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Seven tips for hosting better brainstorms

lightbulb on post-it

In our industry, ideas are currency. And while great ideas can come from anywhere, brainstorms are usually a great place to get started.

But I think we can all identify with the tedium that is being in a bad brainstorm. You know the one. It usually happens at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. You’re in a room full of people who aren’t really sure why they’re there. Everybody is distractedly filling out their time sheets. And the clock appears to be moving backwards.

In addition to being a massive time suck, I shouldn’t have to tell you that the quality of ideas that come out of those brainstorms usually isn’t great either.

To keep that from happening, here are seven things to keep in mind to take your next brainstorm from boring to brilliant.

  1. Location, location, location: If possible, pick an inspiring location. A beige, windowless room, that’s 10 degrees too hot is not conducive to letting the ideas flow. Do you want people to get up? Do you need a white board? Wall space for stickies? Great ideas can happen anywhere, but inspiring surroundings sure help. If you can, go offsite—sometimes a simple change in scenery can be enough to change your perspective.
  2. Have a specific purpose: Why are you here? What are you hoping to get out of the session? Who should be in the room? You should always have a clear, specific, and most importantly, simple goal for every brainstorm. Articulate it in one sentence, and then share with the team. Is there supporting information? Make sure to share that ahead of time so that the team can come prepared.
  3. Feed those brains: Ideas don’t just come from thin air. You have to feed that beast. Your invitation should include links to movie clips, short articles, artwork, comic strips, cat videos, whatever it takes to help bring the subject to life and get people thinking. This is not the time or the place to share your 250-page research report either. Keep it short. Keep it sweet. And keep it stimulating.
  4. Make a guest list: Some people do better in brainstorms than others. Make sure you invite the right mix of people and expertise into the room. You need extroverts to keep the conversation alive. Thoughtful introverts to process it. Free-thinkers to take it to weird places. Linear thinkers to bring it back. It’s also fun to introduce a wildcard—like somebody from finance or a completely unrelated department—into the mix. Just make sure you prepare them properly.
  5. Be a good host: Brainstorms need somebody to host and facilitate them. That person needs to set up the ask, explain the process, and keep everybody on track. This includes knowing when to shut it down once the momentum fades. Don’t be afraid to call a meeting early. Just because you have a set amount of time booked doesn’t mean you’ll be able to keep things going for that long. A productive 15min session is always better than dragging things out for an hour.
  6. Set the rules: Are you looking for rapid fire ideas? Do you want them written on stickies? Doodled? Let people know what the session is going to entail and then make sure it’s happening. If you need rapid fire ideas but the group is getting bogged down in the details, gently remind everybody why you’re there and what the objective is.
  7. Make it a safe space: Brainstorming is ugly. People are going to say some weird stuff. And that’s ok. Let it happen and don’t judge. Sometimes the ugliest ideas can lead to the best executions.

——— Mel Hennigar is a former Senior Creative Strategist at NATIONAL Public Relations


Written by Stephanie Reid

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