Brainstorming has been in use since the 50s, when Alex Osborn decided that the best way to generate ideas and find solutions to problems was to collaborate with your team. The general idea entailed a group of people sitting in a room together, sharing their ideas, and using one another as “springboards” for better ideas.
Osborn truly believed in his method, saying that “Brainstorming should enhance creative performance by almost 50% versus individuals working on their own.”
Unfortunately that figure’s unfounded, and there is actually very little proof that “traditional” brainstorming helps produce any more or any better ideas than the same people would produce if left to “brainstorm” alone.
In fact, according to an article by Dr. Tomas Chamorro published in the Harvard Business Review, “A great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.”
There are two key reasons why this occurs.
Production blocking – this is when we have an idea, but while waiting for our turn to talk, we forget what it was.
Evaluation apprehension – anxiety about what others will think of us if our idea isn’t good enough, or if we say something “odd.”
But things have changed a lot since the 50s. We have more information than we could ever want, need, or consume at our fingertips, and consequently, many variations on the concept of “brainstorming.”
Used correctly, brainstorming can generate a lot of quality ideas in a short span of time. Here are 10 exercises you can try to fill up your content calendar, fast.
1. Associative brainstorming
When brainstorming blog post ideas, do you ever feel like you keep coming up with the same, generic, unexciting topics?
Associative brainstorming can help you climb out of this rut by using word association to get you thinking outside the box.
It’s really simple to perform.
To begin, you’ll need one word that closely relates to or summarizes the topic you want to generate blog post ideas around. You’ll also need somewhere to jot your associated words down.
This exercise should ideally be executed alone (although it can help to collaborate with your team afterwards). It also works best if you let your mind run freely. Don’t edit your thoughts too much – write down any and every remotely relevant word that comes to mind.
Here’s an example that a member of my team put together. This took about five minutes.
And here are a few ideas I’ve come up with off the back of this (FYI, I’m not saying these are all good ideas; I’m just trying to demonstrate how fast and effective this is as an ideation tool).
Are Your E-commerce Customers Waiting Too Long for Their Orders?
E-commerce Store Owners: Do You Really Know Your Customers’ Rights?
Selling on Amazon: What You Need to Know
eBay vs. Amazon: Which Platform is Better for Your Store?
Should You Start Shipping Internationally?
Do Your Visitors Think Your Site’s a Scam?
All in all, this took about ten minutes, so just imagine how many ideas you could come up with if you spent an hour or more on this exercise.
This is an exercise that works best when you’re alone and free from distractions. It’s a variation on the “freewriting” method. It’s also a term that – I think – I’ve just made up myself. If you can’t find anyone else referencing this term, that’s why.
Freewriting entails sitting down and writing continuously for a set period of time. You should have no regard for spelling, grammar, or structure, or in fact, what you’re writing. All you need is a pen and paper or a computer, and your starting topic. Then, you simply write down whatever comes into your head.
Freewriting is an awesome exercise for overcoming writer’s block. It can even help uncover forgotten memories and knowledge or ideas you never knew you had.
“The results are sometimes unpredictable, but the most surprising images, characters, memories and stories started to pour out onto the page. Where was it coming from? I was mystified, and stunned. Somehow this practice had connected to that deep stream of creativity we all have running, somewhere deep underground, and allowed it to manifest in writing.” Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer
If you’re ever stuck for words, try it.
Freestorming is very similar. You begin with a subject in mind and write down anything and everything that comes into your head for a set period of time. No editing, no filters. If you think of it, down it goes.
Will most of what you write be unusable crap?
But among that crap might be something great, or at least something that triggers a bunch of genuinely good ideas.
Brainwriting is a group exercise in which each participant writes three ideas on a piece of paper and passes that paper to the person next to them. The next person then uses those three ideas as triggers for the next three ideas of their own.
Each “round” is assigned a time limit, usually five minutes, but you can increase or decrease it in line with how much pressure you want (or don’t want) to apply. You can also change the number of ideas required in each round.
Brainwriting shares similarities with the freethinking technique just above, in that many of the resulting ideas probably won’t be very good. That’s okay. The point of this exercise is to generate a lot of ideas, both good and bad.
After the exercise is over, sit down and go through all the ideas. Some of them will be scrapped. Some of them, however, might trigger better ideas. A handful might be ideas that are ready to go. Others might become subtopics for a blog post, rather than posts of their own.
4. Question everything
Start with an idea – the title of a recent blog post will work – and question everything around that topic.
You can perform this exercise on your own, or in a group.
Let’s try this out with a recent blog post of mine, “How to Turn Web Traffic Into App Users.”
What is web traffic?
Why should I care about turning web traffic into app users?
What makes someone download an app?
What stops someone from downloading an app they’re interested in?
Do people prefer browsing websites or using apps?
Don’t be afraid to wander off topic. Just go wherever your mind takes you. If ideas pop into your head that aren’t questions, that’s okay. Don’t worry about the form your thoughts are taking – just write them down.
