Use a Creative Brief for Better Results

If you’re not already using a creative brief, I have great news for you. Your writing life is about to get a whole lot easier.

A creative brief is an essential writer’s tool. It consists of questions that help you gather as much relevant information as possible when beginning an assignment.  As a result, you work more efficiently and effectively.

Completing a creative brief is your first step toward better results. In fact, I recommend using one for all writing projects. They’re easily adaptable. Whether you’re writing a one-page press release or managing a complex marketing piece, you’ll find this tool very useful.

It only takes a few minutes to complete a creative brief. And best of all, you do not need to invest in anything new. Simply create a template like this one. Copy and update it for each project.

Creative Brief Planning Pays Off

A creative brief sets you up for success. That’s because the process helps you:

  • Determine the “Why” — Marketing communications start with a purpose. A creative brief ensures you begin with that purpose firmly in mind.
  • Establish Clear Expectations — Changing direction or starting completely over midstream is costly. The creative brief ensures agreement among stakeholders about purpose, goals, expectations, deadlines and cost before the work begins.
  • Stay Focused — It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by information or details during the beginning of a writing project. The creative brief keeps you focused and on track.
I use variations of this creative brief format for other marketing pieces.
I use variations of this creative brief format for other marketing pieces.

The 10 Essential Questions

#1. What is the purpose of the article?

In other words: Why are you sitting down to write?

Asking these questions now will give you a clearer picture of the result you’re working toward. For example, let’s walk through them as they might pertain to an article for a hospital community magazine. While I am using a healthcare example, this process is universal regardless of industry.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to write an article about Dr. Smith, who recently joined the hospital’s medical staff. Why has the hospital chosen to feature her in their magazine? The purpose of the piece might be any one of the following:

  • Brief article announcing that Dr. Smith has joined the medical staff and is accepting new patients.
  • Longer article introducing Dr. Smith, including her advanced specialty training and the new services she brings to the hospital.
  • Feature profile about Dr. Smith’s volunteer work with an overseas medical mission.

Having a clear idea about the article’s purpose at the beginning helps you better visualize the result. It also starts you thinking about interview questions and additional background research that may be necessary.

#2. What are the key messages?

That is, what particular aspect about Dr. Smith will this article focus on? What do you want the audience to remember the most about her after reading the article? Those are the key messages you’ll want to emphasize

For example, if the article’s purpose is to introduce Dr. Smith as a new physician building her practice, include:

  • Types of patients she treats.
  • Patient care philosophy.
  • Medical education and training.
  • Office hours.
  • Insurance information.
  • Contact information.

But if the purpose of the article is different, the key messages may change. If the focus is on Dr. Smith’s experience and fellowship training in interventional cardiology, those messages may include:

  • New procedures or services she brings to the hospital.
  • Former hospital affiliations.
  • Recent medical journal publications, conference presentations and professional activities demonstrating her expertise.
  • Medical training/board certifications.
  • Contact information.

And if the article is meant to focus on Dr. Smith’s overseas volunteer work, the key messages may include:

  • The organization for which she volunteers.
  • Type of volunteer medical care she provides.
  • Why she devotes time to it.
  • Her most recent trip.
  • Years she’s worked with the organization.
  • How she became involved.
  • Her involvement with other nonprofit organizations.
  • How the hospital supports her volunteer activities.
  • How readers may learn more about the nonprofit organization or volunteer.

#3. Who is the audience?

Put yourself in the readers’ shoes. Who are they? What kind of information about Dr. Smith are they looking for? What is their reading comprehension level? The answers will help you choose the right words.

Remember, your goal is to foster understanding within the reader.  In this example, the audience for this article is quite broad. Hospital community magazines are intended for the general public, after all. This may include physicians, employees, volunteers and others who already know quite a bit about the hospital and, possibly, Dr. Smith. But the larger readership will likely be others who have never stepped foot inside the facility.

With such a broad audience, what do you do? Well, I’m going to share some excellent advice an editor once gave me: When writing for the public, think of the reader as an intelligent person who knows little about the topic.

In other words, respect your audience. Choose words that convey information as clearly and concisely as possible:

  • Avoid using jargon or insider terms only someone who works in a particular industry would know. (Of course, it would be different if Dr. Smith’s article were primarily intended for the hospital’s medical staff.)
  • Simplify complicated concepts by using easy-to-understand words. Or as that same editor also told me, “Avoid using 50-cent words when a 5-cent word will do.”
  • Explain terms and procedures clearly.

Also keep in mind that English may be a second language for some of your audience. That is another reason to focus on clarity, especially in health care.

#4. What do you want readers to do next?

Is the article for information only, or do you want the reader to do something? That is your call to action or “CTA.” Depending on the purpose of Dr. Smith’s article, you may want them to call, click a link, or scan a QR code to:

  • Schedule an appointment with Dr. Smith.
  • Register for Dr. Smith’s seminar.
  • Request information about your hospital’s heart program.
  • Learn more about or support Dr. Smith’s next medical mission.

While the call to action may be obvious, ask about it now. Sometimes a call to action requires someone else to create new website content or a landing page. That may take time. Of course, that piece should be ready to go before Dr. Smith’s article publishes.

