Thinking Before You Write: A Guide to Effective Brainstorming
Great writing starts with a great idea. It’s true of novels and plays and movie scripts. It’s true of newspaper articles, opinion pieces and theses. And it’s definitely true of copywriting. But copywriting stands apart from the others in that it demands the idea be compelling AND effective because it will ultimately be judged on how it drives consumer behaviour. That, more than anything, is why brainstorming before writing is a good idea.
What is brainstorming?
It’s the process of lateral thinking, which is like building out versus building up. You’re creating as many different starting points as you can. You’ll build some up, shoot some down and combine some to be better than they ever could have been on their own.
The key to effective idea generation is resisting the natural urge to go from A to B. That’s linear thinking, which is designed to get you to the one right place. In a brainstorm, there is no right place — only more places.
What is the most important quality of a good brainstormer?
The ability to make someone else’s idea better (good for the project)
without stealing credit for it (good for the team).
If this sounds difficult, it is. You have to be forceful and generous, inclusive yet challenging. And you have to keep it going because you can always say something differently.
If you’re new to idea generation, the best place to start is “Yes, and…”
“Yes, and…” is an old improv trick that just about every theatre student learns on the first day. It’s a statement that forces you to go with what your acting partner puts out there to keep the scene going. Then your partner does the same when you say or do something, and so on until the story naturally resolves itself.
When you’re in a brainstorming session with colleagues or partners, force yourself to say (or think) “yes, and…” to everything put forward, then just say something. It doesn’t have to be good or even make sense. It just has to be something.
Here’s an example:
- We want to do a feature on sports mascots.
- Ok, how about a piece about how sports team mascots spent their quarantine?
- Yes, and what if the piece focused on the ones that kept up the schtick making public appearances at hospitals?
- Yes, and could the piece be a video where the mascots get together at a particular hospital?
- Yes, and could the mascots get involved in some sort of way as the patients watch the games?
- Yes, and could they come back and play sports video games with the kids?
- Yes, and could we create some sort of weekly series from different hospitals across the country?
- Yes, and I wonder what it would take to create all those costumes since the people who actually play the mascots can’t fly?
- Ok, how about a piece about Hogtown Mascots. You wouldn’t know it by their showroom, but they make most of the pro team mascot costumes.
- Yes, and what if the piece was about the founder and how he got into this business?
- Yes, and what if the piece featured the top ten mascots he’s made and why?
- Yes, and what if it also included the top five he didn’t make but wished he did.
Note the absence of the words “no” and “but.” Those are negative words that extinguish creative fire. “Yes” and “and” are positive words that fuel it.
Why is “Yes, and…” hard for so many people?
In most cases this is difficult either because they feel uncomfortable letting go of their naturally linear thought structure or they feel subconsciously (or consciously) embarrassed to write a “stupid” idea down.
If you’re part of the first group, comparison is a great place to start: something like “if our <what I’m selling> were a car or an animal, what kind of car or animal would it be and why?” Another jumping off point might be a fictional best case: “If my ideal customer were to write a super positive review of my business, what would they say?”
Comparison is good because it’s guided lateral thinking that gets your brain going.
Best cases are good because they get you thinking and writing about your business from your reader’s point of view — and they get you thinking and writing about the reasons your business is great, which is ultimately what you want to get across in one way or another.
If you’re part of the second group, think of it this way: stupid ideas need time to become useful. If they’re on the page, they’re more likely to inspire something smart.
What if you have no one to “Yes, and…” with?
Human energy — a.k.a., the vibe in the room — can make or break a brainstorming session. Being alone can stall it because Yes-anding is hard on the brain and you are going to get stuck if you don’t often have a partner to feed off of. But you do have Google, a pretty powerful brainstorming partner if you use it well.
We like to ask it a question and scan the results for images and headlines that create a spark in our minds. We can feel it when it happens, as it’s usually accompanied by a slight smile; not a happy smile, more of a hmmm smile. Sometimes we involuntarily say “hmmm” out loud.
Then we start reading, and we copy and paste into a document the sentences from the piece that create a spark. When we’re done with the initial piece, we rephrase the sentences into questions for Google and do the same thing again and again.
As we copy and paste more into our file (and naturally read it over and over again as we toggle back and forth from the document), our minds start to make connections between the sentences. This is where our lateral thinking skills come in.
We resist the temptation to stay on task (reading articles and taking notes)
and instead push ourselves to stay on intent (coming up with solid ideas).
If a lateral thought sends us down a path that includes writing a poem, we write it (or at least a bit of it). We don’t worry about abandoning the Google searching for a bit because it’ll still be there when we come back.
How do you decide what to keep and what to trash?
This is definitely the hardest part of the brainstorming process, for two reasons. Firstly, you’ll have to part ways with ideas that you really liked at the time. One writer we work with regularly said that axing an idea you initially loved is like leaving your baby at the fire station. He was obviously being a bit dramatic, but he’s not wrong.
Our advice is to be objectively brutal about the ideas. You’ll know when something is really good. You’ll still want to pat yourself on the back when you read it aloud for the nineteenth time. If you’re not getting that feeling, let it go.
When you’re brainstorming as part of a group, be especially brutal on your own ideas. If something you contributed is giving you that feeling, make sure at least one or, ideally, two other people are getting it too.
What do you do with the winners?
When you have your shortlist of quality ideas, go back to the reject pile and see if anything can be salvaged and folded into an idea you kept. You’ll be surprised how many you might bring back — even ones you may have thought were totally silly.
Now you have your ideas. Start writing.