, not inhibitors.
It’s the same with copywriting…
You could use a tried and tested formula like AIDA, or AICPBSAWN (not a pretty acronym, but a damn good approach) to give your sales page the structure it needs.
Or you could add constraints to your bullet points like this:
Try spending 10 minutes writing down all the best features and benefits of your product, then selecting the best 7 – no more, no less.
It’s a great way to ensure each bullet is as powerful and persuasive as it can be.
How about constraining yourself by strictly writing your message to one specific person?
You know that the best copy always talks to one reader, but really, how specific do you actually get when you write a sales message?
Try whacking a jpeg portrait that best matches your ideal customer on your desktop, and keeping it open when you write sales copy…
That way you’ll always be looking right into the eyes (uh, maybe a little scary) of your customer avatar when you’re persuading them to try your stuff.
What about constraining your headlines?
You probably already create several versions of headlines before you pick one, but instead of just freestyling it and hoping something good comes out, try limiting yourself to one brainstorming session with a 12-word headline target, and another with a 5-word target.
Long headlines and short(er) headlines have different advantages, and provide good A/B testing opportunities.
With your CTA (call to action) button copy, you could limit yourself by having to include one of the words or phrases from your headline.
It’s always a good idea to have your CTA mirror any promise made in your headline (something I discuss in more detail in this free guide), so repeating a word from your header makes it super-specific and reminds the reader of the promise you made – right at the crucial point of decision-making.
You could try seeing what happens when you remove all the instances of “I”, “we” and other direct mentions of your product or company, and replacing them with “you” and “your”…
See how that affects the message, and how it switches the focus firmly back onto the reader, making them the hero of the story rather than you.
So if you’re looking to get creative with your copy and marketing, try embracing constraints rather than running from them.
How else do you use restrictions to get creative with your marketing? I’d love to know – have at it in the comments.
As Robert Poynton says in Do: Improvise,
Creativity is stimulated by embracing constraint; not by a complete absence of constraints.”
In marketing, as in life, sometimes the things that seem to restrict us are actually what give us more freedom.