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Fear + uncertainty and how they impact commuters and travelers in the era of COVID.
I am very fortunate. I live in a modest home on Nantucket Island. I can go to the beach any time I like. I have a nice detached studio in which I work, work out and play my guitars. I have the world’s nicest outdoor shower. I have a wood stove that warms the house when the ocean winds drop below 40 degrees. I have two wifi networks from which to choose. A well-equipped kitchen. A warm bed. A mahogany-decked back porch that my wife and I sit on when we drink our morning coffee. As a result, I remain at home a lot. In fact, I only venture out to shop for food or walk Hazel, our dog.
Our current situation is in stark contrast to the previous 24 years when I had been constantly on the move.
“Constantly on the move,” you question? Surely, that’s an exaggeration. Well, here’s a quick back-of-the-envelope accounting of my travel experiences in that time:
- Over 670 ferry rides between Nantucket and the mainland.
- 1,320 plane flights, most of which were in a 10-seat Cessna with my 6’4″ frame stuffed into the copilot’s seat.
- Over 530 car rentals. (After spending $3,000 a month for 12 years for rental cars, I finally wised up, bought a car, and rented a parking space on the Cape.)
- I listened to 471 books on tape. Approximately 3,200 hours.
- Spent over 1,350 nights in hotels. I still have one or two dozen little bottles of shampoo stashed around the house.
- I spent 10,275 hours in transit, to the best of my ability to estimate.
- I left the island 1,083 times and returned 1,083 times. Thank goodness.(Coming back was always easier than leaving, for some reason.)
So it’s safe to say I was comfortable with traveling. But COVID has changed that for me and for a lot of people. (How many people did I come in contact with over those 24 years? How many surfaces did I touch? *Shudder.*) Commuting has become one of the riskiest actions you can take in an era of over 200,000 people dead and more than 6 million afflicted in the US alone. Few people see this with more clarity than I do. 18 months ago, I started a strategy and communications firm that specializes in meeting the needs of public and personal transportation organizations. So I’ve had a ring-side seat to the mayhem.
According to the Gleam Project, most people are only 80–85% as mobile as they once were, and are making around 50% of the physical contacts they did in January, which is big jump over April. Commuting-to-work levels nationwide are at 50% and climbing very slowly. As of this writing, commuting levels in New York City, by contrast, are still only 25% of what they were in January of 2020.
A few months back in June, I did some informal research with my friends on social media (Facebook plus LinkedIn where I have more than a few contacts in the public transit space) regarding attitudes around public transportation of all kinds. One third of respondents were not willing to trust any form of public transportation including bike share and commuter ferries where they would essentially be outdoors during the trip. Of those that didn’t dismiss public transit out of hand, subways, buses and trains ranked at the bottom of the trusted scale. I will likely do a follow-up this fall to see if attitudes have shifted. But I suspect that fear is still a factor.
It’s not just that people are fearful of this virus. The problem goes well beyond fear. Psychologically, and physically, the uncertainty that comes with the Coronavirus makes the fear doubly paralyzing.
Let me explain that last sentence. A few years ago, when I was part of a great team working on the launch of a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Connecticut called CTfastrak, we did some research on the impact of uncertainty. In a focus group, we found that people loved driving in their cars and that very little would get them out of those cars. But we also discovered something very surprising. Some people (not all) hated uncertainty even more than they loved their cars. By highlighting the reliability of the CTfastrak BRT schedule in contrast with sitting on I-84 for an uncertain amount of time, we were able to convince more than a few folks that taking the bus was a better idea than driving.
I wondered why this was true. And then I read some of the existing research on uncertainty and learned that uncertainty actually lives in the same place in the brain as pain. To the brain, it was theorized by more than a few researchers, uncertainty actually hurts. And people will avoid uncertainty in the same way they avoid pain, even if the reward of overcoming that uncertainty is great.
Fear is powerful. Uncertainty is its cousin. Together they keep people from doing the things they want to do.
