Rubber ball lessons Matt 19 Apr 2006

12 comments Latest by Julian Johnson

RRRB coverSome writing/marketing ideas riffing off How the Rules of the Red Rubber Ball Came to Be (part of the promo site for a book by Kevin Carroll).

#1: Put your name on it.

Let’s start at the end of this section…the very end: “Story by Meg Daly (”.

Most sites like this are written in Anonymous Promotional Voice. You know APV: a bland summary of info with minimal flavor/personality. If APV was a hot sauce, it’d be extra mild.

So it’s noteworthy that the words here actually end with a credit. Meg has attached her name which is a sign this sauce may just have some kick to it. When someone signs something, it’s a lot more likely that person actually cares about his/her craft.

This signature also makes you realize how rarely copy on business or promotional sites is credited to an actual person. Maybe if more people signed site copy, the quality of online writing would improve. When people put their name on something, they tend to care more about how it turns out.

[Edward Tufte on the importance of authorship: “All too often, such documentation is absent from corporate and government reports. Public, named authorship indicates responsibility, both to the immediate audience and for the long-term record.”]

#2: Write a story, not copy.

The other interesting thing with the “story by” end note is the use of the word story. This isn’t copy or text or promotional content or a bio. It’s a story. Copy is something that you throw in to take up space. It’s there because it has to be. A story has life. It has characters. It has a plot. It’s interesting. A story has value. Sites need less copy and more stories.

#3: Start with an evocative hook.

The whole piece is good but I especially like the intro:

Remember the red rubber ball of your elementary school playground?

The one with the criss-cross texture that made your palms tingle. You could use it for four-square, kickball, dodgeball and basketball. Remember its fire-engine hue and oh-so-satisfying “whump” when it hit the ground?

Athlete, trainer and speaker Kevin Carroll remembers that ball well.

“The red rubber ball saved my life,” he says.

These few paragraphs evoke nostalgic memories, cue sensory perceptions with talk of touch and sound, and provide enough mystery to make you want to read more.

We know people scan online so it’s tempting to always stick to just the facts. And a lot of times it really is best to just get to the point and get out of the way. But a hook is a hook. The idea of starting with specs like page count and publication date seems like a pale alternative compared to an evocative introduction like this one.

#4: Overcome writer’s block by starting with small bits.

Carroll’s method of writing the actual RRRB book also offers some writing guidance.

Their nudge was followed by another nudge, from Joanne Gordon, the writer and editor of the book that came out of the Roadtrip Nation adventures. When she spoke with Kevin in 2003, she says, “he knew he had a book inside him.” So she gave him an assignment. She told him to write for 30 minutes for 30 days about his life from his earliest memories.

This sort of Getting Real approach to writing is a great way to overcome blank-page-induced paralysis. What works for software design also works for writing: Break your big assignment down into chunks. Start a book with blog posts. Write something — anything — every day for a month. Brain dump. Build now and edit later. Then you’ll know if you’ve actually got something worth following through on.

#5: PR starts with you.

The success of RRRB shows you don’t have to go through The Man to get a book into the hands of the public.

It took only nine months from the time the book was printed in May 2004 for Kevin to sell out the entire 11,000 copy print run. He did no marketing. He did not even sell the book at conferences. His sole means of selling the book was mentioning it at his public speaking events and telling people the Web site from where they could order it. Kevin would also give books away to hundreds of young people he spoke to in his travels.

If your message is tight, you don’t need to sit around and wait for the machine to make you a star. Get your voice heard. Give stuff away. Promote through education. Speak wherever you can.

Speaking of speaking: Start on a small scale. At first, you may be talking to a small classroom or at some podunk conference. Ya gotta start somewhere. Fwiw, 37signals didn’t start out giving keynote speeches at SxSW. There were years of smaller speaking gigs at schools, companies, little-known conferences, etc. The plus side of starting small as a speaker: It lets you hone your message and delivery so you’re ready for the big time when the time comes.

#6: Sticky points are sometimes tiny/hidden.

Rules of the Red Rubber BallThe design of RRRB is cool. There’s a circle of red rubber on the cover, school ledger journal pages within, and playful illustrations that work with the theme of the book. The RRRB site highlights the design process, turning it into a selling point that backs up the theme of the book.

When Kevin was done with his manuscript he flew to Kansas City to meet with Ann about the book’s design. She introduced him to her whole team of designers so they could get a sense of Kevin’s personality. Then Ann assigned the book to one of her junior designers who had never designed a book before.

“You both have no rules,” Ann said about her hunch.

Even the printing path of the book is used to capture the inspirational tone.

Next, the book was sent to Metropolitan Fine Printers in Vancouver BC, the only printer that was willing to take on the complicated job. The many colors, textures and papers of the book are what make it unique - and also difficult to produce.

“We never throw away a challenge,” says Metropolitan Account Executive Scott Gray. Kevin flew to Vancouver to meet Scott and share the story behind the book with three shifts of print technicians, sales staff and management.

They became some of his biggest fans.

Your sticky points, the ones that get people to pay attention aren’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s the little stuff — the things that you overlook. An example from our world is the attention we received from Basecamp’s iCal integration. We got tons of links and visits from Mac sites because of something we didn’t realize people felt strongly about…a very pleasant surprise.

Phew. All that from just a few pages of text at a mini-site. Not too shabby. Any sites out there that have provided you with unexpected lessons?

12 comments so far (Jump to latest)

ML 19 Apr 06

Some more bits on authorship are mentioned at Understanding Programmers

From Dust or Magic by Bob Hughes:

It is important to know �who did that� � and it�s a much bigger issue than simply �denial of the author�s rights�. It is extremely important for makers to know about other makers — and for users to know who made the things they use.

From Software Craftmanship by Pete McBreen:

Signing our work creates a connection between the developer and the user. The user can see who created the software and how to get in touch with that person.

Frank 19 Apr 06 sometimes, actually quite often lately, has posts about the most random stuff … most of which I have no idea what it’s about.

Trevor 19 Apr 06

Good point Frank, this blog used to draw me in because it was about usability and design. I get some of the abscure references to be about entrepreneurship etc..but some things are like boing boing stuff.

Bri 19 Apr 06

I personally like the story and find its points quite relevant to usability and design issues. I esp. think that sites with writing that uses what he calls the Anonymous Promotional Voice kill usability and undermine design because the user of the site does not engage with the message of the site. SVN seems to be (to me at least) as much about the intersection between information design and entrepreneurship as about anything else, and this post is really quite relevant to that topic.

Tom 19 Apr 06

Well, since we�ve argued before that copywriting is interface design …

How ironic is it that the “related” link given by {ML} has the title of the post of “Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content”

Ward Andrews 19 Apr 06

Writing, storytelling, marketing, creating a product….it’s all design.

R 20 Apr 06

Stumbling into both the signal vs noise and creating passionate users blogs is inadvertently inspiring how I create, share, and develop a fan base for my music. That’s design too right? Thanks regardless.

cindy 29 May 06

dear sirs,

glad to know yr company on the Internet,we r the only one rubber injection machine manufacturerin China.with German design,European quality,we supply u good quality machines at the best price.

for more of us,pls visit us at

sincerely yours,
Cindy Deng
[email protected]

Julian Johnson 16 Jun 06

I wanted to inform you that Kevin Carroll, author of “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball” has a blog: “”. I wanted to welcome your readership to have a look and please leave comments about its design and content. Thanks again for profiling our website and the excellent writing content provided by Meg Daly.


Julian Johnson
Katalyst Consultancy