How to brainstorm content

Ruth G. | October 16, 2020
10 mins

“Content is king” is the famous phrase from Bill Gates’ 1996 essay predicting the future of the internet and what will be the biggest draw for an audience. Most importantly within this essay, he states “No company is too small to participate.”

If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will.

Inspiring words, but when you’re experiencing a creative block, they can feel like a lot of pressure to produce!

This pressure is where brainstorming comes into play. Brainstorming is a term coined by the early Mad-Men era advertising executive, and founder of BBDO, Alex Faickney Osborn in his book Your Creative Power (published 1948).

“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts ‘Brainstorm Sessions,’ and quite aptly so because, in this case, ‘brainstorm’ means using the brain to storm a creative problem and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

Thinking you’re the only one struggling to come up with a brilliant idea? Think again! Creative blocks happen to the best of us. From poets and painters to game developers and rocket scientists, at a certain point in our lives, we just feel like we’ve run out of ideas. This feeling is not a permanent situation; it's a common problem everyone experiences when the pressures of running a business can override the need for creative thinking.

Regardless of whether you’re designing the next Pepsi advertising campaign or trying to sell last year’s stock of widgets from the storage room, brainstorming is a tried and true technique that will get you out of that rut. Consider it like shaking up your routine.

The Situationists of the 1960s called this subverting of a dominant paradigm “psychogeographic mapping.” They believed in exploring urban environments not with the usual routine, but with the mindset of playfulness, taking different routes other than the mapped well-trodden paths. Brainstorming is similar and can help you come back to a sense of play where ideas take shape.

Brainstorming as a team effort

The original idea behind brainstorming centers around the benefits of team effort. Bring together a good cross-section of expertise and encourage every participant to engage in the exercise.

To keep the flow going without too much over-talking or chaos, keep your group to a manageable size of less than ten people. A small team working together is the most effective.

The in-person basics

Before you begin offering up ideas, create a structure for your team to follow:

  • Assign a record keeper to take notes and possibly record the entire session as well. This will free up your team from having to take on additional tasks while the session is ongoing (and don’t forget snacks and coffee!).
  • Remind your team that the aim of the brainstorming session is to encourage fresh ideas and collaboration. No idea is “wrong” or “bad,” and the group is a supportive environment. All ideas are good ideas in the brainstorming environment.
  • Prepare for the session by clipping reference material to bring, and share inspirational online articles or materials that could help the team get their brain in the game.
  • Be sure to stock the room with pens and paper, so your group can be fully present, and not preoccupied with their screens (unless absolutely necessary).

Working in a small group to offer up suggestions and support, building on each other’s ideas and creativity, is a dynamic form of content ideation. The pros outweigh the cons with in-person group brainstorming sessions and can build workplace camaraderie.

The online basics

The origins of brainstorming come from the advertising world of boardrooms and in-person meetings. While this is the ideal situation, in today’s working world, some teams are globally distributed and require an online set-up. This communication can easily be arranged through various platforms such as Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, etc.

  • Choose which online meeting platform is best for your team to be able to view the leader’s screen. Consider time-zones and bandwidth capability.
  • Remind people not to speak over one-another as online meetings can quickly break down with more than one party talking at the same time.

Where the group brainstorm breaks down is with the personality types. Not everyone is gregarious and eager to speak up in a meeting. Human nature is far from monolithic, and the one person who might have a zest for creativity might also be the shyest in the room. It is not uncommon for participants to be so attentive to others that they forget to come up with their own ideas, and simply build upon those of the group.

Beware of blocking

Blocking is a phenomenon that occurs in the group brainstorm when one team member dominates the session, thereby distracting or inhibiting others from offering their ideas. For this reason, some studies show that individual brainstorming can be more productive in the long run.

Some strategies for preventing blocking within a group are holding online instead of in-person meetings, writing down thoughts as the meeting happens in real time, and allowing for anonymous contributions of ideas from which the group can build upon.

Brainstorming for the individual

While the origins of brainstorming are largely based upon group sessions, it is possible to perform this technique solo as well. In fact, one could argue there is more flexibility and freedom in this method since social pressures are removed, and blocking is not an issue. Also, the need for cat-herding a group into a set meeting on the calendar is removed from your list of tasks. Due to the flexibility of time and favoring the sole-proprietor, individual brainstorming is the way to go.

Since you’re flying solo on this creative mission, the tried and true techniques need to be rearranged somewhat. Consider consulting a trusted colleague at mid-point for unbiased feedback or encouragement. The cons to this method are obviously isolation and distraction however individual brainstorming is still highly effective with a little modification to the methodology to suit your particular working style.