This hit home a few weeks ago when I volunteered to help my son move from an apartment in Queens to one in Manhattan. When he accepted my offer, I then had to plan my trip and I was struck by the pain of uncertainty on a visceral level. How was I going to actually get there?
Normally leaving the island and going to my son’s NYC apartment was a true multi-modal experience. Boat, car, parking garage, train, subway, Uber. Well, that was completely out of the question. Taking that route, albeit less expensive, exposed me (and therefore my wife when I returned) to five or six high-risk environments for COVID, both coming and going.
Instead, I decided to fly. I took JetBlue from our little airport while wearing two masks and taking advantage of every opportunity to load up on hand sanitizer that the airline provided. They did their best to offer social distancing on the plane, despite the fact that the plane was as full as they could pack it and still maintain some empty seats for safety. I did my best not to touch anything. Including my two masks. When I landed at Laguardia, I had four options. Take a taxi/uber, take the bus, spend 45 minutes on the subway, or walk. I know what you’re thinking: “What kind of freak walks across 1/3 of NYC after landing at Laguardia?”
This freak does. Fear and uncertainty make us do weird stuff.
Fortunately, it was a beautiful weekend and walking was ideal. I was able to give my personal trainer the weekend off as I ended up lifting about 16 tons of my son’s books, technology, kitchenware, and furniture up a very steep and narrow set of stairs. As well as walking over three hours (calories were burned). The day after the move, my son rewarded me with a pastrami sandwich the size of my head from Katz’s (calories were consumed) and I walked back to the airport.
The flight back to Nantucket had, maybe, 15 people on it, so I felt a little safer. Despite all of the precautions I took, my wife (who has taken a year-long sabbatical from teaching due to COVID because she is a borderline high-risk case) still made me sleep in my studio until I was able to get a negative COVID test. Which I got. All is well.
But here’s the point. I was willing to pay more and jump through some unusual hoops to limit my uncertainty and maximize the parts of my trip over which I could be in complete control.
What this all means for commuters and travelers is profound. In a COVID-free world, helping commuters and travelers overcome inertia and garden-variety uncertainty was difficult enough. Add to that the fear and uncertainty that comes with an invisible disease that has afflicted millions and killed nearly a million worldwide and it’s amazing anyone ever leaves their homes.
Yet, I hasten to add, some people have no choice. First responders, hospital and food workers, people who need to be out in public just to keep their families fed are literally living with and swallowing their fear and uncertainty every day. And people who work in transportation are in the same boat. Of the top 50 occupations with the most risk, bus drivers and transit operators are listed at №30 and flight attendants are at №21. With estimates for a vaccine around a year away, the only certain thing transportation organizations can do to attract travelers and calm employees is to follow state health guidelines and assure everyone that they are doing everything they can by being extra visible about keeping equipment and facilities sterilized.
How will this all shake out? The answer to that question is uncertain, I fear.
This post was first published on Grant’s blog, Okay Here’s the Thing on Medium
“Grant, I feel I need to mention that some of the other employees have complained about the meat grinders. It’s making them uncomfortable.”
— The CEO of my former ad agency.
I began collecting meat grinders nearly three years ago after a conversation I had with an account exec I was working with on a new project. He was wondering when we could get some work in front of a client. Like all good AEs, he wanted to show some progress and give the client something to react to. But the work was not ready.
“We need to put this stuff through the meat grinder first,” I threw out.
He was puzzled. I explained that the thoughts and ideas we were messing with needed to be broken down, vetted, and minced — in every sense of the word. We needed to sanity-test every thought and follow every creative lead. We needed to dig for golden insights until one of three things happen: We are exhausted. We strike gold. We burn our hands on the molten mantel at the earth’s core. This satisfied my AE brother and we set a deadline for the outcome of this grind session. Good meeting.
