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Let’s get visceral: Choose your signal before you gut-punch

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What forms say before we know anything

I recognize a business card because of the shape and size. I recognize a sermon more by a particular tone and rhythm (which signals a certain intent) then I do the presence of a pulpit or podium. I know a joke is coming because Letterman is on stage and it is 10:37pm. I know the joke will have a setup and a payoff. Or perhaps the third of three statements will be funny. I am ready for the joke because of these forms.


Before we know anything we recognize a form. Our brain sorts how to react to that form, and then, once that is settled, we process communication content. Long before I hear any content, I know what category to place each of those communication events. It is the context that prepares me: when I see X, I know Y is not far behind. My nervous system anticipates the next piece.

But what if the form is out of whack?

What if I hear preaching on a street corner? What if a clever copywriter uses a rubber stamp instead of a business card (“Here, give me your hand and I’ll stamp my contact stuff on you palm.”). And what if Letterman was serious? He has been a few times: right after 9/11 his serious tone—entirely uncharacteristic—began a bit of national healing.

I tell my copywriting students to follow the forms at times and to bust the forms at other times. For instance, we must make our ideas as easy to understand as possible, and so we present our ad concept to a client in a form that is immediately recognizable—even if the idea itself is challenging. And sometimes one thumbs one’s nose at the form on purpose, just to bust through (that is, the communication gut-punch).

In any case, following the form or busting the form is a conscious decision.

And the form is not God (not even a god).

By the way, Dan Pink has a great story about the Pixar way of presenting a concept here.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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