Five proven brainstorming methods

Since brainstorming was created, there have been numerous strategies, books, lectures and an entire mini-industry of thought leaders offering their specific tools for the task. Whose method is the best? You don’t need to be overwhelmed with opinions and deep Google searches if you follow the basics. After this, you’ll discover what works best for your team, or as an individual, and adjust to bring out the best ideas.

Start with a clear explanation of what you’re trying to achieve, the problem itself, and build the brainstorm from there with these effective techniques:

Mind mapping

These are graphic representations of information. They are much freer than the linear method of note-taking and let the group / you illustrate your ideas onto a blank page. Keep the main idea at the center of your “map” and branch out related thoughts in multiple directions. All roads lead back to the central point.

Basically, mind mapping is an attempt to structure information similar to resembling how your brain functions. It’s an activity that is easy to achieve and invites spontaneity and a sense of play to activate your cognitive reflexes.

In addition to a simple white-board, you can also employ specialized software to help you along such as MindMapper and StormBoard.

Lateral thinking

While vertical thinking is considered logical, lateral thinking is a counterpoint technique to really shake things up. Out-of-the-box stimulation is a deliberate process to disrupt linear thought patterns. Free association is part of the lateral thinking strategy.

In the 1960s, the inventor of Lateral Thinking, creative psychologist Edward de Bono, defined this through four main points:

  • The recognition of dominant polarizing ideas
  • The search for different ways of looking at things
  • A relaxation of the rigid control of vertical thinking
  • The use of chance

Lateral thinking helps you unlock the patterns of your usual problem-solving mind by employing randomness and inviting chance. From there, the group can build on thoughts and ideas that might have never come up in the dominant paradigm of the vertically minded. A wider range of possibilities opens up to the previously blocked thought process.

Stepladder technique

This technique is ideal for a group setting in which it seems obvious that one or two people are most likely to dominate the session, thus limiting the amount of progress. It’s an easy method to encourage all members to contribute on an individual level first. You’ll wind up with a broader amount of ideas and those group members prone to sit back or susceptible to blocking will have their time to contribute.

Follow this simple Stepladder process for success:

  • Present the issue at hand prior to the brainstorming session. This will allow all team members to think about the problem on their own first.
  • Have a small group of 2 or 3 get together to discuss the problem to be solved.
  • Add another member of the group to the session to present their concepts before discussing the already ongoing meeting. Everyone then discusses together.
  • Repeat the process by adding a new member.
  • Once everyone has been added by this process, only then discuss as a whole and integrate and brainstorm the new ideas.

The AIDA formula

Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action

AIDA is a tried and true formula used throughout the advertising world and it can work for your brainstorming too, no matter what line of business you’re in. Being one of the most logical methods for coming up with ideas, it’s basis lies in simple human nature to capture an audience’s attention and bring them to a call to action.

  • A – Attention

Start off strong, don’t save your best content for the end.

  • I – Interest

Dive into the details and show your audience why your product is different. Make it interesting, and give a lot of information.

  • D – Desire

Once you’ve got their interest, prove your case with reviews, trusted reliability, and enthusiasm.

  • A – Action

The big call to action, make it easy for your customers to complete the process and order your product. Give all the practical information necessary in a clear and concise manner, including incentives such as discounts and promotional codes.

6-3-5 brainwriting

Another form of brainstorming invented in the 1960s, Brainwriting is a group activity where 6 people come up with 3 ideas in 5 minutes. It’s a fast way to stimulate idea generation and powerful group session method.

The method is simple and easy to follow:

  1. Every team member writes down 3 ideas within 5 minutes.
  2. Without discussing the ideas yet, the worksheets are passed to the next person and that person then builds on these ideas to create 3 new ones.
  3. The process duplicates until there have been 6 rounds of passing worksheets over to the next team member, etc.
  4. With the end results, the group then discusses the ideas generated and begins the process of discussion and editing.

The ‘idea passing’ has the power to inspire other team members who might otherwise have been creatively blocked.

Discussion & conclusion

Once you’ve experimented with these techniques in your group or individual setting, it’s time to evaluate and discuss! While no idea should be shut down immediately, evaluate within the context of the shelf-life of the content.

Think about whether the idea is evergreen, meaning that it is timeless, and not beholden to the news of the day or trendiness, or if it is on-trend and current. Which works better in the context of the type of content or problem at hand?

Start eliminating or shelving concepts and reducing the choices until you arrive at a great idea that is on-target for your business, reaches your desired demographic and feels fresh!

These methods above are meant to guide you on your way to break through creative blocks and reach through the muck of a stalled concept. They are tried and tested throughout decades of use in a variety of professions. Test out brainstorming and see which method of content ideation works best for you.


Picture of Ruth G.

Ruth G.

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