Tagged: brainstorming

Brainstorming By the Rules

brainbolt.pngAlex Osborn, founder of a super-successful New York ad Agency and of the Creative Education Foundation, came up with a list of brainstorming “rules” in 1963:

No judgment in early stages: Collect as many ideas as possible without imposing criticism.

Encourage wild or stupid ideas: Don’t refuse to write anything on the board. You never know where it might lead.

Forbid discussion: This may seem counter-intuitive to old-school thinkers. What’s a meeting without talk, after all? But at the start of brainstorming, analysis is death. Wait until you have your long list of ideas, first.

Ban cynics: Early criticism of ideas guarantees you fewer good ideas overall. Anyone who can’t accommodate randomness of thought shouldn’t be there.

Make the process visible: Be sure to record the ideas as the come on a flipchart or board. They must be seen by the group to be useful.

Impose time limits: The pressure of the clock helps ideas to flow more quickly, spontaneously. 30 minutes is good.

These rules aren’t easy to keep. But they worked for Osborn and
thousands of others, from copywriters to politicians to engineers. Systems
work if you give ‘em a chance.

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Brainstorming For One

“Brain-writing” is not my term. But we’re going to make it our own by revising it a little to make it more productive…

You brainstorm to get ideas when you have none.

Ideally, you do so in a group. So you can feed off each other. So you can legitimize sitting around drinking coffee. So you can get others to do all the hard thinking for you.

In all those respects, group brainstorming is a good thing.

But what do you do when you’re writing in isolation?

Brain-writing is a way to kick ideas around … jumpstart your engines … and get into that “zone” of creativity that you normally hope to get in a group session.

In fiction circles, there’s something similar called “free-writing.”

USUALLY, it simply means setting a timer, putting pen to page, and letting the ideas pour.

Whatever it is, you write it down. You don’t stop until your pen runs out of ink or your elbow balloons like a grapefruit.

But there are two problems with free-writing when you apply it to writing promo copy:

  • First, pens come with a lot of ink these days. Even the dime-store ballpoints could keep you scribbling well past deadline.
  • Second, sometimes it’s the very prospect of a blank page … the sight of a blinking cursor… and the notion of all that cerebral “freedom” … that’s got you stymied in the first place.

There is a more efficient way to get started.

If you were about to make bricks, would you begin without clay? If you were getting ready to make glass, would you begin without sand? If you wanted to make punch, would you leave out the hooch?

Of course not.

So why is it writers of any kind so often try to start conjuring up ideas out of thin air?

For all the reasons to get “blocked,” this is the easiest of them to resolve.

Before you begin your solo brainstorming session (or a group one, for that matter), get yourself a hefty stack of “stuff” about the product. Aim for height. An inch is too little. A foot is too high. Somewhere in the middle ought to do it.

Next to this, put a fresh stack of index cards … a legal pad … and/or a computer.

This is where the “brain-writing” comes in. Start reading. Start taking notes.

The process remains “free” in the sense that you shouldn’t try to organize the ideas at this point. Record them as they come. You’ll sort later.

However, contrary to popular creativity myths, discipline has a role. For instance:

You’ll need to keep yourself from focusing too long on any one aspect of your research.

You’ll need to force yourself to write in full-fledged ad copy, rather than just recording notes.

And you’ll need to make sure, always, that the central promise of your ad is the magnet pulling you through the muck of ideas you’ll produce.

You should have at least six kinds of things in your “brain-writing” stack before you begin:

