The music of writing

“The real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realm of imagination and ideas.Bill Bernbach

Much has been written about the great advertising creative director Bill Bernbach and his agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Nothing quite captures his thinking, spirit and rhetorical zest as clearly as his own words. This interview with him is a particular gem. Amongst other matters, he discusses persuasion, human nature, creative talent (and where to find it), agency culture, Aristotle and the difference between writers and communicators. Here he is on that last point:

“The writer is concerned with what he puts into his writing. The communicator is concerned not just with what he puts into a piece of writing, but with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read and how they listen. He learns that most people come away from their reading not with a clear, precise, detailed registration of its contents on their minds but rather with a vague, misty idea that is formed as much by the pace, proportions and music of the writing as by the literal words themselves. And he learns that the reader reads with his ego, his emotions, his compulsions, his prejudices, his urges and his aspirations. And that he plots with his brain to rationalise the facts until they become the tools of his desire.”

For me, he underplays the real role of intellect and rationality. People are less captive to their desires and more persuaded by reasoned argument than he states. His position reflects both the interest Madison Avenue developed in psychology and its cynical fantasy that advertising could control people’s behaviour. Having said that, today’s commercial writers still have to tangle with clients and colleagues who overstate the other way – putting logic above feeling; reason above ‘the music of writing’. So often it is in the combination of the rational and the emotional that something special is found. Which is why Bernbach’s words still have resonance decades after they were spoken.



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