Secrets of a Master:
Breakthrough Thinking With Much Less Work

[Even though the technique John talks about in this article – which came from a technique widely used at Disney studios – was designed to be used by a group, you'll find it to be helpful … even if you're a freelancer working at home. After all, you don't always work in isolation. There are times when you have to sit down with your clients or colleagues to talk about the product you're writing about.]

"Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for and, if you turn to your usual tasks, disappear." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Did you know Keith Richards sleeps with his guitar?

He also keeps a tape recorder by his bed.

Years ago, just after home cassette machines had been invented, Richards woke one morning to find the tape had run to the end. Not being a guy to remember how a lot of his evenings ended, he was curious.

"There I was," he said, "writing the opening guitar riff I used in 'Satisfaction.' Then the rest of the tape is just 29 minutes snoring."

Maybe you've got your own way to capture ideas. Maybe you're like Keith and all you need for inspiration is a pint or two of Rebel Yell.

But what if ideas don't come when it counts?

Not to worry …

… because there is a painless way to come up with new ideas.

I'm talking, of course, about brainstorming.

Before we get started, I know what you're thinking.

You've tried it. It doesn't always work.

Some "creative sessions" are incredible. Enough synapses fire to light the entire Eastern Seaboard.

But far too many sessions are lifeless. And idea-less. The only innovation, all too often, is the new doodle at the top of your otherwise empty notepad.

What goes wrong? Too much thinking, not enough drinking? Maybe. Too many cooks in the kitchen? That's a risk too. But most of the time, the problem is what Dr. Ralph J. Hallman described in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology:

The creative person is unique in that during the initial stages he prefers the chaotic and disorderly and tends to reject what already has been systemized.

In other words, "idea people" hate order. And that's a shame, really.

Because, as any truly successful creative person can tell you, a little order imposed on the creative process can be a liberation. Let me show you what I mean …

My good friend Thom Hickling showed us a powerful idea-generating system at a recent conference for Agora's writers in rural France.

By the time he introduced it, our attendees were exhausted. Maybe even bored. Yet, in less than 20 minutes, I watched as this technique lead us to 25 new and interesting ways to sell — get this — a product about Romanian labor law.

And all we needed to make it happen was a ringleader, a pile of black Sharpie markers, and some large-size Post-it notes. Here's how it works …

First, identify your challenge. If you can, write it on a flipchart in single-sentence form. Everything you'll do in the meeting will be directed at resolving that issue.

Next, set a deadline. We didn't do this in the session referred to above, but it's a good idea. Keeps the pressure on.

Here's where it gets interesting. Everybody in the group starts writing words on the Post-it pads. The words describe freely associated aspects of one aspect of the problem you're trying to solve.

(For instance, for developing product sales-copy, you might focus on describing the target audience, the product benefits, the sales environment, etc.)

One word per Post-it. Tack them on a wall as they come.

When time is up or the wall is covered, the voting starts.

Each participant gets a designated number of votes. Fewer for large groups, more for small groups. In our case, we took five votes each, indicated by a dot on the words each of us preferred. Votes were roughly anonymous. Seniority was disregarded.

Get rid of the words with no votes. Put the words with most votes higher on the wall. You'll quickly see patterns taking shape.

I can only guess this happens because, unlike typical "creative sessions" — where one or two people dominate over a random succession of ideas — this system tames aggressive "idea-pushers," encourages the quiet to speak up, and introduces order and selection where they're badly needed.

In the next-to-last step, combination is the key. Sort the remaining words. Eliminate redundancy. Narrow focus.

It's at this point that the headlines and copy concepts should – and will – start to flow. Almost by themselves. You'll see words that combine as headlines. New benefits exposed. Prospective customers better identified.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: November 19, 2001

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