And one final word about the call to action: Not every story may have one. Some articles are just for information. But there is a rule of thumb: Use just one call to action per article or marketing piece. Otherwise, the reader may become confused. It’s best to make it very clear what you want the reader to do next.

#5. Where will the story appear?

Will the hospital community magazine publish in print or online only? For printed pieces, ask about the target word count. Otherwise, you may end up doing extra work that will be ultimately edited out.

 Similarly, if the hospital magazine publishes online, pay attention to format. People tend to scan words on the digital page. Therefore, make it visually easy to read by using subheads and bullets, and breaking text up into chunks.

Another consideration for online articles is organic search. Will certain key words or phrases be needed to enhance search engine optimization? What about embedded links to help readers navigate where to go next?

#6. Who are the interview contacts?

Perhaps you’ll be interviewing Dr. Smith, herself. Though not necessarily. For a short announcement, all the information you need may be on her curriculum vitae. A curriculum vitae, also known as a “CV,” is commonly used in the medical and scientific fields. It contains information similar to a resume, but is typically much longer and detailed.

Furthermore, if the article is about Dr. Smith joining one of the hospital’s specialty programs, you may be interviewing someone else. I’ve written similar articles in which the hospital’s chief medical officer was my contact for information and quotes.

For that reason, a creative brief is a great place to keep this information handy:

  • Interview contact name, position title, department.
  • Phone, email, preferred method of contact.

#7. How long will the review process take?

There are many steps between the first draft and final layout. Who manages the review process — you or the client? And how long will it take?

It probably goes something like this:

  • The first draft goes to the client for initial review and editing.
  • After that, the revised draft goes to the interview contact for review and comment.
  • At the same time, the revised first draft undergoes further internal review. This may include the legal department.

As a result, you’ll need to build in time for this. It could be a couple days or weeks, depending on the project. Estimate how long the process may take and adjust deadlines if necessary. Most importantly, determine who is responsible for making sure all edits are made into the final draft.

#8. What are the brand and style guidelines?

Consistency is key. Dr. Smith’s article should reflect the hospital’s brand in style and tone. If you don’t already have it, ask for the client’s style guide. That’s where you’ll find the information to help make sure your article sounds like the brand’s “voice.”

Furthermore, ask which writing style guide is preferred. Many of my clients use the The Associated Press Stylebook, but there are other writing guides out there. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage are popular.

Sometimes clients evolve their own hybrid style over the years. They may follow a particular writing guide, but not for every rule. If so, you’ll want to note their preferences.

To illustrate, here are two style issues commonly found within health care:

  • “Healthcare” or “Health Care” — Is it one word or two? The Associated Press Stylebook advises one if it used as an adjective, two when it’s a noun. Yet some healthcare organizations prefer “health care” for both.
  • Capitalization. Many people like to see a job title capitalized. It looks nicer than lowercase. But according to the Associated Press, job titles are only capitalized if they appear directly before names in a story. Otherwise, job titles are supposed to be in lowercase.

Ultimately, it’s the client’s call. Some will definitely stick to every rule. Others, however, may choose to bend a few. Just note it on the creative brief and the client’s style guide. Consistency is what’s most important here.

#9. What is the target word count?

Asking this now will help you budget your time better. After all, a 250-word physician announcement will probably need less research than an 800-word article about a new heart procedure.

And if it has not come up already, ask about photos. Photos, graphics and other visuals are great at helping tell the story. But each one means less space for words. For instance, a two-page article about Dr. Smith with one photo will likely give you more word space than one with four. If your client already knows how many photos are planned, note it on the creative brief.

#10. When is the deadline?

When is the first draft due? What is the deadline for the final version?

Start with the deadline for the final draft and work backwards. Next, factor in adequate time for review and other considerations, such as vacations and holidays. Will Dr. Smith or another key person be out of town during a critical time? You may need to turn in your first draft sooner to keep the assignment on schedule.

Now You're Ready to Write

And there you have it.

By now, you can see how a creative brief focuses your thoughts, saves valuable time, and results in better content. This essential tool helps you gather all the information you need — before typing the first word.

So, feel free to use mine or use it as the basis to develop your own. I hope it helps.

And as a final thought, did you know that advertising professionals, architects and interior designers also use variations of a creative brief when beginning new projects? I think probably everyone in the creative arts must take a similar approach.

In fact, that thought crossed my mind while I was watching the 93rd Academy Awards last April. That evening, costume designer Ann Roth received an Oscar for her work on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” During her introduction, the presenter noted the extent to which Roth researched the movie’s characters before designing their costumes. Apparently, Roth even asked whether the main character would carefully hang up a dress—or casually toss it on the floor.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “I would love to see her creative brief!”

Your Turn

What's on your creative brief? I welcome your comments

Coming Up Next

You've heard of journalism's "5 Ws"? I've added a sixth. I'll be sharing that and my other tips for interviewing like a pro.

2 thoughts on “Use a Creative Brief for Better Results”

  1. This is a great overview, Pam. Briefs are so fundamental that they often get overlooked. I know lots of people who appreciate their value but get hung up on creating them. Now I’ve got something to refer them to.

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