The next day, a Saturday, I was on India Street on Nantucket in the basement of an old home that now served as the local hospital’s thrift shop. I came across a nice looking meat grinder. It was likely as old as I am, give or take a few years. It had that glint of old-world utility. We don’t use these things any more thanks to the blender, the KitchenAid mixer with all of its swell attachments, and the ever-handy food processor. Who needs a hunk of metal that clamps to the countertop or farm table and featured a wooden-handled crank? Who has the time?
Having just talked about meat grinders with my colleague, I bought the piece for $2 and brought it to the office on my trip back to Connecticut that week. A visual aid. There was an exposed I-beam in my workspace that ran from the floor to the ceiling, so I clamped my new hardware to it. I stepped back. It looked good, but something was missing.
More meat grinders.
After that day, I began supplementing my antique cast iron pan purchases with meat grinders. On one trip, I bought nine. On another, four. They seemed to be available in every antique mall and second-hand store I entered. I even crossed state lines on a Wednesday evening to purchase two vintage beauties from a man on craigslist.com — one, a rather rare Griswold №2. On another occasion, I bought a massive grease-black beast of a grinder from a woman I met in an Olive Garden parking lot in Plainville, CT after 10 PM, giggling all the way back to my apartment. Before long, over 20 more hunks of metal and wood joined the original “Universal 1572” grinder on the I-beam.
That’s around the time the meat grinders started to make a few of my fellow teammates uncomfortable. (Which was partially the point.) Comfort is not the goal of the work we do. The goal, instead, is to uncomfortably force ourselves to do the hard work needed to uncover new creative thinking.
After I left that agency and lugged all of those meat grinders home to Nantucket — a good story in and of itself that will have to wait for another time — I installed the collection in my little 10 x 12 studio workspace and there I began to explore the concept even further. I put the concept of the meat grinder through the meat grinder! And the result is the following statement of truths.
The Meat Grinder Manifesto.
As creative professionals, we adhere to the following truths because doing so nets the best work. The most original work. The work that no one can mess with. The work that makes other creative people say, “Shit, I wish I came up with that…” As members of the Order of the Meat Grinder, we believe that the power of an idea comes from the energy we put into uncovering it. We, therefore, adhere to the following axioms.
ONE. Do the hard work. It always pays off. Anyone can buy 80/20 hamburger joylessly extruded onto a flimsy styrofoam tray and covered with plastic wrap in the supermarket. A true culinary artist selects different cuts of meat and finds the time to grind something special. It takes work and time to make a burger with 50% sirloin, 25% brisket, and 25% short rib, but day-um! The results speak for themselves (serve with shaved, raw, sweet onion, pickles, and American cheese on a fresh Something Natural® hamburger bun). In the same way, as creative pros, it’s important to recognize that the work we do is difficult and we can’t, and should not, phone it in.
TWO. The cheap answer is always the wrong answer. Consider the Einstellung Effect which states that the more experience one has, the more likely one is to think that one’s initial, intuitive solution to a problem is the best one. Because it’s worked before. But there’s a term for this in our business: creative malpractice. Truth is, new problems require new, hard-won solutions. Why should a client pay for an idea that easily falls out of your brain during the input session? The first thing that comes to mind should be the answer of last resort.
THREE. The comfort zone is out of bounds. Insights come from getting out of your own head and into the heads of other people in other situations. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. It’s a pain in the ass. You have to get up out of your massive overstuffed chair and dig for novelty and cool. You have to break a sweat. No one ever got six-pack abs by watching Netflix on the couch (unless they started out with eight-pack abs).
FOUR. Break it down before you build it up. A happy post-mortem for a given creative project is often preceded by a healthy pre-mortem weeks before launch. Scrutinizing every moving part of an idea and immunizing your solution against failure results in thinking that’s concentrated, brief and powerful.
FIVE. Crank out more than you need. When you take the time to set up the meat grinder, you wouldn’t then turn the crank three times and be done with it. Generating a full range of solutions means you will be sure the ideas that finally go to the client are the best ones possible because you’ve left no cut of meat unground, so to speak.