  1. Competitors’ ads.If you write direct mail, you know there’s no excuse for not being seeded on competing lists. Keep a box of other people’s promos by your desk.
  2. Samples of the competitors’ products.You can probably get comped, as a professional courtesy. But, at least once in awhile, go through the subscription process anonymously. You might learn something from the way they do business.
  3. Printouts of relevant web sites.Yes, printouts. If you’d rather, you can make handwritten notes while scrolling a screen. But avoid the temptation to bookmark links, save pages, or copy and paste text into word documents. No matter what you think … the only way to really absorb the ideas is to re-interpret them for your own notes.
  4. Relevant magazines and newspapers.Big media has the budget to gather persuasive stats and anecdotes. Again, copy the information in your own hand. Don’t just clip and count on coming back to it later. HOWEVER, make sure you note your sources with every factoid – both for legal reasons and because you’ll get extra credibility when you cite a respected source.
  5. History and non-fiction bestsellers.Sometimes, nothing can be more valuable than going down to your local bookstore to see what your prospects are reading. It’s an excellent way to put your thumb on the popular zeitgeist. Restrict yourself, however, to buying two books … tops. If you’re under any kind of deadline, you won’t have time for more than that.
  6. Your product manager’s “best of.”Any good product manager will give you the following items when you start a copywriting project: product-related e-mails, raw testimonials, 3rd-party reviews and endorsements, product-related news clippings, free “giveaways” that come with the offer, notes from past brainstorming meetings, past control packages, tapes or transcripts of conversations with customers, customer service letters, interviews with core people connected with the product, and phone numbers of people you can call to talk to about the product.

This is, of course, just a partial list. You could add more. But even with only the above, you should be drowning in new ideas before day’s end.

(At which point, you’ll have a different problem – more ideas than you can spend in one piece! Every copywriter should be so lucky, right? Save the leftovers for the test mailing.) The beauty of this simple approach is that you don’t need a soul around to help you make it pay off. In fact, isolation makes it easier.

Tip: At some point, you’ll make it to the bottom of the stack or you’ll feel in your gut that you’ve got all the key points somehow covered. AT that moment, stop and get up. Put on your coat. Go shoot some hoops, take a walk, knit an afghan (the sweater, not the citizen).

While you take a break, your subconscious mind is mulling over everything you’ve come across. Absorbing. Sorting. Editing.

The next morning, put the pile of stuff in a box and get it out of your sight. Everything happens now inside your pile of notes. Re-read all the material. Twice.

Take the points that stand out and re-write them on a fresh page. Some things will stand out. Others will strike you as complete garbage. Distill and polish. Narrow. If you need to accelerate the process, mail or e-mail the notes to a trusted (and patient) friend to read.

If you try this technique and you’re STILL stuck for ideas by the time you reach the bottom of the stack, you might consider buying yourself a push broom. Or running for public office.

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Thinking Inside The Box

theboxWhat is creativity?

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that gets kicked around, about the value of thinking “outside the box.” But in my experience, that’s the opposite of true.

In fact, there was a time when I considered becoming a cartoonist. And I was a big fan (still am) of the cartoons that appear in the New Yorker. While reading a collection of essays by repeat cartoonists in those pages, I was struck by what one of them said.

The best way, he reported, to get an idea for the perfect funny moment… was to draw an empty box. Those were the bounds of the space you had to work with. And that reminder was enough to help you focus on what could — and couldn’t — go inside.

Maybe that’s why I was also struck by a quote I found years ago in BusinessWeek, courtesy of Marissa Ann Mayer, a VP at Google:

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, and religious paintings — are fraught with constraints.

“They’re beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.

“Yet constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or what we accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or simply unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible are fueled by passion and result in revolutionary change.”

Well said, Marissa. Well said.

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The Two Best Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

twriterAn interviewer once asked me, “How do you tackle writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block?” I said. “What’s that?”

Seriously, I don’t much believe in writer’s block. Oh, there have been times I don’t know what to write. And even times I’ve felt a little desperate about that. But I’ve never been afraid or unaware of how to plow right through it. Why? Because I don’t think blocked writing is where the problem originates.

See, most of the time, I believe what stops a writer from writing isn’t a lack of output at all. It’s a lack of input.

When I find myself losing steam, I stop and read. Then I start taking notes. Before I realize it, I’m chasing a new and original idea all over the page. And more often than not, an idea that doesn’t appear at all in the thing I first picked up to read for inspiration.

That’s the most immediate “cure-all.” Then, like any ailment, there are long-term steps you can take. Some include other ways to get more input. Like making sure you stick around people who will talk intelligently about what you’d like to write about. Pick up the phone, raise the topic in the right company, invite smart people to lunch and get them chattering.

But one of the best “curatives” many writers overlook is to simply try writing — anything — more often. How’s that? So many writers, especially newbies, imagine they get blocked when they pour out too much of their best stuff onto the page. They think of the well containing a limited quantity of ideas.

