How To Brainstorm Better (Seriously, This Will Rock Your World)

"So, I have this one idea I've pinned my hopes and dreams on." "I hate it. What else you got?" "Uh-oh, that's all I had." (Friends, never have this awkward convo again!)
Publish date:
November 15, 2013

I used to kind of suck at brainstorming. I would get so wedded to the idea of This One Perfect Idea that I had agonized over that I couldn't even imagine that anything else could be better.

Except there are a lot of things that are better. Almost always.

I present to you my favorite brainstorming exercises of all time, which have led me to come up with ideas that a lot of times are pretty great.

Exercise #1: The List of 10.

This one is self-explanatory, but you can't just call it in. Really force yourself to write a list of 10 (rather than stopping at the first one -- or spending an hour to come up with your first one) as quickly as you can for whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish. Say I want to write a story from my life right now, and I'm not sure what to write about. Here, let me write a list of 10 headlines off the top of my head as quickly as I can, before my censor has time to stop me and stutter and halt the creative process.

1. "I Think Taking St. John's Wort and a Few Other 'Happy Pill' Vitamins Is Actually Helping With My Mood"

2. "I Can't Shake This Desire I Have Lately to Become a Private Investigator and Go Chase Bad Guys"

3. "How Do You Wish Someone a Happy Birthday When You Are in a Fight With Them?"

4. "Do I Need to 'Tone it Down' With Guys?"

5. "I Happened Across Old Facebook Posts of Mine, and They Made Me Cringe"

6. "I'm Developing a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Flakes"

7. "I Am Addicted to Trashy Celebrity Autobiographies"

8. "I'm Trying to Quit Social Media on Weekends"

9. "If I Haven't Used Something in a Year, I'm Trying to Be Brutal In Throwing It Out"

10. "What Are the Perfect Presents to Buy Teenage Girls That Show You Are a Cool Hip Aunt?"

So are these the best story ideas in the history of all mankind? Maybe not, but they're fine -- and there might even be one or two that are better than fine and actually kind of good. Kind of good! This is our goal! Kind of good is much better than being afraid to come up with one specific idea lest it not be good so you just procrastinate or speak in generalities or never venture forward with a concrete offering.

The Quick List of 10 gets you out of your head and into your much more productive subconscious.

Exercise #2: Play "Advertising Agency"

I've written about this improv game before. Playing it changed my life. All you do is this: Get a group and everyone shouts out an idea. Instead of any criticism, however, everyone claps and yells, "Great idea! Awesome!" as you continue to churn out the craziest silliest -- and at times, most genius -- ideas ever. Let me try it for that story list, except I'll come up with a few new ones and pretend that I'm in a group. Some will be crazy. Others -- well, you'll see.

"Barbie Dolls, Remember Them?"

"Great idea! Awesome!"

"I Used to Love Playing X-Rated Barbies as a Kid"

"Great idea! Awesome!"

"Writing Is Dumb and I'm Bored Of It"

"Great idea! Awesome!"

"25 Sure-Fire Ways to Get Rid of Writer's Block"

"Great idea! Awesome!"

See how two kind-of-junky weird out-there ideas turned into two kind-of-good ideas? That's what happens when you start to let the wild out of your brain, with no judgment. For a lot of people it's really hard to do this because we still hear various detractors and negative voices telling us, "Dumb! Stupid! Wrong!" If this is the case, there's another great technique where you imagine all your inner critics as little mice and you put them in a jar, where they can squeak away, but you can ignore them. Put away those annoying little critters when you're playing Advertising Agency. It works.

Exercise #3: Stop trying to think of ideas -- and even better take a bath or a walk or draw something.

When you stop trying to think of ideas, something crazy happens. The ideas come naturally. Especially in the shower or taking a walk or drawing a picture. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging actually shows that when your brain is taking a break after hardcore cramming, that's when a-ha connections actually happen. "The Breakout Principle" (one of my favorite books on this subject) shows that activities like drawing, taking a shower or a long walk assist in these breakthroughs occurring.

Exercise #4: Let shy people be shy.

There's no shame in not wanting to be vocal when presenting your idea. If your boss frequently asks to have brainstorm meetings with everyone present -- and you find yourself clamming up even though you have tons of awesome ideas -- speak up about not speaking out. Tell your boss you prefer to email your ideas rather than be forced to say them aloud. Sometimes the best ideas I have come when I'm writing an emailed memo -- rather than holding some Speaking Pillow or whatever the creativity convention of the moment is.

Exercise #5: Get outside, dude.

Change the location. Even if it's the Starbucks next door, it will help get you out of your head.

So. What works for you? Did you like any of my story ideas? Whoever writes, "Great idea! Awesome!" first wins a cookie.


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