SIX. Learn to love the cranking. In our business, the best idea often wins. It might get an award. It might get us a promotion. Or even win us a new client. But, paradoxically, the value of what comes out of the meat grinder is far, far less than the value one gains from turning the crank. Put another way, we learn so much more from the process than we do from the result. Remember that the winning idea is just one arbitrary thing sitting atop an invisible, hard-won mountain of cranked-out possibilities and insights
.- – –
Grant Sanders is the founder of SAND which is a Nantucket-based firm that delivers Strategy, Art, Narrative, and Design to brands that move people. One crank at a time.
How I got through one of the busiest summers on record without ever getting stuck or wasting time in traffic.
Most people who live on Nantucket like to complain. If there was a “Complaining Olympics,” Nantucket would take bronze, silver, and gold every four years. And the number one thing people on Nantucket complain about is traffic.
But let’s be clear here. Traffic on Nantucket is different than traffic in America (as we like to refer to the rest of the United States). Here, if there are six cars stopped in a row at a stop sign, people complain. I lived in Boston before the advent of Waze or Google Maps and before the Big Dig was dug and the Lenny Zakim Bridge was suspended above the Charles so I know what soul-sucking, mind-numbing, nerve-inducing traffic is like. Nantucket is like the Indy 500 in comparison.
Still, we do have close to 31,000 cars on the island in Summer according to the Nantucket Data Platform. And when the sky clouds up, many people head into town to shop and stroll around instead of going to the beach. There is congestion. Finding parking spaces is difficult. Tensions do run high. People with Connecticut and New Jersey license plates drive their oversized vehicles with a mixture of entitlement and aggression.
And despite working in town most days, I was not affected by any of it. I never once got a ticket. I never had trouble finding parking. I moved in and out of Downtown Nantucket four or five days a week as a ghost moves through walls. How?
I was on a bicycle.
It’s that simple. I got on my bike in the middle of the island and I pedaled into town and then out again. I took advantage of the bike paths and bike routes that we all paid for with our tax money. I moved with ease, passing cars that had to wait. I flew through rotaries. And when I arrived, there was always a spot waiting for me. And I never had to worry about some summer cop-in-training putting a ticket on my vehicle or chalking up my tires.
How was I able to make this lifestyle change away from having a car to preferring my bike. Here’s how:
- We decided to become a one-car couple. It wasn’t easy to give up a car here on Nantucket. But when you consider all of the time both cars would sit in the driveway unused, it just made sense to consolidate. Plus it saved us a ton of cash. We still have a second car, but it’s off-island, waiting for us when we need it.
- I have a bike that fits me. And my style of riding. I am a very large man. Larger than some pro defensive ends. Most bikes feel like toys beneath my hulking frame. But My Cannondale Jumbo Adventure hybrid bike is like a speedy two-wheeled indestructible tank. It has the gears to get me moving with traffic (and in some cases faster than traffic) and it can handle the occasional dirt road or cobblestone street with ease.
- I invested in some handy panniers (saddlebags) to go on my rear-wheel rack. For me, this is a better option than a backpack or sling bag because there’s nothing heavy against my back to make me sweaty or pull on my muscles. And I can carry a laptop, a steady cam, a tablet, a notebook, extra water bottle, twelve pens, assorted papers and all of my biking gear: pump, lock, helmet in a single pannier. Plus, two panniers allow me to carry up to four bags of groceries. The ones I got were from IKEA and they are not sold anymore. But they are simple canvas totes, very similar to these.
- The weather cooperated on most days. That was nice. Even on days when it was a little misty, biking wasn’t a big deal. I keep this lightweight jacket in my pannier if I need it.
- I set up meetings out-of-town when possible. Not every workday had to happen downtown. So I mixed it up. I also did a fair amount of work in the home office. Flexibility is key.