Nothing could — or at least should — be farther from the truth.

What really happens when you write often, preferably on a fixed schedule, is that you get more accustomed to the habit of writing and your brain is mixing and matching all those inputs you come across, in constant preparation for the next scheduled session in front of that blank, blinking screen.

Try it. You’ll be surprised.

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Idea Angst and How to Beat It

padandpenYou hear a lot about something called “writer’s block.”

Then there’s that thing we all used to get when most writing was done with a pencil, called “writer’s cramp.”

This, not to be confused with “writer’s camp,” when a gaggle of would-be-novelists disappear into the Maine woods to drink wine and avoid their manuscripts.

Then there’s what I call “writer’s angst.”

What’s that?

Back when I was going to an office to work rather than working from my “office” at home (a comfortable chair in our living room), I was standing at a bus stop reading a good book.

This, mind you, was not just any bus stop. It’s a block from the apartment we use while in Paris, on a sun-dappled and leafy, on a corner of the Quai de la Tournelle and the Pont de l’Archêché. Boats float down the Seine nearby. The gothic towers of Notre Dame shadow the river. Parisians stroll past while les bouquinistes set up shop.

It was a beautiful day, after almost a week of chill and rain. The breeze fluttered the leaves. And in that moment before a moment, I had just been thinking how much better this was than a 45 commute through traffic to a cubicle in an office park.

But suddenly, it hit me. Out of the blue, a week’s worth of research for a new promo suddenly gelled together. No, collided. Like a tangle of monkeys on bicycles.

Headlines and leads… points and counterpoints… resistance-melting proofs… a battering close… phrases, metaphors, images, and subheads…

It was good stuff and I knew it. Too good to lose. I had to stop reading, for fear that the words in the book might drown my idea. God willing, I thought, nobody would talk to me. Where the h**l was that bus? I fingered the metro ticket in my pocket.

I looked at my watch.

I had exactly 20 minutes from here to my keyboard. Would I make it in time? That big old elevator was so slow. It would take three minutes to climb the stairs. Did I have a pen anywhere? Something to write on? Maybe in my bag. Where the h*ll is that bus?

Ah wait, here’s a pen. Maybe I can get this down on the blank inside cover of the book. Here’s the bus. C’mon people, file in. Show him your ticket. Tourist… question… fumbling in English. Let’s get this thing moving!

Scenery, great. Fountains. Cool. What’s with all this traffic? Getting out, walking from the stop, punching in the door code, up the creaky wood stairs, at the desk, opening the laptop… I made it. Someone says hello, but I’m already typing. It’s in. On the page. Phew.

Years ago, I wanted to be a novelist. And I remembered what a fiction teacher in college once warned us. “You’re not really a writer,” he said, “until you can’t wait to get to your office… or get home, if you have to… to write.”

Now I’m a copywriter instead.

But really, when we’re talking process, is there that much of a difference?

Aside from the pay, I mean. (Holler “copywriter” in a New York restaurant, and someone will hand you a business card. Holler “novelist” and someone will come out of the kitchen and hand you another dinner roll.)

The bottom line is simple: Every kind of productive writer spends time in the chaos of ideas, the maelstrom of data and research that marks the start of a new project. This is the whole theory, by the way, behind James Webb Young’s already short book, “A Technique For Producing Ideas.”

For instance, think about what it’s like — or should be like — to start from scratch with a new client or product. You end up throwing yourself completely into the research, from the ground up, with the hopes of knowing the thing you’re writing about better than the insiders themselves.

At first it’s too much. A mess of notions, no clear thread linking them together. You’re sure it will never make sense. Then it does. In an instant. And it’s all you can do to type fast enough to get it down. You need this to happen. But you cannot will it to happen. The connecting ideas, it turns out, find you. Not the other way around.

You can no more order yourself to be creative than you can order a dog to sneak up on its tail.

What you can do, however, is steep yourself in reports, in articles, in books, in recorded interviews and conversations, in related websites and — for our purposes — past promos and brochures. What you pour in, you’ll get back out. Organized by your subconscious. Stuff it in, pack it in, sit on top of it and pound if you have to.

Then take a walk. Take a shower. Go stand at the bus stop and wait.

Just make sure you’ve got a pen handy when you do.

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