How to Brainstorm Writing Ideas: 3 Fun & Effective Exercises

In season three of Mad Men, it becomes obvious that Peggy Olson is turning out to be a brilliant copywriter. Unlike her male counterpart Kinsey, she proves that she can come up with amazing ideas on the spot, no matter the client.

Sigh. If only brainstorming writing ideas could be so easy for the rest of us. As content, advertising, and social media move at an increasingly fast pace, brainstorms likewise have become more chaotic, and less productive.

Subsequently, getting a room of executives to buy into those same ideas is a whole different game.

We recently conducted research on content planning challenges, trends, and opportunities, and were frankly surprised at just how many respondents cited, “coming up with creative ideas” as a challenge.

Brainstorming has been the go-to idea generation mechanism in business for decades. Feelings vary greatly on the subject, but recent Harvard Business Review research shows many professionals are struggling to get quality ideas out of group brainstorms. We believe there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If done poorly, group brainstorming will provide poor ideas. With a few small tweaks, brainstorming can still yield dozens of amazing writing ideas.

In the following paragraphs, we provide strategies, thought starters, and tactical exercises for coming up with relevant, entertaining, audience-centric writing ideas using brainstorming methodologies.

1. Structure Your Brainstorm

A big challenge in brainstorms is managing the many personalities present. You might have loud, pushy, arrogant types or mousy, frustrated, introverted people – all at the same table. And there’s absolutely every shade of the rainbow in between these two descriptions.

A key component of getting the best ideas out of every personality type involved is to structure your brainstorm appropriately. You could spend an hour in a no-holds-barred, noisy, competitive environment coming up with random writing ideas, Or, you can lay some ground rules. Brainstorms are about getting lots of good ideas out there, not winning an argument.

Try one, or all of the following:

Assign Roles

Give various team members different roles. Consider having one professional run the meeting, calling on team members at various stages to share their thoughts. Have another team member dedicated to logging ideas on paper or a whiteboard, and also responsible for asking clarifying questions. Then assign 2-3 team members from different backgrounds as the idea people. They’ll be called on to share as many ideas as possible. Finally, have one person dedicated to real-time research. As the idea people come up with topics, or writing ideas, the research professional can start to compile background materials for the piece, or fact check assumptions being brought up.

While these roles are not comprehensive, and do not need to be followed as an exact science, some version of them will help the group to make progress as a team. Don’t forget to swap roles over the course of multiple brainstorms. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with what non-writers come up with when given the room to venture into idea territory.

Assign Time Limits

Nothing kills a brainstorm like a good old-fashioned soapbox rant. The loudest voices in brainstorms can often turn into the only voices. Passionate extroverts have a tendency to steer conversations in a direction they feel shows most promise. The problem is even if they’re right, that’s not the point of brainstorming. The point is to get a diverse set of viable ideas out on the table.

Get ahead of this by assigning specific time limits to each team member’s contributions. Encourage them to do some thinking on their ideas before the brainstorm. Then, give each team member 3 to 5 minutes to explore ideas in front of the group. Map everyone’s ideas out on a whiteboard, or large piece of paper, and then discuss each one as a group. It can be helpful to have someone assigned to running the conversation, so this second part doesn’t also turn into a rant from a few select folks.

Thought Starters & Categories

Constraints often stimulate creativity. Instead of offering your group carte blanche in a brainstorm, break the time into smaller blocks in which the goal is to generate ideas in specific categories. Whether you’re blogging about shoes, or developing ideas for video content about a project management software, you’ll need to come up with diverse ideas.

Try approaching this challenge by forcing your ideas to meet various constraints, including:

  • A to Z: Each article or topic has to start with a specific letter in the alphabet
  • Think like someone else: Pick a famous person from history, and come up with ideas that you think they would be likely to put forward
  • Nature themes: If the brand were an animal, which would it be? Write all articles and themes based on that animal

While the list above is by no means comprehensive, each exercise will force team members to think outside the box, and to stretch their minds to make connections. Somewhere in that process, you’re bound to shake out some surprisingly awesome ideas.

2. Separate Idea Generation from Idea Discussion

The problem with most brainstorming sessions is too few team members come prepared. True brainstorming requires a deep knowledge of your topic. Without prior research, and some deep thinking, you’ll end up with lots of mediocre ideas.

There are two key components in brainstorming; idea generation and idea discussion. You need to have a structure and purpose for both, but the most important thing to do is separate the two.

Consider trying one of the following models:

Idea Generation Before Group Meeting

Assign everyone the same task; come up with as many ideas as possible on your own before meeting as a group. Then when you brainstorm, you’re really just discussing all the various ideas. You can start to throw out duplicate ideas, hone in on a few keepers, and workshop the ones that show promise.

In-session Idea Generation

Assign one person among your colleagues to be the moderator of your discussion. It’s their job to give everyone an equal voice in the room. Allow your moderator to call on people to share ideas, to ask for others to weigh in on those ideas, and to keep the conversation moving forward when the group gets stuck.

Hybrid In-session Idea Generation & Discussion

Spend ten minutes in the beginning of your brainstorm quietly coming up with ideas as individuals. Then, go around the room and share your ideas. Give equal weight and time to each person’s ideas. Map all of the ideas on a whiteboard, then start back at square one. Quietly brainstorm. Discuss. Improve. Repeat.

3. Try Brainwriting

What the #$%^ is brainwriting? Great question.

Brainwriting is a modified style of brainstorming in which participants write down ideas on sheets of paper, and pass them on to other team members to first read aloud, and then add to. Once everyone has exchanged and added to all ideas, you post everything up on either a whiteboard or wall, and brainstorm further as a team.

During the subsequent brainstorming process, it can be helpful again to rely on a moderator who can reliably keep everyone respectful, balanced, positive, and moving towards the goal of refining and improving a set of viable writing ideas. Here’s how brainwriting can help you generate a significantly higher volume of ideas:

It Unlocks Parallel Idea Generation

Because all team members are generating writing ideas at the same time, as opposed to listening to one person at a time, you get a significantly higher volume of ideas in less time. Idea generation happening in parallel is far more efficient than traditional brainstorming.

It Allows for Private Collaboration

In many organizations, some of the smartest professionals feel intimidated, or don’t want to share their views. They fear that iconoclastic ideas might frustrate executives, or worse yet jeopardize their position within their organizations. Brainwriting eliminates this fear by allowing for private collaboration, and collaborative idea generation that happens privately, and only becomes public upon the approval of the group.

A Final Thought…

Brainstorming has been around for decades. It was designed in a world without computers, social media, and on-demand everything. Which means if brainstorming is going to work for generating writing ideas, you’ll need to make some tweaks to the process. Starting with the methods above will significantly improve your ability to generate killer content ideas.

Still not convinced brainstorming is worth your time and attention? We recently wrote a piece on improving your content process through collaboration. In it, we discuss mind-mapping at length. This technique, and many more featured in this post, might just be what you need to inspire dozens of new writing ideas.