Time for a creative brainstorm…
For many marketers, executives, product developers and even creatives, these words inspire abject terror. Their skin begins to crawl at the idea of endlessly sitting in a conference room desperately trying to come up with a great idea, only to fall short and go with something uninspiring.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As the creative director of a digital marketing agency obsessed with helping our clients tell powerful stories that build deeper relationships with their customers, I lead a LOT of creative brainstorms. And it just might be the most rewarding part of my job.
To facilitate great brainstorms that lead to fantastic outside-the-box ideas, you have to set the right tone, get people’s minds in the right place and foster a spirit of open collaboration. To do all of that, I use a few different exercises I’ve learned while studying improv comedy.
Here are some of the exercises I use:
I don’t know about you, but to me, there’s no better rush than the feeling you get after crafting a great tagline, brand story or core value proposition. Powerful messaging like that helps you create instant, profound connections with your prospects and customers.
But contrary to popular opinion, outstanding messaging does not often appear out of thin air. Even when it does, it usually originates from a great brainstorm.
To develop remarkable messaging and stories, you need a varied set of perspectives and skill sets in your brainstorm. Ideally, you’ll have strategic thinkers, creative thinkers, tactical thinkers and practical thinkers, all coming together, opening their minds and truly listening to one another.
The best way to focus everyone’s minds and energy on laying the foundation for a small bit of great copy is to start with The Clover.
The Clover is an exercise I learned in Steve Kleinedler’s Improv 201 class at the Philly Improv Theater. During this exercise, the team starts with a suggestion of any word, then free associates from that word.
So, if someone makes the suggestion “chicken,” the next person might say “egg.” Then, the next person would call out a word inspired by “egg.” In other words, you have to respond to the last word you heard, not the original suggestion.
The exercise concludes when someone from your team organically calls out the initial word in response to the previous word they heard. The key is to make sure everyone is responding to the last word they heard, and not the first word suggested.
When we do this for our clients at Square 2 Marketing, I typically call on the client or someone very close to the account to suggest a word they think is connected to what makes the client remarkable. Then we launch into our stream of words and document each along the way.
This helps build a foundation of words to possibly include in our messaging, highlights common themes and helps lead our minds into unexpected places. But more importantly, it gets everyone in the room actively listening to one another.
With this foundation of free association and listening, we are in a much better place to create messaging that creates strong bonds with prospects and customers.
Choosing imagery that aligns with messaging can be one of the most challenging things to brainstorm.
The images and visual tone you choose have to enhance the message you’re trying to convey, without distracting from it. Your images can’t feel too “on-the-nose,” but they also can’t make viewers wonder how they connect to the story you’re trying to tell.
Luckily there’s an improv exercise that works extremely well for getting people to think visually and divergently.
When I was performing regularly with the independent improv troupe Bad Kitten, we used to start our shows with an opener called Three Rooms. One of us would ask the audience for the suggestion of a single word, then we’d use the word they suggested to “build” three different rooms.
So, if the audience suggested pineapple (which they did many, many times), one of our members would then go to the center of the stage and name where we were.
“We are on the production floor of a massive juice factory.”
Then the rest of the team would work together to flesh out the details of the room one at a time.
“In the middle of the room, there’s a long conveyor belt.”
“There are several oversized grapefruits on the conveyor belt.”
“In the corner, there’s a time card punching machine.”
“There’s a small puddle of juice on the floor. No one knows how it got there.”
We’d keep going until we felt the room was fully realized, then we’d move on to building a different room.
This exercise can easily be transposed from the stage to a conference room. It fosters a strong sense of playfulness and helps everyone think more visually. We often use it while brainstorming homepage concepts as part of our website design services.
I call on different people from the team to suggest words they associate with the client and their messaging. We then build out three different rooms based on three different words. We laugh a lot, but we also come up with better ideas than we would have without the brainstorm.
Once in a while, imagery from the exercise actually ends up on the client’s homepage. But that’s not really the point. The real point is to get everyone feeling silly and thinking differently, creating the foundation for great ideas.
If you’re at all familiar with demand generation marketing, you know that building out robust buyer personas is one of the most important things you can do when trying to grow your business through sales and marketing.
A good buyer persona profile documents the job titles, goals, questions, ages, education levels, pains and needs of your ideal customers. But sometimes you need to go even deeper and actually try to see the world through the eyes of your prospective buyers.
That’s where Character Spotlight comes in. It’s a great game to play when working on sales and marketing alignment, or when you’re brainstorming a campaign targeted at one specific persona.
To start, gather an interdepartmental team together. Ideally, you’ll have representatives from sales, marketing, products, services and customer support. Ask all of them to think about the persona you’re targeting and imagine them as a real person. Then ask them to then flesh out the details of that person’s life, both professionally and outside of work.
When everyone has had a few minutes to gather their thoughts, call on one of the members of your team. Have everyone in the group take turns asking that person to answer questions as the persona they’ve envisioned.
Everyone who goes to the center of the circle is required to “know” all of the answers to the questions they’re asked. “I don’t know” is not a valid answer. If you don’t know, make it up.
This exercise forces everyone on your team to become your personas for a little while. After going through it, you and your team will start to see your personas beyond simply how and why they might want to buy your products and services. You’ll see them as people who have families and hobbies and favorite foods and dreams and goals that have nothing to do with work, let alone your products or services.
In other words, this exercise reinforces empathy for your prospects and customers. And empathy, of course, is critically important to building strong relationships.
Let me level with you: I tend to talk a lot during meetings, and I have what’s been tactfully described as strong opinions. But great ideas and strategies require more than one mind or one voice. Great ideas and strategies depend on powerful collaboration and genuine active listening.
Sometimes, you need to take strong measures to tame strong personalities and actually get them to listen to one another. This is where Count To 30 comes in.
Start this exercise by asking everyone in the meeting to close their eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then ask them to count to 30, one person at a time, with no preset order. The catch is that if two people speak at the same time, you have to start over.
It’s very simple, but surprisingly hard to do. Most teams will need to start over five times or more before they make it all the way to 30 without talking at the same time.
Count To 30 forces everyone to slow down and wait respectfully for others to speak. It challenges the brainstorming team to deeply and radically listen to one another. This opens up more space to breathe in your meeting. In turn, it encourages quieter voices to speak more, and louder ones to speak less.
Once you foster an environment primed for active listening, you allow new and different ideas to enter the room and make space for people to voice polite challenges to ideas. Allowing space to challenge ideas is essential to developing things like strategic and tactical plans of action.
Most projects that start with brainstorms don’t have the luxury of being purely creative.
Your homepage needs to facilitate certain user flows. Your display ad has size and format requirements. In other words, you probably have to discuss business-y things during your brainstorm. Nothing disrupts your team’s brainstorming flow more than suddenly stopping the creativity and bringing up your project’s business requirements.
Talk about all of the business requirements at the beginning of your meeting before you kick off the actual brainstorming with one of these exercises. That way, you won’t disrupt everyone’s divergent thinking with convergent thinking.
With a solid foundation of playfulness and a focus on outside-the-box thinking, your brainstorm can be a meeting that people look forward to, rather than dread. And more importantly, it can lead to great work that helps you elevate your brand, connect more deeply with prospects and customers, and grow your business.