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Discovering That Million-Dollar Idea: Tips to Brainstorm Better

Insights January 13, 2015

Key Points

    • Choose an optimal amount of participants and include a range of personalities.
    • Ask a series of useful questions before a session to cut down on wasted time.
    • To keep a session efficient, set a stop time, reign in tangents, and focus on quantity rather than quality to avoid groupthink.
    • Try different methods such as workshopping or mind mapping and experiment with fresh locations and team structures.
    • Have fun with some of our favorite online tools like BuzzSumo and

It’s a new year and new ideas are in high demand. Maybe the annual awareness campaign needs a refresh; your CEO wants an exceptional Valentine’s Day social engagement strategy; it’s on you to increase site traffic 80% by June. But where do you start?

Enter the brainstorm session. Some argue that brainstorming is a useless, problematic business practice. On the other hand, many articles attempt to pin down “the perfect brainstorm” method. Both approaches are off: brainstorming won’t solve all your problems, but it can usually give you a good place to start.

Let’s explore the ins and outs of what makes any brainstorm session successful in order to identify a variety of ways to capitalize on those elements. With the tips that follow, you can make your brainstorm session whatever you need it to be.

But first, what about the pre-brainstorm brainstorm? Regardless of what your session becomes, any brainstorm process should involve some prep work. For instance, who should you invite? What kinds of questions should you think about before beginning?

The Brain Trust

When it comes to gathering a group together for a brainstorm session, it’s important to keep in mind the who, what, and how many of your invitees.

  • Personalities. One hindrance of many brainstorm sessions is their tendency to cater to a specific personality type, usually those that are less reserved. However, this can be a great disservice to the session and its outcomes. People are comfortable generating and sharing ideas in different ways, and just because someone is on the quiet side doesn’t mean they don’t have something valuable to offer.To avoid losing out on potentially valuable contributions, provide multiple means of participation. You could, for example, let participants know that they can (and should) take notes and then later share their ideas via email or during a follow-up conversation.
  • Numbers. Thinking about amount of participants, the more the merrier, right? Or are there too many cooks in the kitchen? Truth is, neither are always true. Too many people can unintentionally shut others down or make it difficult to parse out something useful, and too few people may not create the necessary amount of idea diversity for a lucrative session.When deciding how many bodies to bring along, you may need to experiment a little. That said, somewhere between 3 and 6 is a good place to start.
  • Cross-pollinate. Lastly, try to pull in fellow employees who haven’t already been contemplating the problem for the past week or month or year. Fresh minds can more easily shed light on new perspectives. That said, do provide participants with some background information beforehand so they can do some pre-session digging.

Pre-Session Questions

Before heading into a brainstorm, there are a series of useful questions to ask yourself and your group that will help inform how the meeting unfolds, including:

    • What is the goal of this brainstorm? Generally speaking, a brainstorm, by definition, focuses on the generation of rough ideas associated with an objective. Clearly define the problem or challenge that needs solving and work from there.What makes your brand unique and worth talking about? Keep your company’s mission at the forefront of your mind, and think about how it’s carried out in a novel way.
    • Who are your competitors? Think both off and online. What are they doing that’s successful, and who is in conversation with or about them?What have you already tried? Think back on past successes and failures and analyze why they turned out the way they did.
    • Who are your audiences? Where do they live, what do they like talking about, how do they express themselves, and what do they need? What might they be searching for and why? Try taking an initial bird’s eye view to ensure you aren’t overlooking potentially relevant opportunities. Think beyond the consumer-product relationship and leverage everything else that makes up your brand identity.

After you’ve completed your prep work, the next step is, of course, actually holding the brainstorm. There are a variety of techniques, methods, and tools to help keep a session both focused and productive.

Efficiency Techniques

When conducting or participating in a brainstorm meeting, it’s very easy to get off track with off topic discussions. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to help keep tangents in check.

  • Set a Hard Stop. Often when there’s a surplus of time, or a general lack of urgency, minds are more apt to wander and stall. Experiment with varying timeframes, but stick to the stop time. Generally, 30-45 minutes is a solid window to work in and generates productive, focused dialogues.
  • Referee. Sometimes, tangents can prove to be a beneficial exercise, illuminating previously hidden, related topics — a real-time, verbal mind map of sorts. If this is the case, ask yourselves, “What got us to this point?” Other times, however, these tangents are an unintentional way of procrastinating. To help prevent tangents from becoming time-sucks, nominate someone to closely monitor the discussion and reign things in when necessary with a simple, “Alright guys, let’s get back on track.”
  • Quantity vs. Quality. Perhaps one of the most critical points of all, whatever you do, is to avoid aiming for perfection, refinement, or being “right.” If there’s one thing a brainstorm should not focus on, it’s coming up with a ready-to-go idea. In other words, think of a brainstorm session as a rough draft.In Anne Lamott’s writing and life instruction book, Bird by Bird, she writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a [shoddy] first draft.” While you may not be sitting down to write the next Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of prose, it’s helpful to think of a brainstorm this way. You want as many ideas, “bad” or “good,” as possible to work from.
  • Avoid Groupthink. Make sure everyone knows that in your brainstorm session, the only bad ideas are no ideas. Encourage participants to share every idea they have to get great results, and put an emphasis on producing a variety of unique concepts.


Rather than preferring one method over another, try pairing your brainstorm goals with the elements of various methods that make the most sense. Don’t be afraid to test out a number of the following techniques.

  • Workshop Rules. To help further avoid groupthink, discourage or disallow subjective critique. Many writing workshops, for example, start by listing observations without subjective commentary. Try setting a no judgement rule where all ideas are written down and evaluated at a later time.
  • Mind Mapping. To help visually organize and generate your ideas, consider making a mind map. Mind mapping can be done before, during, or after a brainstorm. List trigger words and their connections like an endless spider web to help uncover potential gaps. You can use old-fashioned pen and paper, post-its, whiteboards, or free online tools.
  • Together or Apart. Play around with the brainstorm team structure, again to cater to different personalities and how they work together. Split into groups and then come back together, or brainstorm solo first and meet later to generate even more ideas.
  • Location Swap. Sitting around a conference table will usually do just fine, but try switching it up with a meeting in a nearby coffee shop, or simply sit on the floor in a circle. Or, if your group is small, try walking the whole time.

Online Toolbox

Few things are as helpful and simply fun to use as the army of online tools that exist to help you come up with potentially great ideas. Some of our favorites include:

  • A database of well-performing content and influencers, BuzzSumo can help get your gears turning. Type in a keyword to see who’s talking about what well.
  • If you’re looking for a timely idea, skim through this site for top headlines from current topics around the web.
  • This tool helps you to create attractive and interactive mind maps. You can also give other coworkers read-only, edit, or share capabilities. There are many other online programs like this one, so explore and see which works best for you.
  • Google. It’s a verb for good reason. Google Trends and Google suggested searches, for example, can help catalyze your thought process about connected words, phrases, and topics.
  • If you’re feeling tired with text, is an image-based search engine that’s great for sparking ideas related to keywords and phrases.
  • Inbound Now Blog Title Generator. Especially helpful for article or blog ideas, this title tool frames up content topics for you, and all you have to do is push a button.

Next steps

At the end of the session, establish actionable takeaways. It’s often the case that the best ideas come to you after the initial brainstorm, once your subconscious has a chance to process things — you know, after you’ve taken a shower, so be sure to schedule a follow-up.

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