Mastering the Manifesto Style


Overview

This guide provides 16 common tools, tips, and techniques used to create effective manifestos. No manifesto uses all of these. Most use a few. Some use none.

Examples

All samples are from pieces on the manifestos page. I recommend making a habit of identifying these techniques whenever you experience a new manifesto.
 

What are the 16 techniques?

These should never be used to replace genuine insight, craft, and meaning. However, I recommend becoming familiar with each of these so you can deploy them naturally during writing.

1: Simplify something complex

This is at the heart of most great manifestos. Your idea may have some heavy stuff you have to convey. That’s not a bad thing, but you must translate that into accessible chunks.
Trust your audience, not their attention spans. The more simply you can convey something important, the more you’ll keep them engaged.
“If they don't get the pills, they die. We don't want them to die. We want to give them the pills. And we can. And you can. And it's easy.” —RED, “The (RED) Manifesto”
“Your husband must have learned the same from his dad. While playing house, he would have pretended to watch TV, while you would have pretended to make tea.” —Ariel, “#ShareTheLoad”

2: Reveal authentic insights

Some of the best details to include are the ones you didn’t think about before you started the project. Mine your own experience, hit the forums, read books if you have time, watch YouTube videos. Keep track of pain points, frustrations, and insights that are genuine to the core human connections to your idea.
Bad manifestos are packed with vagueness, rely on cliches, and stay surface level. Great manifestos dig deep.
“It won’t be met with any fan faire. No signing bonuses. Nobody’s asking for autographs. And nothing’s given. Except maybe a nickname, like Waterboy or Broken Windshield Guy.” —Carhartt, “Hey Rookie”
“You wouldn’t wear a bra. You couldn’t wait to wear a bra. You couldn’t fit into a bra. You didn’t like the way you looked. You didn’t like the way your parents looked. You didn’t want to grow up.” —Nike, “You were Born a Daughter”
 

3: Turn examples into pictures

If you find a great example, see if there’s room to go one step further by translating it into something vivid. I saw a former boss do this in a script. Instead of saying, “that’s why we like old home movies,” he wrote, “that’s why three seconds of blurry footage from 1978 can make us cry.” Feel the difference?
This is not easy, and often takes many passes to get right. You don’t want to have so many of these in your manifesto that it’s like drinking cement. But you do want enough to anchor your idea in the specificity of everyday life.
“They’re the ones who don’t judge when numbers on a scoreboard make us cry with joy or pain. Because the same tears will be in their eyes as well.” —Facebook, “Sport”
“To know, say, where you get a good pastrami sandwich in Duluth.” —Avis, “We Try Harder

4: Go from 0 to 100

This usually happens in funny manifestos, but there’s a place for them in serious manifestos as well. Our ears perk up at a sudden downshift in intensity.
You only want to use this once or twice max in your manifesto. Too often and you run the risk of nobody taking you seriously. This needs to be like a slow motion shot in a film. Use it in the perfect place for emphasis, then go back to real time.
“So, after apologizing to each berry individually, we beat the living hell out of them.” —Aviation Gin, “The Process”
“If you take two sugars in your tea, obviously you're trying to commit suicide and it's a cry for help.” —Krispy Kreme, “Donuts are Bad for You”

5: Call out ignorance

This is a risk, and not something to be done haphazardly. However, for certain manifestos, it can be effective to trigger attention. This is usually done in connection with a surprising twist, fact, antidote, or piece of information.
The best versions do this with the audience, not against them. Talk as if you’re joining them where they’re at. It’s the elbow to the ribs. Don’t insult them. Make them nod their head and say, “Yeah, damn. That’s true.”
“By 1860, he had developed the square bottle, now with a label at an angle of precisely 24 degrees. No big deal, you might think, but you’d be wrong.” —Johnnie Walker, “The Man Who Walked Around the World.”
And if she survives childbirth she might have to sell her body to support her family. Which puts her at risk for contracting and spreading HIV. Not the life you imagined for a 12-year-old, right? —The Girl Effect, “The Clock is Ticking”

6: Own a negative

This is one of the most valuable techniques, and one that always seems to scare clients. The corporate instinct is to keep everything positive. But the human instinct is that we trust people who are vulnerable and confident enough to own things that are bad.
The trick is to do it in a way that makes a better point.You can do this with absolutely every negative. Just think about why someone would be okay with that negative in service of a benefit it creates, then use it to build trust.
“We believe running in the dark, in the cold, in the heat, in the humidity, in the rain and in the snow is part of the deal.” —Nike, “We are What We Believe”
“Sure, if you eat [donuts] morning, noon, and night and they are brought directly to your armchair, then that would be bad.” —Krispy Kreme, “Donuts are Bad for You“
 

7: Use facts without explanation

This is a great way to reward diehard fans and loyalists. This is when you include a fact, offer no context, and trust your audience to know what it means.
In truth, even the most diehard fans might not know every fact. But that’s not the point. This works whether people know the facts or not. Just using them signals that you’re talking to a specific group of people. It feels exclusive, and we’re attracted to that.
“We believe in the genius of Bowerman and the spirit of PRE.” —Nike, “We are What We Believe”
“Thanks for 630. And thanks for 95.” — Seattle Mariners, “Thanks for Everything, Junior”

