What Are Magic Words?

There are countless anecdotes of words being used to enable a magical transformation.  A magician dealing out “Abracadabra” to turn a four of spades into the Ace of hearts.  Harry Potter’s bewitching use of “Riddikulus!” to turn fear into laughter.  A toddler’s longing “pleeaaassse” to turn dad’s anger into a cookie.  The right words at the right time can conjure a spellbinding result… if chosen deliberately, wisely, and concisely.

One of my favorite examples is found in a legendary challenge authored by Ernest Hemingway. In one telling of this tale, Hemingway lunched with several other writers and bet each table member ten dollars that he could craft an entire story in just six words.  After the stack of bills was piled before him, Hemingway grabbed a napkin and scribed, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”  The somber sheet was passed around the table, each writer read it and wept, and Hemingway collected his winnings. Six words. One profoundly deep tale.

In the realm of product design and innovation, some of the best examples of magical storytelling can be found in advertising slogans.

  • “It Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking” – Timex, 1950s
  • “Melts in your Mouth, Not in your Hands” – M&Ms, 1950s
  • “Tastes Great.  Less Filling” – Miller Lite, 1974

In each of these examples is found a concise, inspiring, and intuitive expression of 1) a consumer tension (fragile watches, melting chocolate, and tasteless light beer), 2) a surprising transformation of that tension, and 3) an amazing result.  With just a handful of words, the story of these products’ benefits, the new breakthroughs they represent, and the experiential “Wow’s” are all expertly expressed.

Each of these examples, stories, and slogans provide an engrossing story of transformation.  And as with any good magic trick, each contains:

  1. The Pledge: The current, ordinary state of the situation
  2. The Turn: The transformation of that ordinary something into something extraordinary
  3. The Prestige: The final reveal or amazing result that the transformation enables

When executed correctly, the readers of these stories only experience the magic and enjoy the clear and compelling “Wow”.  They remain blissfully unaware of all of the research, the rewriting, and the refinement done behind the scenes to take some deep and complex concept and to transform it into the intuitive and inspiring story that captured their hearts and minds.

Another of my favorite quotes is first attributed to French mathematician Blaise Pascal and was transformational enough to be later re-quoted by brilliant minds such as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln… “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Finding the clear and concise magical words takes time, creativity, and often some very cool research techniques, but the profound and memorable impact of the resulting story is well worth the investment! 

Mike Thomas is the Director of Innovation for Upstream 360 and also the author of the book, Agents of Change: Unleashing the Innovation of Real-Life Superheroes, available in, paperback and eBook.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand . . . IDEAS!

To those of you who read the previous blog entry (“Brainstorming Is Dead. Long Live Brainstorming.”), welcome back.  To those of you sneaking in after Intermission, welcome aboard.

Either way, I will make good on my promise to literally illustrate for you how to make brainstorming more effective.   

But first, we have to get the right side of your brain and the left side of your brain to stop fighting with each other.  And to do that, we need an ideation technique that connects both sides of the brain, instead of favoring one side over the other.

Words, I’d like you to meet pictures.  Now, let’s due some actual “whole-brained thinking.”

A word about words.  Remember, text only appeared a few thousand years ago, and our weary brains have to scan individual characters one at a time.  Then we have to recognize them.  Then we have to piece them together into comprehensible words and phrases. 

Sounds like a lot of work, because it is.

However, our visual system easily processes images.  In fact, our very human need for imagery probably explains why YouTube and Instagram exist, along with driving other paradigm shifts in our behavior, such as shopping online.  Can you imagine browsing on Amazon without product images?

Speaking of humans, we don’t do very well with large amounts of words.  Reading takes time and big blocks of copy are overwhelming.  It’s not hard to understand why 92% of Google users click on a link from the very first page of results.  Who wants to keep scrolling through more pages?

So why does traditional brainstorming still insist upon someone standing at an easel or dry erase board writing down ideas over a din?  Because s/he has the best penmanship, of course.

Wouldn’t it be better to try and capture those newborn bouncing baby ideas in pictures . . . especially since that’s the way we process new information best.

There’s a reason the expression is: “Let me show you how it’s done” and not “let me tell you how it’s done.”  Besides, we all see better than we hear.

