How to brainstorm effectively

Ruth Jackson worked in Development for Blue Peter. Here she shares some advice about how to generate ideas through brainstorming. 

Two are better than one.

No matter how creative you are, drawing on other people’s ideas and expertise can never be a bad thing.  The Good Book itself reminds us that two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4v9).

This is by no means a conclusive formula for running brainstorms but I’ve found it helpful to have a structure and here are a few ideas that have benefited me in the past:

Short and focused.

Many people’s hearts sink when you ask them to attend a brainstorm – it is an unwelcome distraction in their already packed day.  It is therefore paramount that brainstorms are kept short (you shouldn’t need more than an hour/ hour and a half), focused and interesting.  It is also worth having a steady supply of nibbles to keep people engaged.

Things you will need for a brainstorm:

  • Sweets/ fruit/ nibbles etc
  • Big notepads/ flipcharts (Post It do good ones)
  • Post-It notes
  • Marker pens
  • White board (you could use another big pad/ flipchart if not)
  • Pitching forms/ separate sheets to write up ideas
  • At least 4 people

Location – ideally a big room away from the office is good as people can switch off from their day job and fully engage in the brainstorm.  It is good to have a fairly sizeable room as it ensures that smaller groups can go into different areas of the room to work separately on their ideas.

Start with a theme.

Make sure that your brainstorm is focused around a particular theme, area, programme specification – don’t just try and think of general ideas.

You might know what type of programme you are looking for – e.g. 40 minute one off factual documentary aimed at 40-50 year olds.  It is helpful to communicate some of these specifications at the beginning of the brainstorm so that people have a framework and structure for generating their ideas.

Email around the theme/specifications a few days before so that people have a chance to think of a few ideas and bring them to the brainstorm ready.  If possible, give people a task/ question/ thought to bring e.g. two unusual facts about weddings (if possible, ask them to keep a note of their research sources so you can go back to them later if necessary).

Unpack the theme to create words.

Take that theme and unpack it with everyone – write up words/ themes/ thoughts e.g. if you need an idea for an item about moving house – get people to shout out all the words/ issues/ concerns/ excitements etc that people have moving house – leaving friends, new room, memories, boxes…

This should leave you with a whiteboard/ large notepad full of words.

Add in another element.

To make the brainstorm more interesting/ steer it in a less obvious direction, add another theme or element which you then unpack to get more words e.g. what is your favourite advert/ what did you want to be when you grew up?

Again, you’ll be left with a list of words – car, cat food, care bear, actor, doctor, farmer…

Rather than a further theme/ question for this second element, you could try something different such as getting everyone to put their MP3 player on shuffle (ask them to bring it beforehand) and then use the title of a song/ some of the lyrics/ theme of that song/ emotion evoked by the song.  Or you could throw out news stories and have those generate more words/ thoughts to work with.

Split into groups of 3 or 4.

(If you have less people you can just do it with one or two groups)

Give each group 2 or 3 words from each category (e.g. new room, memories, car and farmer) and then get them to brainstorm around those 4 or 6 words to come up with two concrete ideas in line with your theme/ programme specification.

Add more stimuli.

To bring more inspiration/ shake up the process a bit you could bring in extra elements as they’re working on their ideas.  Perhaps handing out some props, photos, new words/ facts.  You could also supersize or twist the idea e.g. take your idea and imagine that you have 100 people taking part/ you have to complete the task in 1 minute/ with your eyes shut etc.

Swap and add to ideas.

Again, to add an extra element/ bring another dimension to your ideas, once you’ve worked up two concrete ideas, pass on your pads/ ideas to another group who can then take an element from your brainstorm and work up another idea or develop your original idea further.

It would be worth trying to integrate feedback from audience where possible – perhaps reading out comments from them or using their idea suggestions.

Suggest/ pitch ideas.

Leave 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the brainstorm for each group to pitch their ideas to everyone else.  If you have a pitching/ commissioning form, you could write up the ideas at the end of the brainstorm to see what elements need to be worked on/ researched further.  Ask one person from each group to write up the notes from their group/ notepads and send them to you.  The concrete ideas that are pitched are important but often there is a thought process/ earlier idea that they rejected which might be the start of a great idea.