John Cleese’s advice on how to be creative—and how to apply it to conversion

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Last updated: November 2019

Conversion requires creativity. To beat your competitors, you need to out-innovate them. This article summarises a talk given by one of the world’s most creative people—the groundbreaking comedian and writer John Cleese.

Our notes on John Cleese’s formula for being creative

[Throughout the notes, we have put our thoughts and observations in square brackets, to differentiate them from John Cleese’s.]

Creativity isn’t a skill; it’s a mode of operating. Closed mode is when you are impatiently trying to execute work, hurrying through task lists. To be creative, you need to get into open mode, in which you are playfully and contemplatively exploring ideas.

To get into open mode, you need five things:

  1. Space: Find a place that’s quiet, sealed off from interruptions. [Even though group creativity sessions can be stimulating, we, too, have been disappointed to find that our best work usually comes from working in isolation. In his great article about Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, Paul Graham talks about the importance of eliminating interruptions.]
  2. Time: Cleese claims that timed 90-minute slots are optimal. Accept that it may take the first 30 minutes of each session to forget your daily tasks and to get into the open mode.
  3. Time (again): This instance of time refers to how long you spend ruminating on solutions to each problem. Cleese argues that he was more creative than other script writers because he resisted the urge to accept the first, most obvious idea. He kept ruminating on the problem for much longer than they did. This means tolerating for longer the discomfort of not having a solution. The solution won’t necessarily appear within the 90 minutes, either. It may pop up while you’re in the shower. [As we mentioned in our article about Jerry Seinfeld’s advice on joke-writing, we have found that the best conversion practitioners tend to have an unreasonable amount of patience.]
  4. Confidence: You have to risk saying things that are silly, illogical and wrong. So know that while you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. There’s no such thing as a mistake, because any drivel may lead to the breakthrough. Creativity is about intuiting possibilities and then using your judgment to eliminate the ones that don’t sound promising. So if you got stuck, start generating random connections, and allow your intuition to tell you if one might lead somewhere interesting. [We find that company culture helps a lot with this. Some environments encourage playfulness; others oppress it.]
  5. Humor: The evolutionary significance of humor may be to quickly get us from the closed mode to the open mode. Also, just because a subject is serious doesn’t mean it must be discussed solemnly; serious subjects can be discussed in jest. In fact, that’s what humor is. [We have noticed that the best copywriters tend to joke a lot. In fact, they tend to be constantly in a joking state. We have also noticed that many of our best ideas began life as jokes or as comments made half-jokingly.]

You can see many more examples of John Cleese’s creativity on the official Monty Python YouTube channel and at Video Arts, the groundbreaking management-training company he created.

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