And not just any cartoonist, either.
Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, which means that, among his many other duties, he judges the magazine’s weekly caption contest. Since the contest went weekly in 2004, readers have submitted more than two million entries. Inevitably, Mankoff has pondered why some captions succeed and others fail. And in one chapter of his new memoir/history How About Never—Is Never Good for You?*, published earlier this year, he shares his advice about how to beat the odds.
Here’s the thing: the advice doesn’t apply only to cartoon fans and contest hobbyists. To my surprise and delight, I found that it’s highly pertinent to my own discipline of name development.
Mankoff illustrates his advice—of course he does—with Caption Contest #55: a cartoon by Danny Shanahan of a rooster and a duck on a living-room couch. The rooster is putting the moves on the duck; the duck appears to be resisting. (Sorry; I haven’t been able to find the cartoon in the magazine archive.) Your job, if you want to win the contest, is to write the perfectly apt caption. How to do it?
Here’s my condensed version of Mankoff’s five-step process:
1. Verbalize. “Quality of captions emerges from quantity of captions,” Mankoff writes. (Me on name development: “To create a good name, you need to create a lot of names.”) “Look at the picture and say or write down all the words or phrases that pop into your mind, without censoring them, and then free-associate to those words and phrases.” Mankoff’s stream-of-consciousness includes duck, goose, honk, Donald Duck, the Donald, duck soup, avoid, evade, chicken and egg, birdbrain, migrate, and at least 15 other terms. From there, he starts captioning: “I didn’t say ‘quick,’ I said ‘quack.’” “Okay, now get the hell back across the road.” “Who you callin’ chicken?” To “verbalize” a naming process, be sure to push beyond mere description to functional benefits and emotional responses. Toyota’s new hydrogen-cell car could have gone the obvious descriptive route with a name like Hydro or H2. Instead, the company chose the aspirational Mirai—“future” in Japanese and full of resonance in other languages as well.
2. Conceptualize. “Take a break from the word play to play with ideas, generating alternate scenarios to explain the image or what the conflict is.” What if the cartoon isn’t depicting a duck and a chicken but rather people in duck and chicken costumes? You might, writes Mankoff, come up with something like “This isn’t working for me. I’ll get my hen costume.” This technique is harder than verbalization, Mankoff warns, but “it has the advantage of avoiding the most obvious captions.” In name development, avoiding the obvious is also paramount—you want a distinctive name, maybe even a counterintuitive one. So stop verbalizing and start doodling. Or role-playing. Or doing charades.
3. Topicalize. When possible, Mankoff writes, he likes to pick at least one finalist whose caption relates to something in the news. When the duck-chicken contest ran, in June 2006, avian flu dominated the headlines, and it showed up in many submissions: “Not tonight. I have bird flu.” “Have you been tested for bird flu?” And so on. A topical hook can help your naming process, too. Can you build a name from current slang or a new cultural trend? (Caveat: Don’t slavishly imitate a popular trope. The world has enough names that end in –ly and –ify.)
4. Socialize. “Try your captions out on your friends and see which get the best reactions. If you’ve got funny friends, this will help.” I don’t recommend focus-grouping names, but whenever possible I prefer to bounce ideas off a naming partner or partners who understand the naming objectives and criteria and are savvy about how language works. (And, yes, they’re funny.) Names are also “socialized” with the client team, of course—after all, they’re the one who’ll have to live with the results.
5. Fantasize. “Imagine you have won the contest.” What does the cartoon look like with your caption beneath it and a handsome frame surrounding it? My friend Betsy Burroughs, an innovation consultant, likes to advise her clients to imagine that their problem, whatever it is, is already solved. What’s different? What’s better? I like to imagine the name I’m developing is already a logo, a label, or a boldface item in a news story. How does that new name or tagline make the company or product more distinctive, more interesting, more memorable?
I’ll add one piece of advice to Mankoff’s excellent list: Keep your eyes open. You never know where a good idea will come from. It may even come from a book about, of all things, cartoons.
* The title comes from the caption of a 1993 Mankoff cartoon, one of the most popular ever published in the New Yorker.