- I have two of each of the crucial bike accessories. Two helmets. Two locks. Two panniers. So if anything is dirty or wet or missing, I can grab the spare. I also have two bikes, although one is a slow fixie cruiser that I only ride occasionally. It came in handy the day the rear tire on my 24-speed blew.
- I have a bike client. So I was often reminded I had to talk the talk. And pedal the walk, so to speak.
- I get my bike serviced regularly. No excuse to take the car if you have a bike that works well and is a pleasure to ride.
- On those days I couldn’t bike, I had other options. I could always walk. Except for one day when the heavens opened up and there was so much flooding, I had to turn back. And as a last resort, the keys for the car are in the cupholder.
- When we do drive, we park just outside the downtown area and walk into town. People don’t realize that there are plenty of spaces four minutes away from the Atheneum by foot. (I’m not going to tell you where my secret parking spot is. You can find your own.)
- I overcame my internal preconceptions about biking. I recently heard a comedian joke about seeing a guy in his community who was over 50 on a bike and wondering if he was getting in shape or had a DUI. In a place like Nantucket where the millionaires mow the lawns of the billionaires, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that a man of a certain age on a bike and not in a $60,000 Range Rover is either poor or has had his license revoked. Either way, there is shame associated with traveling simply. I got over that. And I suspect this will be the hardest thing for most people on-island who contemplate such a lifestyle change.
Since this is Nantucket, I’m sure that there are more than a few cynical people who want to complain that biking is too hard for them. Maybe even impossible for them. Let me try to anticipate your objections if you’re one of those folks.
“I can’t bike into town. I have kids.”
Kids can ride bikes, you know. Last time I checked. And if they are too small, there are kid carriers and trailers that work great. Need to pick up groceries? There are a number of great solutions for moving a whole lot of stuff at once. I’ve been jonesing for one of these for years.
“I’m not physically fit enough to bike four or five times a week.”
Okay, I get that. I have been not physically fit at various points in my life. But maybe, for some, biking four or five times a week is exactly what they need to get on the road to physical fitness. And if you need a little help, there’s always an e-bike.
“I’m too old to ride a bike.”
How about one of these? More your speed? It’s electric and will not fall over. Doesn’t even need a kickstand.
“I need to carry lumber and tools. There’s no way I can bike.”
I’ve seen those job sites with five pickups and six workers. You would think that one or two of those guys could bike when the other folks take their trucks (yeah, I know, the dog rides shotgun in all of those vehicles)? Also, there are cargo bikes. (I was looking at one of these the other day and when I get a dog or start that pie delivery business I’ve been considering, I’m getting one.) These things are rated for 200 pounds of stuff. Unless you’re hauling concrete, it can do most jobs that are too small to bother the delivery guys at Marine lumber over.
“I don’t want to mess up my clothes before work.”
We all know that the average islander’s idea of business casual is “a clean t-shirt” So it’s really hard to mess up Nantucket work attire on a bike ride, but if you need to wear a three-piece suit or fancy dress at work, maybe riding and then changing clothes is an option? If not, consider that millions of people bike to desk jobs every day around the world. There are lots of ways to ride, be safe and still look good when you arrive.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit, Biking is not for everyone. But if just a fraction of the people on Nantucket took their bike more often instead of their car (say one out of 12), the so-called traffic problem on the island would be as good as solved. If the estimated 750 downtown workers each picked one day a week to bike there would be a minimum of three dozen additional free parking spaces per day. It’s getting better. I see a lot of two-wheeling, smiling islanders out there. But we need more. We can solve this problem together. And set a good example for the people from Connecticut and New Jersey.
I recall watching the moon landing on a black and white Motorola TV in our basement. The images were so poor and the sound was so intermittent and I had the attention span of a seven-year-old ( because I was seven years old) that I don’t truly remember seeing Neil Armstrong
A man was walking. On the moon. Cool.
