In his book, “Little Bets, How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries” author Peter Sims addresses how errors produce
perfection, how failure fuels ambition and how confusion enhances creativity.
This Is a message that I have embraced throughout my life in spite
of the fact that in runs contrary to traditional wisdom.
I highly recommend reading it.
Sims describes the dilemma that all marketers face in the opening of
“Chris Rock has become one of the most popular comedians
in the world and, while there is no doubt he has great talent, his
brilliance also comes from his approach to developing his ideas.
The routines he rolls out on his global tours are the output of
what he has learned from thousands of little bets, nearly all
of which fail.
When beginning to work on a new show, Rock picks venues where
he can experiment with new material in a very rough fashion.
In gearing up for his latest world tour, he made between forty
and fifty appearances at a small comedy club, called Stress
Factory, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, not far from where he
lives. In front of audiences of say, fifty people, he
will show up unannounced, carrying a yellow legal note pad with
ideas scribbled on it. “It’s like boxing training camp,”
Rock told the Orange County Register.
When people in the audience spot him, they start whispering to one
another. As the wait staff and other comedians find places to
stand at the sides or back, the room quickly fills with anticipation.
He won’t launch into the familiar performance mode his fans describe
as “the full preacher effect,” when he uses animated body language,
pitchy and sassy vocal intonations, and erupting facial expressions. Instead, he will talk with the audience in an informal, conversational
style with his notepad on a stool beside him. He watches the audience intently, noticing heads nodding, shifting body language, or attentive pauses, all clues as to where good ideas might reside.
In sets that run around forty five minutes, most of the jokes fall flat.
His early performances can be painful to watch. Jokes will ramble,
he’ll lose his train of thought and need to refer to his notes, and
some audience members sit with their arms folded, noticeably
unimpressed. The audience will laugh about his flops – laughing at him, not with him. Often Rock will pause and say, “This needs to be fleshed out more if it’s gonna make it,” before scribbling some notes. He may think he has come up with the best joke ever, but if it keeps missing with audiences, that becomes his reality. Other times, a joke he thought would be a dud will bring the house
down. According to fellow comedian Matt Ruby, “There are five to ten
lines during the night that are just ridiculously good. Like lightning bolts. My sense is that he starts with these bolts and then writes around them.”
For a full routine, Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of
preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final
cut. A successful joke often has six or seven parts. With that
level of complexity, it’s understandable that even a comedian as
successful as Chris Rock wouldn’t be able to know which joke elements
and which combinations Will work. This is true for every stand-up
comedian, including the top Performers we tend to perceive as creative geniuses, like Rock or Jerry Seinfeld. It’s also true for comedy
writers. The writers for the humor Publication the Onion, known for
its hilarious headlines, propose roughly six hundred possibilities for eighteen headlines each week, a 3 percent success rate. “You can sit
Down and spend hours crafting some joke that you think is perfect,
but a lot of the time, that’s just a waste of time, Ruby explains.
This may seem like an obvious problem, but it’s a mistake that rookie comedians make all the time.
By the time Rock reaches a big show – say an HBO special or an
appearance on David Letterman – his jokes, opening, transitions, and
closing have all been tested and retested rigorously. Developing an
hour- Long act takes even top comedians from six months to a year. If
comedians are serious about success, they get on stage every night they
can, especially when developing new material. They typically do so at
least five nights per week, sometimes up to seven, and sweat over every element and word. And the cycle repeats, day in, day out.
Most people are surprised that someone who has reached Chris Rock’s
level of success still puts himself out there in this way, willing to
fail night after night, but Rock deeply understands that ingenious ideas almost never spring into people’s minds fully formed; they emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process. As Matt Ruby says of Rock’s performances, “I’m not sure there’s any better comedy class than watching someone that good work on material at that stage. More than anything, you see how much hard work it is. He’s grinding out this material.””
The reason that I share this with you is that you need to understand
that the mantra of exceptional marketing is testing. There is no
substitute. What I have learned is that it is meaningless to predict an outcome. Instead measure what occurred and then respond accordingly.