Your brief is a joke

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MONTREAL, Wednesday: Trevor Thomas, head of strategy at Canadian indie creative agency Bleublancrouge* (and semi-retired stand-up comic) shares the secret to writing a good brief using the formula for good comedy.

This challenging piece was provided to M+AD by Paris-based Epica Awards editorial director/jury host Mark Tungate – a regular contributor.

Thomas writes: “As someone who has written, read and evaluated a lot of briefs – and someone who also decided to make a hobby of writing and performing jokes – I can say without hesitation that the title of this piece is the highest praise that can be bestowed upon a brief.

“Like a joke, there is no one way to write a good brief, and many, many people have gotten astonishingly good at one or the other by developing a style of their own. There are, however, a specific set of rules for successfully writing either and, it may surprise you to learn that the rules are strikingly similar.

“First, let’s look at what makes a joke a joke. The basic foundations couldn’t be more simple: premise, punchline.

“Some of the best jokes ever written add nothing more to this basic formula. Others, however, fill in the space between with context, colour, and intrigue. They elaborate on the premise, add detail to the story, and subtly build towards the inevitable crescendo.

“Briefs are similar. At their core, they’re composed of a problem to solve and a key message, but generally contain more context in between. Of course, unlike jokes, briefs come in templates. Some are great, some are confounding, but that should never be an excuse for writing a bad brief. Think of brief headers (ask, problem, audience, tension, key message, RTBs, etc.) like story beats. If used properly, they’ll simply help guide your audience through your narrative.

“The basic foundations couldn’t be more simple – premise, punchline.”

“And the narrative is key. To ensure yours is the strongest it can be, there are four incontrovertible rules to be followed, which – to illustrate my point – I will summarise …

  1. Practice word economy: In few written forms is the economy of words as important as joke writing. Since there’s an expectant audience in front of you waiting to laugh, you need to get to the point before they turn on you! So too with briefs. Creative teams see a lot of briefs. If
  2. Keep moving forward: Like any good story, a joke should have a clear narrative that carries the audience from beginning to end. It’s not a subway line where each stop along the way is predictable, but a roller coaster, where the rider ultimately knows where they’re going, but has paid good money for someone to make the journey as entertaining as possible.
  3. I’ll admit it, I’ve never generated rollercoaster-level exhilaration with one of my briefs, but the point remains valid: Keep the story moving forward through interesting and unexpected connection points, and creative teams will keep coming back for more.
  4. Never repeat: If you’re practicing word economy and forward momentum, repetition is almost impossible, but redundancy can be just as damaging, so avoid that as well.
  5. Choose each word meticulously: Let’s compare two sentences: “She’s not old enough to handle losing at Monopoly” and “She’s not emotionally developed enough to handle her inevitable loss in every game of Monopoly”. You’re probably thinking: “Hey, that breaks Rule #1!” But look at those extra words carefully. Each one adds vivid details to the image, forcing the audience’s imaginations into hyperdrive.

“Which is exactly what a good creative brief is all about. It’s not a recipe or a to-do list. It’s a story designed to unleash the imaginations of your audience. And each word is a tiny springboard that can help propel creative thinking to greater heights.

“Before I go, I want to share one more monumentally important similarity between briefs and jokes: They’re not all going to work the first time.

A brief, like a joke, is a living organism. Write it, refine it, workshop it, gather feedback, present it, gauge the reaction and refine it again. That’s how the best jokes get written.

Follow the rules, and I’m confident that someday soon you’ll hear these sweet, sweet words: “Your brief is a joke.”

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