NASA engineers and scientists had to be innovative to get a self-aware machine made of meat up there. They had to create new technologies and processes. (And the taxpayer was footing the bill, so they could afford to dream. And dream big.)
The residual result of that dreaming, besides making history and fulfilling the vision of an assassinated president? A ton of residual, cool, new stuff that almost single-handedly changed the face of the world economy.
Everyone knows about Tang (I drank my weight in the stuff every week as a kid) and freeze dried food, but did you know the CAT scan machine was developed from Apollo technology? How about the thermometer that reads the temperature inside one’s ear? Scratch resistant lenses? Satellite TV? Memory foam mattresses? And smoke detectors? And dozens of other technologies that we all take for granted today?
NASA dreamed. And they spent. And we all benefitted. This is what makes moon-shot-like projects so important. And they don’t have to be executed by government agencies. Any company can commit to a moon-shot.
Years ago, I worked for a well-known loudspeaker company, Boston Acoustics — a company that had just executed their own moon-shot program. They hired a maverick engineer and told him to design something amazing — a family of speakers that outperformed everything they had ever made — regardless of the cost. At the time, it was thought that only big tower speakers could deliver the range and fidelity required by audiophiles, so part of the challenge was to create a tower system and then a bookshelf system with the same sonic qualities. The result of his efforts was the Lynnfield Series. They were beautiful. Compact. They sounded amazing. They were crazy expensive. And they likely lost money in the process of creating them. But one of the things they gained was a deeper knowledge of how sound operates in small spaces and some very cool intellectual property. They learned how to make tweeters in a new way, with very small and powerful rare-earth magnets. They learned unique ways of suspending woofers within reinforced enclosures to transfer the maximum amount of energy into sound. Almost everything they learned on Lynnfield, they were able to pour into the creation of every other product they made, from inexpensive dorm room speakers to popular car audio components. And it gave them the ability to leapfrog the competition for the 15 years I worked with them.
Another good example of a company that believes in the moon-shot mentality is Tesla. They have poured massive amounts of money, engineering brainpower and time into developing the ultimate electric car. And the cars themselves are amazing. Every feature of the automobile has been reimagined. About a year ago, they did something NASA also did (even though they didn’t need to, as a privately held company). They released all of their IP and patents to the public. The thinking of Elon Musk, the company’s founder, was that if Tesla was to move forward as a company that innovates in the area of electric cars, it couldn’t do it alone. So it released all of its closely held information so that other car manufacturers could help them create what is essentially a new industry. Everyone benefits if electric cars become mainstream. And it took a moon-shot project to do it.
How about a non-tech example of an organization that is taking a moon-shot mentality in order to change the world? Witness my current client, White Heron Theatre Company on Nantucket. Most arts nonprofits operate in a very small sphere — they are local, almost by definition. But White Heron applies a global scope to the work they do. They built a multi-million-dollar theater and campus to bring world-class theater to Nantucket island, while simultaneously developing and producing projects that can play all around the world. It’s very exciting, mostly, because it’s a model that no one has attempted. And the time, money and effort they put into their craft will undoubtedly touch a much larger audience as they expand to other media. Everyone wins.
Any organization can take on a moon-shot project. And if yours wants to compete on a higher plane, you should, too. Here are the basic traits of such an initiative:
1. It should be hard. This, you would think, goes without saying, but it’s worth underscoring. A moon-shot has to be so hard that it stretches the capabilities and the resources of the organization. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”
2. It shouldn’t have a (real) budget. This is the part a lot of business people have a hard time with. At its purest, a moon-shot project should be one that you pour resources into with only the goal in mind. The cost is not nearly as important as the results. Granted, you should not risk the business’ solvency on such an effort, but to really benefit from a moon-shot initiative you actually have to shoot for the moon, and that means spending money and resources with your eye on the ultimate finish line, not the bottom line.
3. It needs to have a big-ass-audacious goal. Something that others in your industry, or out of it have not done. The goal has to be achievable in theory, but somewhat impractical in practice.
