How to Produce Winning Ideas

“All achievements, all earned riches, have their beginning in an idea." – Napoleon Hill

One of the challenges every copywriter faces is coming up with a steady stream of good ideas. If you know how to consistently come up with high-quality ideas you’ll have people lining up to ask you to work for them.

And, of course, you’ll also make a lot of money. Because as motivational author Robert Collier (1885-1950) once said, “A single idea, the sudden flash of a thought may be worth a million dollars.”

How do you come up with ideas? Is there a certain technique you follow?

James Webb Young believed the method your mind uses to produce ideas is similar to the method Henry Ford used to produce cars.

If you’re not familiar with James Webb Young, he was one of the greatest advertising men ever employed by advertising giant J. Walter Thompson.

Years of working in advertising convinced him that the key element to communications success was relevant and dramatic ideas. In 1940, he published a small book (48 pages in length) called A Technique for Producing Ideas”.

According to Young there are two important principles which underline the production of ideas. The first principle is that “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”.

Young’s view was that facts have relationships and similarities with each other. The second principle is your ability to see these relationships affects your capacity to bring old elements into new combinations.

With these two principles in mind, let’s take a look at his five step technique for producing ideas …

Step Number One – Gather together the raw material.

We all know this part. As a copywriter, the biggest mistake you can make is to approach this step half-heartedly, or worse, skip it altogether.

Before you even attempt to come up with an idea, assemble as much information as you can about your prospect, the product, etc. Approach it systematically. Dig deep, find out all you can. Not just surface information.

Young offers two practical suggestions to help you get the most of the gathering stage.

The first is to use Index Cards. He suggests grabbing a supply of 3 x 5 index cards and write down the specific information as you gather it. One item per card. Classify them by subject.

This will bring order to what you’re doing and reveal any gaps in your knowledge. Also by forcing your mind to go through the expression of your material it prepares you for the idea-producing process.

His second suggestion is to log general material in a scrapbook or a file. By general material he means any newspaper articles, magazine articles or general observations that are related in some way to what you’re selling.

This is important because in Young’s words “in advertising an idea comes from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge of life and events.”

Step Number Two – Chewing and digesting the raw material you’ve gathered.

Next he says to take all the information you’ve gathered up and feel them over “with the tentacles of your mind.”

Specifically he says to …

  • Take a fact, turn it several different ways.
  • Bring two facts together, see if they fit.
  • Try to find the relationship between facts.

Out of this tentative or partial ideas will come to you. No matter how crazy or incomplete they are – write them down. (Use the 3 by 5 cards.)

If you get tired of it, keep going. Your mind has a second wind. You’ll soon reach a hopeless stage. Everything will be jumbled up in your mind with no clear insight anywhere.

That’s when stage two is complete and you can stop.

Step Number Three – Do something else

Young cautions that Step Number Three is just as important as the first two.

Listen to music, go to a movie, go golfing, go shopping, play tennis, take in your favorite TV show … whatever you like to do. Put the entire subject out of your mind completely. This will stimulate your creative juices.

Then he says to turn the process over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

Other experts agree.

Psycho Cybernetics author Dr. Maxwell Maltz stresses that relaxation is more powerful than persistence when it comes to achieving your goals. He says that most people try to solve their problems and accomplish things by conscious thought and willpower. What happens is they become too anxious, too fearful of the results, which inevitably brings their creative process screeching to a halt.

And similar to Young, Maltz says you can solve problems and accomplish things a lot easier if you let go of them and let your subconscious mind take over.

Gary Bencivenga, who many call American’s best copywriter, also uses it …

“You’re effortlessly teaching your mind what’s going to be happening. Your subconscious mind, as Maxwell Maltz taught in Psycho-Cybernetics, is a goal-striving mechanism. When you give your subconscious a target that you want to hit, it will pull into itself and eventually share with your conscious mind all kinds of resources that you never knew you had within you to make that happen,” Bencivenga says.

So don’t be skeptical of Step Three. Give it a chance. You just might be surprised by the results.

Step Number Four – Let the idea hit you.

If you go through the first three steps, you’ll find an idea will come to you when you least expect it.

It could be when you’re half awake in the morning or the middle of the night. You might be brushing your teeth, driving into work or standing in line at the coffee shop.

But the idea will come to you.

Young explains that “this is the way ideas come: After you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.”

Fifth stage – Test, edit, refine and polish your idea

This is reality check time. It’s where you bounce your idea off others. Ask for feedback. You’ll uncover new possibilities for your idea you’ve overlooked. And soon you’ll shape and develop it to the point where it’s ready to use.

That’s it.

Next time you’re looking for an idea, follow these five steps.

If you get the results Young predicts, you’ll have mastered the single most important skill when it comes to success in marketing.

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Published: June 17, 2009

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