At Upstream 360, we figured out that there is a proven ideational advantage to having an InnoVisionist™ at each table literally illustrating visuals of the concepts and ideas being bandied about. 

Better yet, illustrations allow our minds to “read things” into pictures that we can’t read into finite words with set definitions.  Our InnoVisionSessions succeed because they uncover the Rosetta Stone that the father of traditional brainstorming Alex Osborn could not find:  a way to truly free the minds (and more importantly the imaginations) of the participants.

By connecting both sides of the brain through words and pictures, it’s easier to incorporate patterning, metaphors, analogies, role-playing, and movement into a brainstorming session that could otherwise be a more calculated analytical activity.

Another benefit of filling a room with visuals instead of scribbled words is that illustrated ideas are easier to remember and build upon/optimize later. 

But you already know this.  That’s why you’re good with faces, but can’t remember names!

Innovation is hard work.  And innovating the right products, features, and benefits is even harder.  But there is a better way to ensure you get what you want. 

Seeing is believing.  And visuals get you to think in unique and unusual ways, which leads to better ideas. 

Get the picture?

Mark Smith is the Chief Creative Officer for Upstream 360 and the father of a teenage daughter.  He stays motivated by the twin powers of doubt and insecurity, while his approach to the work is making it legitimately interesting, shareable, and something people can connect with. 


Mark is also an author of the book Innovation Myths and Mythstakes, available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle and coming soon on Audible.  https://www.amazon.com/Innovation-Myths-Mythstakes-Timothy-Coffey/dp/0980174570

Brainstorming Is Dead. Long Live Brainstorming

One of the more controversial entries in the book Innovation MYTHS and MYTHstakes – the real truth behind popular beliefs, is the chapter I wrote about brainstorming.

Because brainstorming simply doesn’t work.

That is, if by working, you mean yielding new, breakthrough, never-before-seen ideas and concepts.

New research proves that brainstorming as you know it, produces fewer ideas than if you just sat by yourself in a cornfield, like our friend the Scarecrow, and pondered ideas for a spell.

These days you hear the word “brainstorming” in popular speech about as often as you hear trademarked brand names like Kleenex, Band-Aid, and Xerox.  But did you know that “brainstorming” is a brand name, too?

Back in 1957, Alex Osborn is credited with coining the word to refer to the approach he developed for idea generation.  Now the term is used so generically, its specific meaning is often lost.  But be aware:  contrary to popular belief, brainstorming is an inferior method of generating ideas!

As a reader of this Blog, you’re probably a decision-maker who is frequently tasked with the slippery notion of ideation.

Whether the ideas you’re charged to come up with represent solutions to a manufacturing challenge, or novel ways to easily visualize how complex chemistry works to the consumer’s benefit in a shampoo, brainstorming is typically a group activity.

Let me guess.  You shuffle into a room, pressed for time.  Most participants bring their laptops and lovingly cradle their SmartPhones throughout.  Imposing easels of crisp, blank white paper stare back at the assembly.  The same folks that are always invited to these things are there.  No one could be called a pacesetter with a demonstrated ability in creative problem-solving.

There isn’t anyone clearly leading things, either.  When the group’s collective well begins to run dry, there is no one to point them in a new direction.  Appreciable periods of silence begin to appear between responses.

Ugh.  Can I go home now?

Finally, someone is brave enough to shout out the same idea he had last year (these are known as “pet ideas” and they make frequent appearances).  As soon as a new idea or two or floated, inexorably it is shouted down as unworkable, impossible, and perhaps even unpatriotic!

Why does this happen again and again?  It’s because typical brainstorming puts too many opposing forces at war with each other.  Logic vs. creativity. Blue sky vs. rain clouds. The spirit against the flesh. The Bengals vs. the Steelers.  And most importantly, the left side of your brain against the right side.

So what’s the answer?  Come back to this blog and I’ll illustrate it for you.  Literally.

Mark Smith is the Chief Creative Officer for Upstream 360 and the father of a teenage daughter.  He stays motivated by the twin powers of doubt and insecurity, while his approach to the work is making it legitimately interesting, shareable, and something people can connect with.  


Mark is also an author of the book Innovation Myths and Mythstakes, available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle and coming soon on Audible. https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=%22Mark+Smith%22+%22myths%22&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3A%22Mark+Smith%22+%22myths%22