4. A moon shot results in valuable IP. Moon-shot projects throw off valuable IP in the same way steam engines eject water vapor. IP is not the goal, but it’s an inevitable bi-product of the initiative and it can sustain an organization for a long time.
5. It doesn’t just benefit you, it benefits everyone around you. Maybe even everyone, period.
6. It results in a great narrative that meshes with your brand in a strong way. Every organization can benefit from a strong story to tell. One that sets them apart from everyone else in their industry. And the best way to develop such a narrative is to do something different than everyone else in one’s industry.
Moon shot initiatives are not for everyone. In fact, only a very small number of organizations are brave enough, innovative enough and, frankly, crazy enough to want to take one on. As we at SAND embark on our own moon shot to create the ad agency of the future, we are not just advocating it, we are endeavoring to live it.
Does that sound like something you want to take on? If so, take one, small step.
Okay, here’s the thing. Putting real people in your advertising instead of actors is not the slam dunk you might think it is. It’s not easier. It’s certainly not always cheaper. And unless you do things right, it’s not even more believable or authentic. To coax a believable and moving testimonial out of an ordinary person takes a ton of preparation, hard work and craft. If that’s what your brand needs and wants, what follows will explain how it’s done.
But first, some background.
Before I learned how to create a believable testimonial, I created a few wooden ones. We all have. That’s the nature of the advertising business. I recall once recording an ad for a local restaurant where the founder had to read an incredibly funny script I wrote. He could not take direction. He had no sense of comedic timing. It was like being held at gunpoint and forced to watch this affable old guy rip up a Rembrandt with kiddy scissors. I’ve also seen confident, well compensated and highly accomplished business people turn into tongue-tied mumblers when a camera was turned on them. And we’ve all listened in horror as professional sports legends — men with the grace and prowess of gods — stumble through ad copy with all the coordination of a pee-wee soccer tryout.
For the sake of my own sanity, I had to find a better way. And then one day I hit on it. We were working on a community-based non-profit project with no budget, so the copywriter brought in a wonderful old woman from the community with a great voice. Unfortunately, when we put the script in front of her she turned into a robot with a great voice. It was painful. I got an idea.
“Let’s try something different,” I said as I gently slid the script out of her hand. “Have you ever been to church, ma’am?”
“In the church I grew up in, we used to have songs where one person sang something and the rest of the congregation repeated it exactly as the first person sang it. How about you?”
“Oh, yes. We sing like that. I am in the choir, in fact.”
“Great. We’re going to do something just like that.”
I instructed her to close her eyes and listen to how I read the script, one line at a time as if I were singing, matching my tone, volume, rhythm. She did so and in one take, after editing my voice out, we had a mini-masterpiece. That’s when I realized the first rule of real-people testimonials:
Real people are not actors, and therefore have not had the training, the practice or the knowledge of how to perform a written script. You put a couple of type-written pages in front of them and they are lost. Or, even worse, some of them were in a play in high school once or twice, so they think they have a clue about how it “should” be done (a scary, albeit somewhat entertaining scenario at times). Take the script away and you actually have a chance of capturing their humanity. Just make sure that if you give them any lines they are short enough to remember without the aid of a script. Because, as I said, real people are not actors. (As an aside, if you’ve spent any amount of time around actors as I have, you will also note that actors are, for the most part, not real people.)
Use professional casting when possible.
One of my favorite producers, Brenda Maggio, has a saying, “We want real people for this spot, but not too real.” A professional casting company that specializes in finding real humans knows how to select people who feel like folks you might see on the street without being so “real” that you want to gouge out your own eyes rather than look at them. Also, a casting pro can give you choices. On a project I did for Keurig a few years back, we cast for real people over a 2–1/2 day period. We visited law firms, furniture showrooms, beauty parlors and anywhere else where they really loved their Keurig coffee machines. We talked to around 200 people to whittle down to five real-person radio spots. It was lot of work. But worth it.
