What You Need To Know, and What We Want You To Know. (There's A Difference.)

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Dan Oshinsky
Dan Oshinsky



brand-listOne of the things I've been doing with my Stry.us reporters is making lists. Many of our stories are long — some stretch past 4,000 words. These are complicated stories.

I've found that the more complicated things get in a story, the less powerful they often become. Too much complication is typically a bad thing. It just makes it harder to follow the story.

So what I've been doing is making two-sided lists. On one side, it reads: "Need to Know." On the other side: "Want to Know." These are the goals for what a reader needs to know when they're finished with a story, and what we want them to learn when they're done.

The "Need to Know" stuff must be explicitly laid out in the story. The "Want to Know" items are more thematic, and they're revealed subtly throughout the story.

And if it's not on the list, I've told my writers, it doesn't go in the story.

It's just a simple planning exercise, but these lists have actually been a huge help in helping my team to focus on what's really important in their work.

But the benefit of focus works for all brands — not just reporters on deadline. As proof, I looked at a couple of my favorite TV ads to see how they deal with those needs and wants — and how they meld the two to present a cohesive story for their brand.

Nike: "Take It to the Next Level"


Need to Know:

Great teams wear Nike.

Hard work matters.

The journey isn't easy.

Want to Know:

Wearing Nike might make you great.

What's Great About This Ad:

Nike squeezes dozens of the greatest players in the world into this ad, but the main character of the story is... unknown. Technically, he could be you.

And so Nike's able to tell a story of greatness in which you're the title character. They're telling you subtly: You belong on this stage.

Air Jordan: "Let Your Game Speak"


Need to Know:

Michael Jordan's influence on basketball is enormous.

Great skills stand out.

Want to Know:

Be like Mike.

Air Jordan is a brand for everyone — especially the young.

What's Great About This Ad:

Even if you don't know anything about basketball, you'll immediately recognize Michael Jordan in this ad. He's present without actually appearing on screen for 98 percent of the ad. So this ad is able to put MJ front and center while also spotlighting basketball players from all over the world.

Just like the "Take It to the Next Level" ads, this Air Jordan campaign puts the everyman in the spotlight. The message is simple: These are shoes for everyone, not just elite athletes.

EDS: "Cat Herder"


Need to Know:

Some jobs are too big to do alone.

Many jobs require specialized skills.

Not everyone can do what EDS does.

Want to Know:

What EDS does is complicated. But they do something with computers.

What's Great About This Ad:

It's a hilarious ad. It's visually interesting. It regularly makes top 10 lists for the best Super Bowl ads ever.

But it also fails the "Want to Know" test. I've seen this ad a few dozen times, and I've got no idea what EDS does. Something with computers, I think.

This is a problem. This ad tells a great story, but it's not really EDS's story. Basic questions — like, what the hell is EDS, and what do they actually do? — aren't answered.

Ultimately, this is a really creative ad that doesn't give viewers all of the information they need. So it's memorable, but I don't think it sold viewers on the brand as well as it should have. It's missing an essential part of the story.

Apple: "Think Different"


Need to Know:

Risk takers get things done.

To do great things, you must break the rules.

You cannot ignore greatness.

Craziness can be a form of genius.

Want to Know:

Apple is the kind of company that's a little bit crazy.

What's Great About This Ad:

This ad is atypical for a brand. It's about a mission statement, not a product. But it works because it's so distinctive and so focused in telling the story of what the greats are capable of.

Still, it's a minute-long ad that barely mentions Apple. This is an ad built for re-watching on YouTube. But when it aired originally on TV? I imagine many missed the product it was selling altogether.

Apple's a fine case study for what happens when the ads get it right. They've had ads like "Think Different," which have done really well.

But they've also had recent campaigns that missed the mark, like their recent "Genius" campaign that ran during the Olympics. It told an average story, and when you tell an average story, you get headlines like these:

So get focused with your message. Figure out what you want people to know and what they need to know, and put those things front and center. Do that, and you've got the fundamentals down.

Now you've just got to use those pieces to tell a great story.

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