All Words. No Words.

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When you are constantly writing for others – formulating the ideas that drive the content you produce, discussing the complexities associated with different writing projects, and editing colleagues’ work – paying close attention to the styles, idioms, and metaphors that have traction in the marketplace is essential.

In the course of my reading – or should I say, my scanning, browsing, and surfing – I sometimes encounter projects I wish Libretto had worked on. Here are two examples – one a print ad, one a public service announcement – that I found exceptionally moving and delightful, and that have continued to resonate after repeated readings and viewings. One is composed entirely of words; the other is virtually devoid of them.

Example 1: Listening to Girls

The first is an ad for Miss Hall’s School, an independent school for girls in the Berkshires, which I encountered some years ago. The ad consists of two columns of text on a white background and nothing more. I've reproduced the copy here:

Listening to Girls

Every summer thousands of people come to the Berkshires to listen. They come to hear these old hills echoing with the world’s most glorious music. To be still and to listen—that is a powerful thing. The Berkshires, after all, are quiet, conducive to the pleasures of listening. Elsewhere, to turn off the din and truly listen—well, that is more of a challenge.

The voices of girls are especially hard to hear, particularly through the cacophony of what our culture is saying to them. Here’s what to wear, here’s how to look, how you should think. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t talk back. Your appearance is more important than your programming skills and your writing. Choose your college based on your boyfriend.

What do girls themselves have to say? Younger girls, typically before they reach adolescence, have a lot to say. They know what they want. Their voices are clear. But as girls enter their teens, we hear them less clearly. Often their voices grow smaller as they try to make sense of the world and discover the true girl inside. Sometimes their voices change—and we no longer recognize them.

But when we create some quiet, girls’ voices grow stronger. In a girls’ school, girls become adventurous. They take up rock climbing and Tae Kwon Do. They write short stories, conduct complex scientific experiments, build software programs, and plan study-abroad trips. They look forward to college as a place to learn and gain new levels of competence. In the quiet, girls acquire confidence and strength. They begin to dream big dreams.

Listen to what girls in girls’ schools say. Listen to the ideas they have for history projects. Listen to their opinions on computer game violence, or censorship, or biotechnology. Listen to how they discuss art and music and politics. It is amazing what girls can do when we respect their opinions. They will organize community service projects and learn new languages. They will publish magazines and start businesses. Look at the machines they build. Look at the presentations they put together. Listen to the music they compose. They will, in the quiet, learn to excel.

We listen to girls at Miss Hall’s School.

We turn down the noise and listen. In this space apart, we give girls the opportunity to be heard, to be leaders, to develop their own voices, their own ideas, their own visions of who they want to be. And suddenly it’s not so quiet anymore, but filled with the joyful music of young women becoming themselves.

Why does this ad work so well?

  • The writer, the designer, and the school had the courage to go with a text-only format that counters two (rather tired) truisms: 1) Nobody reads; 2) People won’t take notice it if there isn’t a photo.
  • The ad begins with a paradox: Why begin an ad about a girls’ school by talking about the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood? It then rewards the reader’s curiosity and shows how this idea has everything to do with the ethos at Miss Hall’s.
  • In fact, the entire ad is a paradox: We’re going to talk about our school’s philosophy using the metaphor of listening. There’s a big idea; they take the time to develop that idea on multiple fronts; and they use evocative and engaging language to do so.

Example 2: Embrace Life

The second example is a PSA created by the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership in the United Kingdom, which went viral after it was originally shown in the local area.

How did this simple promotion become a sensation?

  • Again, paradox is key. The creative team looked at on one of the monumental clichés of daily life – wear a seatbelt not just for yourself, but for the sake of those who love you – and had the audacity to believe they could transform it into an unforgettable tale.
  • The setting introduces another paradox: Wearing a seatbelt isn’t about your car; it’s about your home. Within that paradox resides a powerful metaphor: Your seat belt isn’t just a simple contraption of metal and fabric; it is the embrace of the people who love you, an embrace that may one day save your life.
  • The use of simple domestic detail is masterful: the father’s bare feet, the eruption of glitter, and the little girl’s angel wings – another monumental cliché that takes on incredible power in this context.

In addition to a paradoxical approach, what characteristics do these two examples share?

  • A commitment to paint a broad and vivid mental picture – They cover vast terrain with exquisite skill – whether compressing four years of school into a few hundred words, or sharing an epic of love, peril, and rescue in 90 seconds.
  • A simple and spare approach – Both ads were inexpensively produced for organizations with low media profiles; both creative teams believed they could relate a powerful story with minimal production values.
  • Poignancy – They both aim squarely at the solar plexus, and hit the target head-on. They aspire to make a statement about our collective humanity, and succeed spectacularly.

You’ll note that throughout my analysis, I have refrained from use of the word “storytelling” – a fraught and, frankly, problematic term I’ll leave for discussion in another post. For now, I’m happy to recognize and celebrate the possibilities that can arise and flower when people who trade in combining words and pictures skew their creations in favor of one medium or the other. 

File under Writing, Advertising, Paradox

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