One Thing & Another

Rome, Italy

Notes From My Journal: Controlled Chaos on Rome’s Streets

On Sunday, I gave you many reasons why, for me, Rome is one of the greatest cities in the world.

Most of what I said would not surprise anyone who has spent any time there. But what I might like best about Rome are things the casual tourist might not notice. Like the elegant way businessmen dress. Like all the hidden and neglected sculpture and paintings on back alleys. Like the preponderance of water fountains.

And like the lack of stop signs and traffic lights.

You can walk for hours in Rome without encountering a single traffic light or stop sign. If the eternal city had as many traffic lights per square mile as the Big Apple, there would be thousands of each. They do have them, but very, very few. It feels like less than a dozen.

Instead of throwing up a light at every busy intersection as we do in the States, the Romans use white-striped pedestrian walkways. And the law is that pedestrians have the right of way.

That means you can walk across the street at any crosswalk, however heavy the traffic, and every vehicle will stop for you. You don’t need to push a button or wait for green. From a New Yorker’s perspective, it’s amazing.

We do have pedestrian rights-of-way here and there in the States. There are about a half-dozen along Ocean Boulevard in Delray Beach, where I live. And they work pretty well. Except that because drivers are not familiar with them, a person crossing the street can get run over if he’s not alert.

But in Rome, you cross the street when you want to cross the street. Even if a stampede of cars is roaring towards you, they will stop if you have the courage to step out in front of them. You feel safe and even powerful. It’s quite different from Madrid, for example, where drivers seem to want to bump you off.

And by the way, Rome’s less-is-more system is better for drivers, too. They have to stop for pedestrians. But the moment the pedestrian has passed, they can go on their way. They don’t have to wait stupidly at a red light when there are no pedestrians in sight.

I’m not sure how or why this happened, but I think I see chaos theory at work here. The part that can be applied to the laws that govern traffic. The idea, according to Edward Lorenz, the pioneer of chaos theory, is to use the present to determine the future. It’s very common, for example, for universities to wait until students have worn paths in the grass by trotting from building to building before deciding where to put paved walkways. And in Finland, they use paths left by skiers after the first winter snowfall as a guide for establishing new trails.

In Rome, city planners apparently looked at the way people (pedestrians and drivers) were actually using the streets, and then made decisions to facilitate the natural flow of traffic. As a result, traffic signals were installed only where and when they were actually necessary.

By the way, several cities in Europe experimented with getting rid of traffic signs completely. As they expected, it forced drivers to be more cautious, and accidents declined dramatically.

It just goes to show you that the instinct to solve every problem with a regulation should be resisted unless evidence for regulation is overwhelming.


 Today’s Word: defenestrate (verb)

To defenestrate (dee-FEN-ih-strate) is to throw someone or something out of a window. (The Latin word for window isfenestra.) I remember reading that the term originated in Prague in 1618 when a group of bureaucrats were assassinated that way. This incident – known as the Defenestration of Prague – led to the Thirty Years War.

A great word! I’m always looking for a way to work it into conversation. Rarely succeed.


 Fun Fact

Pope John Paul II was the world Scrabble champion in the over-70 division.

From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Time-Tested Rules for Writing Killer Stories (and Story Leads)

After a strong start, my copywriting career was in jeopardy. The guy (me) that my boss had publicly called a “marketing genius” hadn’t written a winning ad in 15 months. The big royalty checks had all but ceased. My wife was worried about car payments. I was worried we’d have to sell the house.

Then I read something that gave me an idea for a new ad. It felt like lightning. Like the sky was opening. It was a story lead – something I’d never tried. But I was down to my last card, and this was it.

I worked furiously all night. And the next day I handed in the ad. A week later, it went to press.

I held my breath for 24 hours, and then the results started coming in. Ten responses the first day. Fifty-five the second. Over three hundred on day four. By the end of the week, I’d sold more than 10,000 units. The biggest sales campaign for that product in company history.

There is no better skill for businesspeople – especially marketers and copywriters – then knowing how to tell a great story. Why? Because the lifeblood of business is sales, and buying/selling decisions are first made in the heart. The heart distrusts argument but is moved by a compelling story.

The formula for writing great stories was determined a long time ago. The man who devised it had the advantage of being familiar with some of the best stories ever written. His name was Aristotle. The book in which he revealed the formula: the Poetics.

