In 2004, a group of British scientists announced they’d created a mathematical formula for the “perfect joke”. The equation (x = (fl + no ) / p) took into account, among other factors, the length of the joke’s lead-in, the quality of the punchline and whether it contained puns.
As you might expect, the news didn’t go down well with comedians.
Most were offended by the idea of “computerising” humour. Ruby Wax concluded: “I don’t think jokes themselves are funny… I think people are funny.”
Ruby has a point, and the scientists themselves were keen to stress the formula was only part of the puzzle for comedic success.
(The group was also commissioned by The Beano to devise a formula for the world’s funniest fart, so it’s safe to take their work with a pinch of salt.)
Natural talent, stagecraft, hard-earned experience and performative flair are all required – think of the late, great Tommy Cooper bringing the house down without saying a word. Plus, the audience needs to be receptive. The same joke could flop or fly on different nights depending on the crowd.
There are so many variables to humour and joke telling that, as Jimmy Carr rightly observed, “you can only ever analyse jokes retrospectively”.
A formula can’t guarantee comedic success. And the same is true for creative work.
Why do people want formulas?
If “formulas for success” worked, we’d all be able to write Pulitzer-worthy novels and conceive Turner-Prize-winning pieces of art by equation.
But they don’t, so we can’t.
Why then, do so many people try to shove “formulas for success” in creative work down our throats? And why do so many others buy into these ideas?
The problem is two-fold.
Hacking the process
People seek out formulas, rules and 1-2-3 steps for success in an attempt to “hack” the creative process, like those scientists were trying (in jest) to hack comedy.
“Creating is hard, frustrating, sometimes even depressing or boring. Those moments of struggling to focus, stumbling through half-baked ideas, waiting for something to click — they can be torture.”
It’s human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, when it comes to creative work; mess, frustration and struggle are intrinsic parts of the process. You can’t optimise your way around them.
You need to go against your base instincts, embrace the pain and work through it to produce truly great work.
As per Margo Aaron’s diagram:
BEHOLD THE MAP
(you gotta click because twitter cut off the top) pic.twitter.com/EVOshrbM1G
— Margo Aaron (@margoaaron) January 2, 2020
And that shit’s hard.
The bullshit industrial complex
This desire to short circuit the creative process has led to a proliferation of snake oil sales people peddling quick fixes to a captive audience.
It’s part of what Sean Blanda calls the creative world’s “bullshit industrial complex”:
“Those that are giving advice [are doing it] for the sake of giving advice, without any regard as to how it is actually implemented… Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader.”
Taking a more optimistic view than Blanda, the advice perhaps works for a few people. But then it enters the creative world’s echo chamber and gets rinsed, repeated and done to death until it becomes “best practice”.
And, as we’re about to find out, best practice is a problematic concept.
What’s so bad about best practice?
In the words of the inimitable Joanna Weibe: “Best practices create mediocrity.”
What starts with one well-intentioned person sharing their success with a certain strategy snowballs into an industry-wide acceptance of The Way Things Are Done and an end to critical thinking.
“The effect is to shortcut thinking and normalize unchallenged marketing. To give us all something to say when we see copy, design, interfaces, etc that make us feel something:
“But isn’t a best practice X?”
(read: “This work challenges what I believe keeps me safe.”)
The designer or copywriter goes back to the drawing board.
And mediocrity gets reinforced.”
But best practice works, right?
To illustrate her point, Jo shares the story of a recent email marketing campaign the Copyhackers team worked on for Prezi.
Their first sequence was a textbook example of email marketing best practices. Everyone agreed. Nobody challenged assumptions about The Way To Do Email Marketing.
Like the emails had never happened.
Like Prezi had invested no time or resources in them.
Like Copyhackers had invested no time or resources in them.
Not what you’d expect from dropping big bucks on one of the world’s most celebrated team of copywriters.
So, they went back to the drawing board, ripped up the rule book and devised something radically different. Something that challenged assumptions about email marketing best practices. Something worth putting out into the world.
This second round of emails had a much bigger impact and beat the controls hands-down. But its success was never guaranteed, and that made people in the boardroom twitchy.
“Great copy is uncomfortable. A few people around the boardroom table will love it, but the vast majority will shoot it down fast… THAT’S potentially great copy. It’s also potentially shit copy. There’s a name for it now. It’s called BOB [breakthrough-or-bust] copy.”
Sink or swim
Breakthrough or bust. Sink or swim. In our era of risk averse hyper-accountability in the workplace, that’s a terrifying concept for decision-makers and those holding the purse strings.
Often their reaction is to retreat back to a safe space of best practices, proven formulas and optimisation strategies.
But inspiration for creative work that’s going to move the needle has never been found in an analytics dashboard. The numbers can only ever tell you what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They have no bearing on future success.
As creative professionals, it’s our responsibility to help these individuals see that the real biggest threat to survival in today’s attention economy is maintaining the status quo, letting assumptions go unchallenged and allowing mediocrity to reign.
Creative work is not above criticism
That isn’t to say all new ideas are necessarily good, or creative work is above criticism from those outwith the inner circle.
New ideas should be robustly and thoroughly interrogated. Always. And there are perfectly legitimate reasons for apprehension.
If an idea is unethical, unnecessarily provocative or needlessly salacious, people have every right to object. Similarly, if it doesn’t fit with a brand’s image (consistency is important) or is at odds with current consumer attitudes, it will quite obviously do more harm than good.
But pushing back out of fear of change is not a legitimate complaint, as long as the new idea is backed by a solid hypothesis.
Your rationale should demonstrate to your clients and colleagues that you haven’t plucked the idea out of thin air. That it’s a calculated risk. A leap of faith worth taking.
You need to hold their hands as they raise their heads above the parapet with you.
There’s a risk you’ll get shot down (at least you’ll go out in a blaze of glory). But if you don’t take it, you’ll never get a chance to admire the view.