More Neurobrrr Than God
Using constraints to power your imagination, a framework for constructive thinking, and exploring the spooky hokum of the Aetherius Society
Hello, fellow traveler. This weekly dispatch is devoted to helping you make better creative and strategic decisions. Delightful ideas up front, case studies and portfolio in the back.
A quick story about the creative power of embracing constraints.
Last week, a few friends and I created a new world with a new language. The world we created was ten years into the future. In that near-future, I regret to inform you, the planet has been beset by a series of pandemics.
It looks like this:
Citizens mostly confine themselves to hermetically-sealed indoor environments. If you meet someone in person, that meeting is either because you’re successful and wealthy (and thus sanitized), or because you’re poor and can’t avoid it (and thus at risk). Transients, homeless folks, and really anybody who spends a large amount of time outdoors? Everybody calls them poxies.
Touch interfaces are verboten, so computer interaction is largely via gesture, voice, and adhesive pads on your temples. Want a hot cup of Starbucks? The point of sale (POS) will pair your voice with your neural rhythm. The kids call it Neurobrrr.
And of course, ambient anxiety is the mood of the era. Every midnight on India Standard Time, a prominent sci-fi author goes live on his video show, raises his eyebrows at the latest crazy happening, and whistles. Now that’s what the youngs, with a mixture of amusement and dread, call the future: The Big Whistle.
You can see that this near-future world has some powerful vocabulary. Poxies! Neurobrr! The Big Whistle! We created all of this in an hour using a game called Dialect.
Games usually contend with the physical. You use cards or a pair of dice to move objects around a board. But Dialect contends with the mental. You use cards and your imagination to create a fictional world. The board is in your head.
So here’s where the constraints come in. To create something as amorphous as a fictional world, you need to set some boundaries. It’s a bit like creating a box for sand, or a play for a stage. It goes like this:
Constraint #1: Where are you?
Stranded survivors on a Martian outpost? Indigenous peoples in a forgotten Tierra del Fuego jungle? Or secluded in a hermetically-sealed shelter ten years into the future? We chose the latter option.
We created a stage.
Constraint #2: What is this place like?
Dialect then asks players to conceive of three aspects of their world. We chatted for a few minutes and came up with these:
The Plague Years — sickness all the time
Ubiquitous Vocal Infrastructure — Alexa on steroids, everywhere
The U-Shaped Mundane — you’re either sanitized or poxy
We placed furniture on that stage. Things for characters to use.
Constraint #3: Who are you?
Next, you choose an identity. Each player is dealt three character cards. Each card describes a type of person. I was dealt Citizen, Lover, and Zealot. I chose Zealot. The Zealot’s is very invested in only one of the world’s aspects. I chose Ubiquitous Voice Infrastructure.
We placed characters on that stage. People who affect things and each other.
Constraint #4: How do you speak?
Next, you create words. Each player is dealt three language cards. Each card contains a type of word, like “Term of Endearment” or “The Future”. A friend chose “Money”. You then apply that word to one of your world’s aspects. He applied Money to Ubiquitous Vocal Infrastructure. That’s how we created the word Neurbobrrr.
We gave those characters a language. People describing the things they’re affected by.
And that’s how you begin to build a fictional world and language. We played an abbreviated version of the game using Roll20.net, and I encourage you to read the Dialect rulebook and play the game yourself. Days later and I’m still repeating my new words over and over in my head, almost like favorite song lyrics.
Now, it’s almost tragic and definitely unpoetic to say, but here it is: the act of creating a fictional world and language is not unlike the act of marketing.
It’s all fiction.
We’re all just trying to get people to believe.
And all fictions fail when they don’t create a plausible world for the audience to inhabit.
So the game of creating an effective marketing strategy, or an effective content strategy, is not unlike the game of language creation.
To begin, you simply have to build a world using constraints.
For an example, I’ll tell you how I’ve done it. You’re welcome to steal the technique if you find it useful.
You simply begin by defining three aspects of your world, like this:
Who are you speaking to? What attributes bind them together? What do they want? What are they afraid of? How do they feel?
What topics are you speaking about? Why does the audience care about these topics?
Point of View
How does your brand think about the audience and the topics? What do you want? What are you afraid of? How do you feel?
Begin with the audience, then move around the triangle, refining as you go. The most important rule is that the vertices must inform each other.
If you have an audience and a point of view, but you don’t have a consistent topic of conversation, you’ll fail with respect to curation. This would be The Economist, if The Economist also covered recipes for soufflé.
If you have a topic and a point of view, but you don’t know which audience you want to speak to, you’ll fail with respect to tone. This would be Ford, if Ford marketed TV commercials in Latin.
And if you have a topic and an audience but no point of view, then you’ll fail with respect to being interesting. This would be a press release or a whitepaper or something that’s been edited by committee.
But get all three vertices tight, and you’ll have created a plausible and enjoyable world for your creations to inhabit.
Just begin with those three aspects and refine from there.
But don’t just lazily conject your way to content-market fit, throwing out ideas randomly like fussili at the wall.
No, make boundaries. Embrace constraints.
Sources and further reading
"Playing the Birth and Death of Language in 'Dialect'"
May 7, 2017
“Try Helping People Be Themselves”
March 18, 2017
Finite and Infinite Games
New York: Free Press
*gif by Julian Glander
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