If you want to develop the art of storytelling (and you should), you’d do well to read the Poetics. But since you probably won’t, here’s a cheat sheet…

Aristotle tells us that a good story has six elements. In order of importance:


  1. Plot – the arrangement of interrelated incidents


  1. Character – the qualities (virtues and flaws) of the people in the story


  1. Thought – the ideas and themes conveyed by the action


  1. Diction – the words and arrangement of words used to express the ideas and themes


  1. Song – the music and meter of the language


  1. Spectacle – the scenic effect


The plot, Aristotle argued, is the most critical element. If you get that wrong, the story won’t work no matter how good the other elements are. If you get the plot right, the story will succeed even if the ideas/themes and diction are less than spectacular.

To construct a good plot, he said, you need to adhere to certain rules:

* The story must be emotionally moving. It must have the power to evoke strong feelings, the feelings that you want your reader to have.

 * To immediately engage your reader, start the story in the middle of the action (in medias res). Most writers start like this: “When I got up this morning, I looked out my window and thought, “This is going to be a very bad day…” Much better to do it like this:  “I sat behind my desk, staring into the shotgun barrel, and thought, “This is turning out to be a really bad day.”

 * The story should be complete and unified. In other words, you should focus on a single action that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

 * In telling the story, tap into what Aristotle calls “the universality of human nature.” By that, he means that a character’s reaction to events must be “probable” or “necessary” – an understandable (in terms of human nature) consequence of what happened.

* Your protagonist (the hero of the story) should be someone that your reader can both admire and relate to.

 * The protagonist must face some sort of conflict – and then you must resolvethat conflict in a plausible way. If  the resolution seems farfetched, your reader will find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe.

* The story must provide the reader with what Aristotle called “catharsis” or “the purging of emotion.” Scholars argue about what he meant by this, but I think it’s simple: If you’ve done it right, your reader will be emotionally involved in the protagonist’s struggle. Now –  with the outcome of that struggle – his tension is relieved. And he is changed in some way that gives him a different perspective on himself and/or the world.

Aristotle’s “rules” were formulated for playwrights more than two thousand years ago. But they work perfectly for entrepreneurs, marketers, and copywriters in the world today – actually for anybody that wants to be persuasive.

You are trying to sell your company or buy another. You are negotiating a contract. You are writing or managing a marketing campaign. In every case, the objective is the same: to arrest someone’s attention and hold on to it while you persuade them to make the decision you’d like them to make.

You might think that you should start with a logical argument, but that would be a mistake. Because 90% of persuasion takes place in the emotional part of your prospect’s brain.

With copywriting, there are many ways to appeal to those emotions. Making big claims is the most common. After that is the problem-solution approach. (“I know you don’t like the way your car smells. Use this doohickey and it will smell like new.”)

And then we come to storytelling – which, if done right, is the most powerful by far.

The first advantage of storytelling is that it’s indirect. You are telling a story, a story that should be fun to listen to. You are not pitching an idea.

If the story is well constructed, your prospect will let his guard down and allow himself to experience the story as a story. And when he does that (again, assuming the story is well constructed), he will come to the conclusion that he needs your product/service before you even mention it!

His heart will be where you need it to be. After that, making the sale is relatively easy. All you have to do is give him facts and logic to help him rationalize the decision he’s already made.

So, with Aristotle in mind, here’s how the process works…


* Begin by understanding your prospect. (She’s a new mom.)


* Tell a story about the product or service you are selling that she can relate to. (You are selling pacifiers, so you tell a story about a baby screaming in a restaurant.)


* Make the hero of the story someone like her. (A new mom.)


* Begin in the middle of the story with the hero in trouble. (“It was a perfect anniversary dinner at our favorite restaurant, with little Tommy, our adorable two-year-old…”)


* Make the story only as long as it needs to be and keep it unified. Resist the temptation to add any thoughts or ideas that might distract from your main purpose: to get the prospect to take the desired action.


* Let the prospect feel the hero’s pain. (“I was so embarrassed!”)


* Provide a resolution that is believable. (“Fortunately, I had my new Super Pacifier in my handbag…”)


And that makes the prospect feel good. She’s experienced the panic and embarrassment, but also the relief that comes with the solution to the problem (the product).


I’ve coached lots of copywriters on how to use story leads. The most common mistakes I’ve seen, in order of frequency, are:


* The story is interesting or amusing but not emotionally compelling. In other words, it’s not the best possible story to make the sale.


* The story’s hero is the storyteller, not the prospect.


* The story begins at the beginning instead of the middle of the action, so the prospect loses interest halfway through.


* The story drifts here and there into non-essential action.


I could go on. But that’s enough for today.


Watch This…

Robin Williams took much of his comic brilliance from Jonathan Winters, a comic genius.