What “Say Yes to the Dress” Teaches Us about Creativity


Jim Link, Author of Idea-Links the New Creativity

Jim Link, Author of
Idea-Links the New Creativity

When my daughter, Jayme, was 12-years-old, one of her favorite shows was “Say Yes to the Dress.” My first reaction was total dismay that they actually made an entire TV series about shopping for wedding dresses. But once she started recording the episodes on our DVR, I figured rather than dismiss it, I should pay closer attention and try to figure out its grip on my daughter’s attention. What I saw peeking out behind the ruffles and lace is a drama constructed on Joseph Campbell’s classic story archetype, The Hero’s Journey. For Say Yes to the Dress, it plays out something like this:

  • Hero: Bride
  • Supporters:  Friends
  • Nemesis: Overly-critical and insensitive mother, relative or friend
  • Symbol of Power: Perfectly fitting wedding dress
  • Mentors: Store helper; wedding planner
  • Test or challenge: Finding wedding dress in time for the wedding.

When I asked Jayme what she liked about the show, she said “I like the nice people and hate the mean one…and I worry if the bride will find a dress in time.” In each episode, the bride-to-be brings her entourage, including the Loyal Friend and the Snotty Mean Girl. The Loyal Friend is supportive no matter how hideous the dress looks; The Snotty Mean Girl plays the villain, ripping on dresses, humiliating the bride, and demeaning everyone. Without this narrative arc of hero, challenge, supporter and nemesis, a show about brides trying on dresses is snooze-city—even to 12-year-old girls. But introduce these tried-and-true elements, and you have the makings of a hit show.

Once you recognize this hero-challenge-nemesis formula, you’ll see it in many successful shows ranging from judging-type shows (think Simon Cowell) to reality shows (think the one person everyone in the house hates). On occasion, I’ve used this same formula to position brands or to create compelling sales stories when I consult with companies. This ability to extract the winning formula or principles from one place and then re-apply it elsewhere is the essence of creativity. Luckily, this process of analysis, extraction and re-application is a skill any of us can learn.

So, how about you and your organization. Who or what is the hero in your organization’s story? What challenge or tests does the hero face? Who or what is the nemesis? What role do you or your organization play in helping the hero? Put them all together and you might have the makings of a compelling sales or brand story!

By Jim Link, Author of Idea-Links the New Creativity

 In his award-winning book, Idea-Links: The New Creativity, Jim Link challenges the conventional wisdom that analytical people can’t be creative, and replaces it with the opposite notion: deep, curiosity-driven analysis is the lifeblood of creativity. Starting with the premise that creativity is about making connections between seemingly unrelated situations, Jim introduces the concept of idea-links: principles and insights we extract from one situation and reapply to a different one in order to make an idea. Listening to his daughter, following his curiosity, and digging into a deeper analysis, Jim discovered the idea-link beneath the popularity of the “Say Yes to the Dress” and “American Idol” shows, which he now reapplies to his brand positioning work. Once you discover and store an idea-link, it can be applied to new situations to stimulate creative thinking and innovation.

Jim asserts that creativity can be built systematically like any other skill and outlines some habits you can practice to cultivate creativity through using idea-links:

  • Idea-LinksNotice: Stay on the lookout for things that work or succeed. When you see one, stop and ask yourself if it’s worth analyzing. If so, start digging.
  •  Analyze: Take some time to think about the “why” or the principles behind its success. If you get to this level of analysis—and the “why” feels like something that could be transferred to another usage—you’ve extracted the idea-link.
  • Store: Unless you have a really good memory, create a central repository for your examples and the idea-links you extracted from them. This could be a file folder, envelope for scraps of paper, index card file, e-mail folder, spreadsheet, or list on your smart phone notes.

According to Jim, this process—notice, analyze, store—is one highly creative people follow instinctively, but adds that anyone can learn to do the same. So next time you sit down to watch your favorite show, take a minute to think about what brings you or your loved ones back week after week. What makes the show or the story so compelling? Find the answer and you’ll leave the couch one idea-link more creative than you were before.



  1. Nancy Wiltink on June 12, 2014 at 8:05 am

    And don’t forget: it’s not just any dress: it is THE once in a lifetime ‘this may cost a fortune’ dress. A symbol of the highest goal in life ‘happily ever after’.
    And one within reach of every girl – only one person can become president, vereyone an get married and untill it’s proven otherwise, live happily ever after.

    • Jean Storlie on June 12, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Nancy — How right you are! There are a lot of emotions built into THE dress purchase.

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