Z Shape Deep Dive


This is the manifesto shape I was most eager to learn as a young writer. Many of my favorite manifestos have Z-Shape structure, including “The Crazy Ones.” But it took me a long time to learn.
I kept getting stuck at the opening. I knew there was something tricky going on with these manifestos, but I couldn’t make sense of it. I was only until I started decoding manifestos line by line that I noticed a pattern—and, more importantly, a reason for that pattern.
Z-Shape manifestos are designed to make your POV interesting. And when I say “POV,” what I mean is the line in the script that clearly lays out the concept or big idea of the campaign. This is the line that shows what shift in thinking you’d like the audience to take.
In the “We Try Harder” manifesto by Avis, the POV line is “We try harder.” It’s a beautiful, simple, and clear description of their idea. It sets up the rest of the script and gives us the lens that we’re going to be evaluating everything through. The only problem? It’s boring. That’s why the Z-Shape manifesto is necessary. It’s designed to make your POV interesting. And the way it does this is with tension.
These scripts don’t start with the POV. That was always my problem starting out. I would always want to start with the concept itself—because, why would I do anything different? Now I know that you want to back up one step and start your manifesto with what I call the WTF.
The WTF is the first few lines of your script that establish the tension behind the POV. Okay, we know Avis tries harder, but why do they have to? The reason is simple. They’re not the number one car rental company in America. As the script tells us, they can’t afford to take customers for granted.
Few companies would proudly claim to be the number 2 anything in a category. And that’s exactly what creates tension. We want to know why Avis is doing this. It perks our ears up. It makes us wonder.
Only then does Avis say that they try harder. Now it has much more weight. The listeners are eager to find out the answer.
After this, Z-Shape manifestos are almost entirely examples that prove our this POV in different ways. The Avis manifesto goes into a lot of detail about how they try harder and why. Because of the tension at the beginning of the spot and the now-interesting POV, we’re hooked. We want to know more.
That’s how the Z-Shape got it’s name. I picture it as having a few lines at the top of the Z, then a big long slope of examples until the final line or two of the script that just reminds us what it all means.
Even though the S-Shape and U-Shape manifestos are most common for new business pitches, I use the Z-Shape much more often. It could just be that I enjoy this style of writing. But it also has an incredible power to grab people’s attention an not let go.

How it works

Step 1 — WTF: Tension that spikes interest in your POV

Writing opening lines with tension is one of the things that becomes muscle memory for seasoned manifesto writers. I have done this so often, my first thought is often, “Okay, so if my POV is blank, what makes that interesting?”
What you’re looking for is the most controversial, contrarian, or unexpected part of your big idea. Your goal is to find something that makes people a little uncomfortable. You could acknowledge a truth that we’ve all agreed not to talk about, point out a fact that nobody knows, or ask a question that is the last question anybody would expect you to ask.
Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” did exactly that:
What does this city know about luxury, hm? What does a town that's been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?
My guess is that nobody would have thought Chrysler was going to come to the Super Bowl and start a manifesto with an insulting presumption about their home town. But they did, and it made a lot of people lean in.
Even though you need something controversial, it doesn’t need to be negative. “The Crazy Ones” opens with, “Here’s to the crazy ones.” That’s a pretty positive sentiment. But it has an incredible amount of tension as well. At the time, being called crazy was a bad thing, and celebrating craziness was not something that brands did. So, viewers and readers wanted to know why.
How do you do this? It’s quite easy. Just ask yourself why someone wouldn’t believe or be interested in your POV. Chrysler wants to tell us that they’re experts in making luxury cars. Okay, why wouldn’t someone believe that? Well, because Detroit is not a town that people associate with luxury. So the manifesto has to prove that wrong. Apple wants to celebrate people who change the world. Okay, why wouldn’t a brand want to celebrate people who change the world? Because people who do are a bunch of unstable, reckless people. So the manifesto has to honor that.
One final note here: the WTF line should not be long. Condense it to a line or two and then jump pretty quickly to your POV. If you go too long here, people will just stop caring no matter how interested they are at the outset.

Step 2 — POV: Insightful POV that pays off the tension.