What are the most successful apps and why?
Lessons you can learn from the biggest apps of 2016
Why do apps fail?
Why my app failed: true stories
Lessons you can learn from 2016’s biggest app fails
Again, I’m not saying these are necessarily good ideas – these are just thoughts at the moment – which is generally all they will be at this stage. I’m simply trying to demonstrate how this process works.
5. Change two things
Get five or six people to pick a blog post title. This could be a post that already exists, or it could be a new idea.
Ask them to write the title at the top of an A4 sheet of paper (making sure not to take up too much space) and to meet in the boardroom (or wherever you hold your brainstorming sessions).
Once everyone’s ready, have each person pass their sheet to the person next to them. Looking at a different title than the one they picked, they change two elements to create a new title. The sheets are passed on again, and the exercise repeated until the group runs out of steam, or space on the paper.
Here’s a brief example of how this might work, starting with the title of my post: “10 Tools That’ll Help You Score Maximum Value From Your Content.”
10 Tricks That’ll Help You Score Maximum Value From Your Social Media Posts
10 Tricks That’ll Help You Leverage Your Best Customers
10 Tools That’ll Help You Build Relationships with Your Best Customers
10 Secrets to Building Relationships with Your Best Customers
10 Secrets of Effective Email Marketing
10 Little-Known Email Marketing Tricks
25 Little-Known Email Marketing Tricks
25 Email Marketing Tricks of the Trade
25 E-commerce Tricks of the Trade
This is also an activity you can carry out on your own, but fresh eyes and ideas means you’ll get better results with more people.
6. Topic association
This shares similarities with associative brainstorming in that you use words and phrases as triggers for ideas. However, associative brainstorming focuses on single words and is designed to get you thinking outside the box. This exercise is much more focused. It can help you form pretty concrete ideas from the get-go, and can even begin to assist you in structuring your posts.
Like word association, this exercise is best executed as a mind map that can help you organize your ideas. It works something like this:
- Begin with a topic in the center of the page.
- Dot sub-topics around your starting topic.
- Link sub-sub-topics to each of these points.
Take a look at the picture below for an example of how this might work.
The central topic is “Ultimate guide to blogging.” The sub-topics are potential chapters for the guide, while the sub-sub-topics are points that could be covered within each of these chapters.
While in this case the mind map is being used to structure a single piece of content, it’s easy to see how this exercise could be used to generate lots of blog post ideas.
For example, in place of “Ultimate guide to blogging,” you would write a topic you want to generate ideas around, such as “Mobile apps.”
Around this, you might write things like “Designing mobile apps” and “Promoting mobile apps.”
From “Designing mobile apps” you could write “Choosing a mobile app designer,” “Deciding if your app idea has legs,” and so on.
Meditation is good for a lot of things, including (but not limited to):
- Reducing stress
- Improving focus
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving sleep
- Helping academic performance
It can also help us find answers to our problems; in this case, the problem of idea generation.
Meditation works as a problem-solving tool because, as we rid our minds of unwanted and distracting thoughts, we begin to see the things that matter to us more clearly. It will help bring ideas you didn’t realize you had to the front of your mind.
You can learn how to meditate here. While meditation is a prop-free exercise, if you’re using it as a brainstorming tool, it would be a good idea to keep a pen and paper close by to jot down any ideas that come to mind.
8. Electronic brainstorming
Electronic brainstorming goes against the very notion of why brainstorming is supposedly effective – face-to-face collaboration. However, let’s consider the fact that many people believe “traditional” brainstorming is ineffective; or at least, not as effective as brainstorming alone.
Let’s also consider the fact that the internet is a literal endless hub of information and ideas.
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out then, how the internet can make your brainstorming more effective.
Tomas Chamorro, whom I quoted earlier, attributes the effectiveness of electronic (or virtual) brainstorming to three things:
“Virtual brainstorming eliminates production blocking, the process where dominant participants talk too much, taking over the session and eclipsing their colleagues. It also enables feelings of anonymity, since ideas cannot be attributed to a specific person. This reduces evaluation apprehension. Lastly, if designed intelligently, virtual sessions can increase the diversity of ideas by preventing participants from being exposed to each other’s ideas during the idea-generation phase.”
To leverage electronic brainstorming, all your participants really need is an internet-connected device and somewhere to jot down ideas. A Word doc will do just fine. However, if you want participants to be able to view each other’s ideas as they work, simply set up a shared Google Doc.
9. The criminal technique
Don’t string me up and hang me out to dry just yet – this one isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’m certainly not saying you should take someone else’s content and pass it off as your own. Nor am I saying you should steal their title and write your own blog post off the back of it.
Instead, this idea involves collating titles of successful blog posts in your industry, and changing those titles to similar, but more ambitious titles of your own.
Want to speed this task up?
You could search Google for a relevant topic and scrape the results. Alternatively, you can search for a relevant topic in a tool like Buzzsumo (or one of its many alternatives) and export the results.
