The value of ‘yes, and …’ — and a plan B
When ideating, eliminating the negative is job one. It is alternatively known as eliminating the no and finding the yes, or going one step further, understanding the value of “yes, and …” — which naturally leads to more (take your pick) ideating, brainstorming, creativity, or innovation.
In wrapping up her June 2 talk for IB Presents, sponsored by Edgewood College and EZ Office Products, advertising Hall of Famer Linda Kaplan Thaler likened this approach to improvisational performing, which is something she tried in her 20s before shaking up the advertising world with campaigns like the Aflac duck. It’s also something she continues to do on a higher level as she teaches improv to organizations, as those who engage in improv are well-versed in utilizing the “yes, and …” technique.
“The ‘yes, and …’ theory means that when you’re doing a scene with somebody, you have no idea what’s in their head, and if they are the first one speaking, and if they say that you are a two-headed toad, you’ve got to go with it,” Kaplan Thaler explains. “You can’t say no. So, it’s constantly doing the ‘yes, and …’ — and adding and adding and adding.
“And when you do that, you are so much more creative in your thinking because then the world opens up,” she adds. “So, I always say find the ‘yes, and.’ You will create a lot of ideas that are out of the box, even if what’s in the box is pretty boring.”
Shredding the competition
One case in point is Shreddies cereal, which is the Canadian version of shredded wheat. The Post brand had a real image problem with its cereal boxes because it hadn’t done anything new in more than 35 years, and its marketing team wanted the Kaplan Thaler Group to come up with an exciting, new campaign.
Their initial conversations about the product did not exactly shout “yes, and!”
“I said, ‘Are you adding anything to it?” recalls Kaplan Thaler
“No,” they replied.
“Is it on sale?” Kaplan Thaler asked
“Anything else we should know about?” she followed.
“No, it’s the same thing, but just make it exciting.”
Believe it or not, Kaplan Thaler loves this story because it demonstrates to her that even when you think you have nothing to work with, you have something to work with. It was a young intern who held up the cereal and had an epiphany. “He picked it up and said, ‘This is interesting. When we hold it like this, it’s square shaped, but if you turn it sideways, it’s diamond shaped,” Kaplan Thaler recalls. “He was just making a joke, but of course the creative director saw it as brilliant.”
The “yes, and …” process eventually led to the product being repackaged and introduced as Diamond Shreddies, and sales went up 35%. The blank, unholy surprise of it all was that virtually nothing different was done to the product, yet in taste tests people swore that it tasted better.
“I guess they were all in on the joke,” Kaplan Thaler adds, “but it was just so much fun, it created all this buzz.
The only problem was after a year or two went by, some consumers expressed some nostalgic fondness for the original product, so Post came out with a combo pack. It wasn’t exactly like the furor over New Coke replacing what eventually became known as Coke Classic, but they were able to make everyone happy.
For Kaplan Thaler, another applicable lesson was that creative ideas can come from anyone. “I know we all want to feel like we’re the Mensa graduates, the smartest person in the room,” she notes. “And the fact is that we all need to be quiet or shut up and listen.”
Why is that? Neurologically, when you talk, you can’t absorb any information. When you listen, it’s a different story. As Kaplan Thaler notes, the late cable talk show host Larry King is famous for saying, “One thing I know when I’m interviewing someone is that I’m not learning a thing when I’m actually the one doing the talking,” which is why he asked so many questions.
“What happens when we shut up and listen is that people feel like they are being heard,” Kaplan Thaler says.
She illustrated the point with a video of a woman complaining about feeling constant pressure in her head. A male companion notices that she has a nail in her head and when he suggests that might be the source of her problem, she complains that he’s always trying to fix things when what she really needs is someone to listen.
Finally, he relents and says empathetically, “That sounds really hard.”
“It is,” she replies. “Thank you.”
Kaplan Thaler summed it up with a note to the gentlemen in the audience. “We don’t always need a solution to the problem. Sometimes, we just need to be listened to.”
The value of plan B
Sometimes, the best laid plans just don’t work out, and in Kaplan Thaler’s view, that’s not always a bad result. “You should feel good about that because plan A’s usually aren’t nearly as good as plan B’s,” she states.
A famous example is how the drug Viagra came to being. It involved Pfizer, the very same pharmaceutical giant that teamed with BioNTech to develop the first COVID-19 vaccine to be granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. Years ago, Pfizer was developing Viagra as a blood pressure lowering medicine, and they had high hopes that it could compete with existing blood pressure medications already on the market.
A funny thing happened during the clinical trials. The men who took part in the trials reported a very interesting side effect of taking the drug, but it wasn’t a side effect they complained about. Knowing it had stumbled upon a potential goldmine, Pfizer dropped plans to market Viagra as a blood pressure medicine and opted for plan B even though it would mean going through clinical trials all over again. The company’s instinct proved to be correct, as Viagra became one of Pfizer’s best-selling and most profitable drugs.
Another famous plan B aided the success of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. The plans for one notable scene had actor Harrison Ford, playing Dr. Indiana Jones, involved in a long dueling scene with a sword-wielding enemy under a hot, blazing sun. Ford, who did a lot of his own stunt work, had a bad case of dysentery with a 102-degree fever, and he informed his director that he didn’t have the strength for a sword fight to the death, however theatrical.
Spielberg had a summoned a large crowd of extras and had plenty of natural light to film the scene, so instead of delaying the shoot, he opted for plan B. He assured Ford that it would only require one take, that it would be over in 30 seconds, and afterward he could retire for the day and rest up. So, when his nemesis pulled out a giant sword and sadistically laughed as if to say, “You’re mine,” a defiant Indiana Jones simply pulled a gun out of his holster and fired.
Audiences roared their approval in cinemas all over the world. Plan B strikes again.
There are countless examples of better plan Bs, but getting there requires removing any blinders. “One of the best ways to do this is turn your telescope around,” Kaplan Thaler states. “When you look at what’s really going on around you, and you don’t have a telescope on yourself, it’s amazing the things that you can do.”
She recounted the example of Don Schoendorfer, a biomedical engineer who is the driving force behind the Free Wheelchair Mission. He saw the world from a different lens while vacationing with his wife in Morocco. One day, while others were enjoying sights in a small village, Schoendorfer watched as an immobile woman, paralyzed from the waist down, literally crawled across the rocky street on her hands. He couldn’t believe it, and he turned to one of the townspeople and said, “Why doesn’t this woman have a wheelchair?”
And a townsperson replied, “What’s a wheelchair?”
That compelled Schoendorfer to return to his home in California and work weekends to design an affordable, durable wheelchair that could be replicated for the 80 million people worldwide who are immobile and who don’t have access to wheelchairs.
“Well, within a couple of years, all by himself, out of his garage, he created the world’s most durable and least expensive wheelchair for $49,” Kaplan Thaler said. “It was made out of bicycle tires and lawn chairs.”
With the goodness of people donating to the cause, the Free Wheelchair Mission has given away over 1 million of the wheelchairs, and it aims to give away 10 million more over the next few years. “One man, one idea, helping millions,” she marveled. “Don’t think for one second that you do not have the power and the ability and the talent and the creativity to do something that will change somebody’s world, or many people.”
She then reminded the businesspeople watching IB Presents that they have the capacity to do great things. “You do this every day. You make us happier. You make us safer. You make us feel more beautiful, and your small- to medium-sized business is really the engine that runs not just the country but the world.”
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