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Use Mental Stimuli For Brainstorming

This post is #6 in a series from a presentation on Creative Slip-Ups: The 11 Most Common Mistakes in Brainstorming. The Introduction to the series is .

The Problem: People brainstorm without any tools, games or props

Hello there.  Welcome. Today we’re going to brainstorm ideas. Ok? Good. Ready? Set? Go! So what’s your idea?  No seriously, I don’t have all day. Hurry up! What’s your Big Idea? What are you waiting on? Chop, chop. Brainstorm! Now, damn it! NOW! Maybe that’s not exactly how some people start a brainstorm, but sometimes, it feels pretty close. Despite book titles to the contrary, few people – if any – can flick on their creativity. It’s even more difficult if you’re trying to be creative in a vacuum. And by “vacuum,” I mean conference rooms which are The Four Less’s.
  • Feature-less
  • Air-less
  • Food-less
  • Spark-less
‘Sparks’ are anything that act as a catalyst or trigger. Think of them as kindling, to spark an idea. If you could simplify idea-making, it comes down to this recipe:  your problem + a spark = new idea. Sparks are mental stimuli, usually in four forms:
  • Visual – pictures, images, graphs, symbols
  • Words – descriptive nouns or verbs, also word association or metaphors
  • Physical activities – experiential or kinaesthetic (touch), getting the hands moving or playing with things (clay, crayons, LEGOs, blocks)
  • Daydreaming – either individually or as a group, often using exercises like excursions
These stimuli are conscious sparks. There are also unconscious sparks or stimuli you’re not consciously aware of, but somehow-somewhere spark a thought in the middle of doing something else. Using sparks unconsciously is slightly different.  Read the post Give Up Trying To Find Your Idea for more on unconscious thinking. Of course you can brainstorm without sparks, but the bigger question is why? As I said, sparks are the fuel that ignites imagination. To improve your brainstorming, either solo or in group settings, get your hands on as many sparks as possible.

The solution: Use mental stimuli for brainstorming

Some suggestions to consider:
  • Use sparks in your icebreaker.

Slip-Up #2 () touched on the importance of icebreakers as a way to get brainstorm participants in the right mindset. Good icebreakers involve sparks.  Here’s three good websites with examples and suggestions.

80+ Creative Icebreakers for Brainstorming is superb, lots of great suggestions

Brainstorming Session Icebreakers, tips from Michael Michalko

Icebreakers to Kick-Start Brainstorming and Creative Discussions by Upskill Consulting

  • Have exercises to keep energy high.

Once you move from ice-breaker to actual brainstorming, exercises and games will continue the momentum. Again, either for solo or group brainstorming, the keys to using successful exercises are:

    • Have a lot. For group brainstorms, I’ll have between 15-20 exercises ready to use.
    • Keep them in high rotation. Don’t explain too much about the exercise. Just give them enough instruction to participate. Once the exercise starts to wane, toss it and begin another.
    • Have exercises for both talkers and thinkers. Some exercises involve people talking, laughing and shouting at each other.  They’re great for extroverts, but people who are more internal thinkers (the introverts) need different exercises to fire their imagination.  Mix up exercises between the two, or frankly, let people try different ones at the same time.

I’m frequently asked for book recommendations on exercises. My favourite is “101 Activities for Teaching Creativity and Problem Solving” by Arthur VanGundy, a pioneer in creative thinking. The book’s expensive, but it’s big – nearly 400 pages packed with ideas, exercises and icebreakers.

If that’s too much money, here are two links to consider.

25 Useful Brainstorming Techniques from the website Personal Excellence.

One of my own posts, using SCAMPER (Part 1 and Part 2), a well-known and effective tool. This post has both discussion and instructions.

  • Visual stimuli work fastest.

Of all the brainstorm exercises I’ve used, I prefer ones which involve visual stimuli, particularly creating mood boards.

are mass visual collections of inspirational stimuli.  The ingredients are up to you.  I involve the brainstorm participants to make boards from:

    • Photographs, pictures or images ripped from magazines or downloaded online
    • Postcards – free ones from coffee shops or theatres, or good ones purchased from a variety of places. My favourite place are museum gift shops.
    • Words or text – again, ripped from magazine headlines, or words selected by random by the group and printed out on coloured paper
    • Samples – of the product or service
    • Typical items from the target audience
    • News – traditional articles, blog posts, Tweets, web pages, screen grabs from apps, etc.

Don’t forget to use .

No ingredient is wrong.  The more, the messier, the better.

All of it gets mounted on a large wall or board.  Use it for the brainstorm as inspiration for ideas, but also keep it around for inspiration later on.  I’ve brought them into pitches, or showed them to clients for discussion.

Here’s an old post that digs a bit deeper into visual stimulation, including some thoughts on creating another good visual exercise: .

Any other tips or thoughts to share on using ice-breakers or games/exercises in your brainstorms? To re-start at the beginning of this series, click .
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Use Mental Stimuli For Brainstorming