8: Weave in your product

This is almost always at the request of the client. If your manifesto is about something bigger than your product, try to bury the reference. It probably won’t take much to tick the box.
A great way to do this is by looking at the world your product is in. Look for where it naturally fits in to your audience’s life, then mention it as casually
“So we hang out in pubs and living rooms and News Feeds.” —Facebook, “Sport”
“The same way this Carhartt jacket has to earn the right to be on your back.” —Carhartt “Hey, Rookie”

9: Toward, away, repeat

This is a common technique. You contrast the adoption of your idea or mindset with the rejection. It usually looks like, “Do this thing and good things happen. Don’t, bad things happen.”
There are a lot different ways to do this, and they’re all pretty effective. We’re suckers for black and white logic sometimes. It’s nice to crystallize the message by turning the coin over a few times.
“Pursue the High Life and you put a man on the moon. Turn your back on it, and a cheap thermal-tile glue grounds your whole space program.” —Miller, “This is The High Life”
“Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls. Smart recognizes things for how they are. Stupid sees things for how they could be. Smart critiques. Stupid creates” —Diesel, “Be Stupid”

10: Put a twist on an idiom

Very common, but very risky. If you do this too often, it will come of forced and your manifesto will suffer. Same if you don’t twist it in an interesting or compelling way.
The danger is that it’s easy to write these twists, but hard to make them good. You may find yourself just putting in random turns of phrase that don’t actually say anything. Much better should be to look for these after you’ve got your first draft. Think of them as decoration, not content.
“Don't believe you have to be like anybody to be somebody.” —Nike, “Dream Crazy”
“Good things come to those who go.” —Delta, “Runways”

11: List specific aspects

This is one of the most common things to do to make something “sound like a manifesto.” I think it’s because we don’t naturally talk this way. The punctuated lines screams that you’re trying to make something important.
That said, even the best manifestos do this. It’s just an effective way to keep attention. The secret with this: make sure you’re adding information, not just words. Bad versions just redefine what was said. Good versions use extensions to find new depth.
“Technology alone is not enough. Faster. Thinner. Lighter.” — Apple, “We Believe”
“Reserved for a chosen few. For prodigies. For superstars.” — Nike, “Find Your Greatness”

12: Parallel opposing things

Another common manifesto trick. This is subtle, and one that many people might not even think of as a technique. This plays into the pattern-matching side of our brains. We hear two things that sound like they’re connected, but are actually very far apart.
You can do this a lot of different ways and multiple times per script. Always try to make this a smooth as possible and don’t call attention to it. The more you do this, the more naturally it’ll just happen with sentences you write.
“We’d rather be in the mountains than in the aisles.” —REI, “#OptOutside”
“You know what to get worked up about and what to get rid of.” —Nike, “You were Born a Daughter”

13: Use an uncommon word

Remarkably, more than a few manifestos use a word that you don’t hear too often. I think this is mostly a flex from the writer than any real value add—but it can be one of those techniques that adds a surprising flavor to the piece like sea salt on a brownie.
The main thing to remember in doing this is that you get one word per script. You’re really pushing it with two, and I’ve never seen three work well. Also, make sure that the word’s definition is apparent from context.
“These are the providence of the After Hours Athlete.” — Puma, “After Hours Athlete”
“In fact, some people who drive our little flivver don't even think 32 miles to the gallon is going any great guns.” —Volkswagen, “Think Small”

14: Use the same word differently

This is another very common technique in the manifesto world. You have a single word that you use twice in a different way. This creates a poetic rhythm to the piece and is delightful to the ear.
As with so many of these techniques, you should only do this if it fits naturally in the point you’re trying to make. Don’t go out of your way for one of these. If it comes up smoothly or you can make a small tweak to include it, great. If you have to force it in, it will always look that way.
“Until everything we touch enhances each life it touches.” —Apple, “Intention”
“You became a significant other. You became significant to yourself.” —Nike, “You were Born a Daughter”

15: Rephrase what you just said

This is the opposite advice from the technique above about adding new value. In this case, you’re actually not adding anything. You’re just saying the same thing again.
Why do this? Pacing. It should only be used at a time when you want to slow down the script, or create an intentional break in the drama. It’s effective for emphasizing a key point, which is usually when you want that pacing to slow. Don’t do this too often or at all if you want to keep your manifesto moving.
“You can do that. You have that in you.” — TBWA\Chiat\Day, “Do the Brave Thing”
“That's who we are. That's our story.” — Chrysler, “Born of Fire

16: Answer your own question

A common technique that is more for the ears than the eyes—which is fine considering that most manifestos are read out loud during presentations and meetings.
If that’s the fate of your piece, a few questions and answers can introduce some helpful variety. However, if you’re writing more for posters, print ads, or brand books, keep these to a minimum.
“So why does it make us cry? Inspire us? Help us make friends with people we’ve never met? Maybe that’s it.” —Facebook, “Sport”
“Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there. And you know what we got? Bored.“ —Cadillac, “Two Weeks in August”