Let’s run through an example.
I’ve used Buzzsumo to search for the term “E-commerce marketing.” I’ve also used the filters on the left of the page to narrow the results so they show me articles only. Here’s a snapshot of the results:
If you did this task yourself, you’d be working with a much bigger list of titles, but for the sake of this post I’m just going to talk about the three titles above.
What you want to do is change each title just enough that you can make the topic your own.
So “The 3 Step Guide to Building Effective Marketing Plans” might become “The 5 Step Guide to Creating Killer Marketing Plans.”
“The Ultimate Guide to eCommerce Email Marketing” might become “The Beginner’s Guide to Email Marketing for eCommerce Store Owners.”
And “The Beginner’s Guide to Influencer Marketing on Instagram” might become “The Startup’s Guide to Influencer Marketing on Twitter/YouTube/SnapChat.”
10. The worst idea challenge
This is a fun exercise to try when nothing else has worked. It’s also great for stressed-out brainstormers who are feeling frustrated and disillusioned by the creative process.
This is how it works.
You ask your team to share the worst possible ideas they can think of. Encourage them to shake off their inhibitions by making sure they know that the worse their idea is, the better. Add an element of competition by challenging them to come up with the worst idea of all.
When you’re done, you might find you actually have some very good ideas.
That’s because of brainstorming’s biggest flaw: how it can silence more introverted individuals, who can be reluctant to contribute their ideas for fear of ridicule. This exercise helps overcome this issue.
It creates an environment in which contributors are unafraid to share their ideas. If they have an idea that they think is good but they’re not sure if others will agree, the worst idea challenge lets them share it without fear.
If others think it’s good, then great. If they think it’s bad, that’s okay because so did the person who contributed it (or at least, that’s what everyone else will assume).
Once you’ve filtered out (and saved) any genuinely good ideas, challenge your team to turn the remaining “bad” ideas into “good” ideas.
The stress of having to come up with those “great ideas” can inhibit creativity greatly. This exercise removes that stress and turns brainstorming into a fun activity that’s free of the pressure to perform well or meet a specific goal – precisely the kind of environment that’s needed in order to generate great ideas.
How to be more effective at brainstorming
Whatever brainstorming exercise (or exercises) you choose to use, here are a few tricks you can try to make them more effective.
Welcome bad ideas
A culture of fearless free speech, in which participants aren’t afraid to speak up about all their ideas, good and bad, is vital to a successful brainstorming session.
If any of your participants are afraid to state an idea for fear of ridicule, you could be missing out on your winning idea. Even if the idea that’s being held back isn’t a great one, it could potentially trigger “the one.”
Never, ever make someone feel silly for contributing. Every idea should be welcomed, whatever you’re thinking deep down. Brainstorming sessions will only be useful if evaluation apprehension is eliminated entirely.
Determine your ideal group size
Too small a group and you might have too few ideas being contributed to the table. Too big and some people could struggle to be heard.
As a general rule, between four and seven is a good group size for brainstorming.
Encourage independent brainstorming
Brainstorming is traditionally seen as a collaborative exercise, the logic being that we produce better results when we put our minds together. However, you probably noticed that some of the methods highlighted above require us to work alone.
This is because we don’t think as a group; our minds, of course, all work independently. That’s why we can focus better when we’re alone (it’s also part of the reason why meditation is such an effective exercise for generating ideas and finding solutions to life’s problems in general).
While getting together with your team to generate and discuss ideas is a valuable practice that should be encouraged, so is independent brainstorming. For best results, find time to do both.
Have a drink
This one’s a little controversial, admittedly. Post-Mad Men era, how many workplaces are open to employees drinking on the job?
But stick with me. This one’s not just an excuse to get tipsy at work.
Multiple studies have proven that alcohol aids creativity.
“Alcohol worsens our working memory and impedes the brain’s executive processes, causing us also to become unaware of what’s going on around us and unable to concentrate on tasks at hand. That’s why people can’t drink and drive, or operate heavy machinery – they’re just not going to do it right. But what’s lost in our ability to focus is gained in our ability to think creatively. In 2012, researchers from the University of Illinois showed how creative people could be when happily drunk.” Anthony Rivas, writing for Medical Daily
The study quoted above split 18 ad executives into two groups. One group had unlimited access to alcohol. The other was only allowed to drink water.
After working for three hours on an ad campaign about binge drinking, the “alcohol” group not only had four out of five of the best ideas, but they also had the most ideas.
Now, I’m not suggesting you should gather around the boardroom table at 9 a.m. and drink shots until you’re under it, but getting your team together for a boozy brainstorming session an hour or two before you’re due to wrap up for the day can’t hurt, right?
What brainstorming exercises do you use? And how effective have you found them to be? Let me know if you have any ideas or experiences you wouldn’t mind sharing, in the comments below.
Image credits: Vertical Measures