When I was a kid back in my hometown of Milwaukee, I loved basketball. Around the age of 13 I attended a week-long basketball camp hosted by the legendary coach of the Marquette Warriors, Al McGuire. Coach McGuire put us through drills morning and afternoon before we had scrimmages after dinner. It was grueling work, but when you’re a kid, it was just plain fun. Non-stop basketball. I loved it.
Looking back on that experience, I understand why we spent so much time practicing fundamentals: dribbling, layups, free-throws, jump shots. And running. Back and forth. Back and forth. I can still hear the sounds of pounding feet and squeaky sneakers on the polished hardwood courts.
These days, I teach Freshman English at community college in Los Angeles, which means I teach students about how to write an essay. If you think back to your days as a student, you might recall that the hardest part of an essay was the thesis statement. After more than 25 years as an ad copywriter and creative director, reading and working from creative briefs, the first thing I discovered about teaching students how to write a thesis statement was the remarkable similarity between it and the creative brief’s most challenging box:
The Single-Minded Proposition.
The essay’s thesis statement and the creative brief’s Single-Minded Proposition (or One Important Thing or Key Message or whatever you call it on your brief template) essentially work the same kind of magic: They tell the reader the point.
In an essay, the point is, What is your argument?
In a creative brief, the point is, What is the compelling reason why anyone wants this thing we’re selling?
It’s the hardest part of the creative brief to write because it carries so much weight. It’s typically the first thing a creative looks at when the briefing process begins. It is, as John Hegarty says, the first ad.
So what can be done to make this impossibly vital and important little sentence just a bit easier to write?
Go back to fundamentals.
Always, always, always: Go back to fundamentals. Whether it’s in sports or college writing, when you return to basics, you return to the things that help you develop mastery.
The reason why the Single-Minded Proposition is so difficult to write is that, like a thesis statement, it is entirely subjective.
It is an opinion.
Which means it has to express some point of view. And someone may disagree with it.
Don’t be intimidated. The Single-Minded Proposition springs from the product itself, so your opinion will be based on fact.
Here, then, are four basic steps on how to arrive at a good Single-Minded Proposition. Remember, as the first ad, in Hegarty’s words, the Single-Minded Proposition does not have to be great.
1. Identify the product’s most important features.
Every product (or service) has a feature. It is one of the aspects of the product that makes the product what it is. One feature of any Apple product, for example, is the intuitive nature of the software. It is easy to use. It’s why a toddler can pick up an iPhone or iPad and start using it without a manual.
2. When you identify the important features, figure out each feature’s benefits.
In other words, why does anyone care about this particular aspect of the product? Why, for example, does Apple’s intuitive software matter? Who cares? What’s in it for me, the user?
Yes, this is very basic stuff. When you figure out the product benefit, you’re halfway to figuring out a Single-Minded Proposition.
I say halfway because the leap from product benefit to Single-Minded Proposition is not direct. It is not literal.
The product feature talks to your head. The product benefit talks to your heart.
3. One of those feature/benefits will be the compelling reason to make a purchase.
Focus on the word “Single” in the Single-Minded Proposition. No matter what the product manager or senior marketing executive at your client says, the product you’re selling is not a “unique package of features,” a term I have heard repeatedly. The best communications are focused messages telling a story about one thing.
This may require some discussion, but you must agree on only one of the items on the short list of feature/benefits. This one will be your candidate for Single-Minded Proposition.
Like all good writing, a Single-Minded Proposition will probably not appear on your first try. Write many drafts. Be more daring with each try. Which leads to the final step:
4. Try the Times Square Test
When you have a draft of a Single-Minded Proposition, give it this test: Imagine you’re standing in the middle of Times Square at 11 PM on a Saturday night. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a sea of people, mostly tourists.
Now imagine you are standing on one side of Broadway and the person you think is the ideal purchaser of your client’s product is standing on the other side of Broadway. If you yelled your Single-Minded Proposition at the top of your lungs and your ideal purchaser heard you, would she get it? Would she understand the reason to buy this product?
You get only one shot at this test. And you have to be honest—with yourself. If you think the line communicates the compelling reason to make the purchase, you probably have a good Single-Minded Proposition.
There’s one caveat: The Single-Minded Proposition can be off-the-wall and outrageously over the top. It’s not meant for public consumption, but rather to inspire your creative team.
As the creative brief writer, your task is to deliver the most inspired and inspiring document you can to your creative team or teams.
That job is hard. Stick with fundamentals. This is how you develop mastery.