This is the most important line in the script. It’s also usually the clearest and simplest. Don’t skip it. Don’t make it clever. Just say it straight. You need everybody who’s listening to get on the same page about what the heck this manifesto is about. Failing to do that is death.
Luckily, if your tension is interesting enough, you have permission to be as straight as possible. Apple does this really well. Here’s an example from their script, “Intention”:
Designing something requires focus.
That is painfully simple. But remember that the spot questions why other companies make imperfect stuff they’re not proud of. We’re interested, and we learn that Apple’s telling us this because they believe that good design comes from diligent attention to detail. Once that’s established, the rest of the script can feature a lot of interesting examples of that POV.
Here’s another way to think about these two opening pieces of the Z-Shape. With the WTF, you’re pushing someone out of a plane. They go into free fall where they don’t know what’s happening. But then they get to the POV and it’s like pulling the parachute. Now that they know they’re not going to die, they can enjoy the view.

Step 3 — Proof: Showing all sides of that POV.

Here’s the fun part. The hard work is over. If you’ve made it this far, now you just get to talk about all the examples of what makes your big idea interesting.
When I was starting out, I never knew how long to make these sections. The general rule I follow is to make it exactly as long as I have interesting examples to share. The moment I find myself stretching stuff or making stuff up, I know it’s time to stop.
I often see manifestos use parallel structure in these sections to good effect. Look at how often that happens in another Apple example from “The Crazy Ones”:
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
Notice also the two transitions they did throughout this section. The first is a ramification of what came before. (“Because they change things.) The second is a shift to a new angle. (“Maybe they have to be crazy.”) These are good ways to add length to this section so that you’re not just repeating the same device over and over. You’ll see good manifestos do this, and they’re worth noting and learning from.

Step 4 — Thus: The impact or takeaway of that POV.

I used to think the last sentence was just a restatement of the POV. Now, I realize there is more to it than that. The last line of a Z-Shape manifesto has a job to do. We need to understand why we were told all this. That’s why the prompt is “Thus.”
Figuring out what this means for your script can be difficult. In general, I recommend you ask yourself, “What does all of this mean? What is the biggest takeaway from all these examples?”
Yes, there will be elements of repeating the POV. But it’s generally better to show the impact of that POV on the listener, the client, the sport, the industry, or the world.
Chrysler’s “Born of Fire” manifesto ends by putting a stake in the ground for their purpose. They manifesto proves that they don’t just understand luxury or like luxury. A firce, hard-earned understanding of luxury is in their bones.
This is the Motor City. And this is what we do.
That’s the kind of takeaway you want to leave people with. What does it all add up to? If you can make that idea memorable, you’ll be in good shape.

Cheat Sheet

If you want to write a great Z-Shape manifesto, here is your structure:
WTF: Tension that spikes interest in your POV.
POV: Insightful POV that pays off the tension.
Proof: Showing all sides of that POV.
Thus: The impact or takeaway of that POV.

Example: Nike’s “Dream Crazy”

This manifesto is a fantastic example of the Z-Shape. We have a very quick and clear WTF+POV opening section then a waterfall of compelling examples. Whenever I spot a manifesto like this, I’m always curious how they structure the example section. How do they give it length? What turns do they take?
Then I take note of the opening, tension, and final line and see if there are any new insights I can glean from those pieces. Thanks to the masters at Wieden+Kennedy, Nike is one of the most consistent brands for producing high-quality manifestos of all types and structures. This one is sits among the best.


If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you think you can do — good.
Opening lines like this one were why it was so difficult to get my head around manifesto structure when I was starting out. When you look at this, it almost looks like the POV. It’s well written, clear, and interesting.
However, this is better described as the WTF. This is the line that makes us interested in the POV, which comes in the following line. We want to know why it’s good for our dreams to be called crazy. It’s a feeling we can all relate to.
But notice how it doesn’t tell us what the manifesto is about. We don’t what kind of examples we’re going to get or why this is a good thing. It’s just interesting. That’s why it’s the WTF. And that’s where you should start your Z-Shapes.


Stay that way. Because what non-believers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It's a compliment.
Okay, now this is a POV. We discover that calling a dream crazy is a compliment, that people who doubt us are non-believers, and that we should continue on down this path.
If it feels like I’m splitting hairs, consider this. The manifesto could have gone down many different paths. The exact opposite script could have followed the opening line, as in: “… if they laugh at what you think you can do—good. It’s best treat feedback as a gift so you can recalibrate your expectations.” That’s obviously a ludicrous example, but it demonstrates the point.
It’s not until we hear why the tension line is interesting that we can start talking about all the incredible examples that bring it to life. Now that we have our compass, it’s time to party.