Get them comfortable.
In order to overcome the jitters that come when a real person provides a testimonial, it helps to get them to tell their story a couple of times before you actually put them under the spotlight. Get them used to the idea of “performing.” After they have been cast, they know they are being paid, they know they are going to be in an ad, so then you have to show them the job they need to do. I like to explain to everyone exactly what the process is and how we will go about it, down to the most minute detail. And after doing that, I like to get them comfortable talking about their relationship to the brand. The best way to do this, I have found, is to be in a recording booth with them.
Record before you record.
In most cases, I like to do initial interviews and story exploration, together, face to face in a recording studio booth in front of some really good microphones. This gets the subject more comfortable being recorded. I usually let them know that we are just recording so we can get an intern to type up a transcript and that this recording will probably not go on air. In reality, sometimes these recordings do go on the air, albeit heavily edited. And there have been times when editing a final spot where we needed to go back to these original exploratory recordings to pull a word or phrase that we couldn’t get on set. More material is always better than less. Which leads me to my next tip.
Record a lot.
Generally speaking, I like to record around 30 minutes of conversation to produce a 30-second radio spot. By the time we do a final recording, we’ve already heard the subject’s story and the idea for the script has been fleshed out. I have a general idea of what I’m hoping to record. Before diving into asking the questions that will lead to the script, I like to warm up with some jokes and witty banter. This gets the person feeling loose and can also result in some laughter, giggles and verbal quirkiness that we can sometimes edit into the final spot.
Edit a lot.
It’s not uncommon using this method to get two or three spots worth of good material. I like to cut up a few versons and play them for other members of the team who are removed from a given project to see what’s playing best.
Animate rather than shoot.
For the State of Connecticut’s CTfastrak service, we wanted to put real bus rapid transit riders in our TV spots, but we needed them to fill up the spot with dialog. In this case, we created animated characters that looked like the real people. That way we could heavily edit their recorded dialog to sound like a cohesive narrative and match that edited recording to a cool animated film. An added bonus was that at press events those real people could appear standing next to a cardboard cut out of their animated character. A big win for both advertising and PR purposes.
Keep live action super simple.
If you have to show a real person talking to the audience, keep it to one line. You can fill in the rest with a voiceover announcer or action or music or type on screen. One line of spoken dialog is about all that you can ask an untrained person to deliver and still feel like a real person. Any more than that, and you might as well have asked the Tin Woodsman to be your spokesperson — they will stiffen up and you’ll find that before long, the assistant director on the shoot will be handing out ibuprofen to everyone on set for their massive overtime headaches.
Have them tell, not sell.
You may want your best customer to talk about the “12 essential vitamins and minerals, as well as 37 grams of certified vegan dietary fiber” in your product, but that’s just not how real people talk. Real people are far more in tune with the truth of your product rather than the facts. They are better at telling your audience how it makes them feel. They want to relay their experience. As soon as you put features and benefits into their mouths, credibility, humanity and willing suspension of disbelief go right out the window. Save that stuff for a voiceover or graphic.
Know when to hire an actor.
Some clients want to bring a real person into their spot to save money. As I have shown, with all of the prep and handholding that goes into creating a believable testimonial, there are usually no savings. On the other hand, a good actor comes in, hits his mark and leaves after signing the contract with very little effort expended by the production. Bing. Bang. Boom. Plus, there are times when the character depicting an actual customer has to do a lot of heavy lifting within a TV spot or radio commercial. This is no time for amateurs. Bring in the big guns. Cast and hire a professional actor. An actor, while technically not always a real customer of your brand (but she could be), has been trained over the course of years to portray the realities of life. A great actor can bring so much skill to a project that they can make your audience believe. This is the immutable paradox of TV and radio advertising: Actors are always better at being real people than real people are. Go figure.
Grant Sanders’ role is that of Founder + Strategic and Creative Lead at SAND on Nantucket Island.