Don't try to be the fastest runner in your school, or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest ever. Don't picture yourself wearing LBJ's jersey. Picture LBJ wearing yours. Don't settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both. Lose a hundred-twenty pounds then become an Ironman after beating a brain tumor.
Don't believe you have to be like anybody to be somebody.
If you're born a refugee, don't let it stop you from playing soccer for the national team at age 16. Don't become the best basketball player on the planet. Be bigger than basketball.
Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.
When they talk about the greatest team in the history of the sport, make sure it's your team. If you have only one hand, don't just watch football play it. At the highest level. If you're a girl from Compton, don't just become a tennis player. Become the greatest athlete ever.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that nearly this entire block of text is the same type of example over and over: Instead of limiting yourself, you should aim for the highest achievement in your field.
There are two interesting lines in between these examples that break it up effectively. However, unlike “The Crazy Ones,” these in between lines don’t actually take the script in a new direction. That’s okay. This is proof you don’t always have to do it if you have a lot of great examples.
They employed two helpful techniques to avoid monotony. The first is that they change up the structure a lot. There’s a lot of similar structure, but every sentence and paragraph has enough variety that our brains don’t fall into a rhythm or prediction. The script also roughly organizes so that they get more intense and more impressive as they go. That’s not a hard rule, but an effective one.
Now that we’re jazzed after all the examples, it’s time to bring it home.


So don't ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they're crazy enough.
SUPER: It’s only crazy until you do it.
SUPER: Just do it.
This is great close. We see the impact that all of this has on the listener. Throughout the course of the manifesto, we see that we actually should do more than just “stay that way” as the opening suggests. We actually should take it one step farther and question whether our dreams are actually have enough crazy in them.
I have no idea how this was actually written, but it’s entirely likely that the writer actually wrote this line for another part of the script, such as the original POV line at the top. If you stumble on one of these, see if it actually works better as your ending. Many times, I will actually discover my ending in writing more than sit down and craft it.
Just remember that not every clever line should be in your script. In fact, most shouldn’t be. But if you have a great script with solid examples, you’ve earned yourself the right to close with the most memorable line you’ve got.


The homework for this manifesto is different from the S-Shape and the U-Shape. Yes, it will be important for you to do a deep dive into the examples since that’s most of the script. However, I find that the most important work to do is making sure the opening and ending are the best they can be.
There are a lot of ways into Z-Shape manifestos. Take a look at “The Crazy Ones” by Apple. Their POV is that they believe crazy people inspire them because those are the ones who change things. There are a lot of ways into that script. They could have gone the Nike direction and pointed out that these people are often made fun of. Or they could have dove into the unusual mindset of how one of the crazy ones think.
In the end, they decided to go much simpler than this and describe the place that those people are often referred to in our society—which is on the outer rim. This is an effective approach but certainly now the only one.
My recommendation is that you spend time thinking about two things. First, what is the clearest way that you can express your POV. Second, what is the most interesting tension that you can create that leads you into that POV?
Questions like this can help:
  • What is the biggest reason to doubt your POV as possible or true?
  • What would your brand’s biggest hater or critic say if they heard it?
  • What is the opposite of your POV and why are you competitors doing it?
  • Why is it easier to not do your POV than it is to do it?
  • What mindset do people have who go the other direction?
  • What mindset is required to go toward your POV?
  • What is happening in culture right now that makes your POV relevant?
  • What trend have we slipped into as a society that makes your POV more important now than ever before?
  • What examples from history best illustrate the importance of your POV?
And when in doubt, just answer this question:
  • What pisses your brand off the most?
Generally, that’s a great place to start. Now the answers to each of these might not directly work as your WTF tension line, but they should give you the right kinds of seeds to start. From there, craft it into the most disruptive phrase you can.
Lists like this are also great for discovering valuable end lines. Don’t beat your self up if you can’t find a great end line before you start writing. They’re hard. But sometimes you get lucky.
Try putting these thoughts into a simple structure before you start writing. Here’s an example from the Nike one we looked at:
WTF: People criticize dreams for being crazy.
POV: Calling dreams crazy is actually a compliment.
Proof: Crazy dreams and crazy dreamers in sports.
Thus: Ask if your dreams are crazy enough.
You can imagine how much easier it would be to write out the manifesto once you have this in hand. Without it? I would be rewriting the first sentence over and over for days.