Production 512: Brainstorm

Prod512 Logo 400pxLast month we talked about finding inspiration anywhere and everywhere -- in the movie theater, art museum and in day-to-day life with your friends and family. (You remember those things from before the pandemic, right?) This time around, I want to help you expand your search grid and make the resulting experience more concrete with a basic guide to creating and taking advantage of an old-fashioned brainstorm.

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brain·storm  /ˈbrānˌstôrm/

noun
1. a group discussion to produce ideas and ways of solving problems.
2. a moment in which one is suddenly unable to think clearly or act sensibly.

verb
produce an idea or way of solving a problem by holding a group discussion.

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Let me set the stage a little by revisiting a column I wrote 10 years ago called Prime The Pump. In it, I described a way to get the entire staff of a radio station involved in the creative process of making a marketing agenda. I have to credit the genius who built this system: Gerry Tabio, the founder and CEO of Creative Resources, a marketing strategy company based near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gerry is an absolute indefatigable dynamo when it comes to motivating a room full of people.

Picture everyone in your station gathered in a big conference room. From the receptionist to the GM and everybody in between. Even the ones who seldom speak to each other beyond the occasional, “Good morning.” Bigger than life itself, Gerry walks into the front of the room, complete with his Geraldo Rivera mustache and ear-to-ear smile. First, he explains that there are NO ‘bad ideas,’ some are just better than others. He steps up to a gigantic pad of blank paper on an easel and tells everyone the problem that needs a solution. Then he’ll point to one person and tell them to blurt out whatever pops into their head. He asks everyone in the room to just blurt out ideas, rapid fire. They dont have to be great ideas. They dont even have to be fully formed. Just saying things as they pop into your head works beautifully. He scribes these ideas on the notepad, ripping off a page when full and continuing on a second, and third, or even eleventh page.

This is where the beauty of this method of group problem solving is: One persons idea (no matter how dumb or useless) sparks another persons idea, which blows up into a third idea. Its kind of like dropping a rubber ball into a box of mousetraps that are all armed with more rubber balls. One pops the first trap, which launches a new ball into the mix, which springs another trap…and very quickly, there are hundreds of rubber balls flying around in the box.

Gerry will then take all of the pages and tape them to a wall, in plain sight of everyone in the room. And round two begins by crossing out ideas that just aren’t feasible. Group discussions continue as ideas are highlighted, expanded upon, or deleted, until finally, you have a small handful of really exciting ideas.

It not only gives the creative folks (mostly you) new stuff to work with, it also gives every staff member a stake in the radio station’s direction and ultimate success. It makes them feel like they are part of the TEAM. Genius, right?

So, what happens when it’s a TEAM of one…you? Calling an all staff meeting once or twice a week is never gonna happen. Usually, it’s you, all by your lonely, struggling to come up with that brilliant strategy, the perfect verbiage, a most awesome slab of music with a generous sprinkling of amazing effects. How do you generate that spark of creativity that you’re getting the big bucks to produce day in and day out? You need to learn to brainstorm by yourself. Honestly, it’s really not that hard.

Begin by getting a legal pad and pen and sit down in a quiet place. Clear your head and just meditate for a few minutes contemplating your goal. Then, begin writing. Write down every idea that flashes through your nimble mind. You can work on a laptop, but if you do, you cannot write an idea and then erase it, or even not write it to begin with. Write down everything and leave it on the page until you’re done! When you finish writing down all the ideas that come bursting through and you scan over them, you need to evaluate each one individually and let them percolate for a few moments. Very often, the dumbest idea (the one you wanted to erase) will give birth to an excellent idea – an extension of the dumb idea will take you places you didn’t know existed, and you’ve suddenly gone from being a good producer to a blindingly brilliant producer.

Here’s another option that might appeal to you even more. It’s my FAVORITE option. Use your brain trust. If you don’t have one, make a new one! What’s a brain trust? I’m SO glad you asked.

I have three sons who don’t get to spend much in-person time together. One lives in Idaho, one in North Carolina and one in New York City. They all have very different ways to earn an income. One is a Medicare broker for several companies, one works in Industrial Building Supplies and my youngest is an Emmy winning video editor/producer for the New York Times. One is very religious, one is agnostic/leaning to atheist and one is somewhere in the middle. One speaks some French and Pidgin English, one is fluent in Spanish and the other is pretty OK at speaking English. Their politics are all OVER the map! At first glance I’m sure most would think they would have almost nothing in common other than sharing a last name, but most would be wrong. They’re all extremely intelligent and have an absolutely wicked sense of humor.

Aside from FaceTime, the only time we all get to see each other is at funerals and weddings. A little over a year ago, we had a major family birthday that brought us all together here in Texas. Every time the three of them were in the same room, it was an absolute laughing-fest. One would start with an offbeat observation, another would point out an irony and then it began in earnest. One joke after another, after another, all spontaneous and generally funnier and funnier until tears flowed and nobody could even speak. There’d be a pause while everyone caught their breath and then it would start again, usually going down a completely different rabbit-hole of humor. It’s amazing to witness and it’s almost guaranteed to happen every time…even at the funerals.

Have you ever shared an evening with a couple of friends, maybe sharing a beer or cocktail or three, where the three of you end up in an absolute giggle fit? Most adults I know have. It’s the same thing as my boys’ get-togethers without the shared DNA. That is what I call a “brain trust.” Everyone in your brain trust can come from any background, have completely different life experiences; in fact, the more diverse they are, the higher quality brain trust it will be. One extra clue: no one should be anyone else’s work supervisor because that tends to stifle the free exchange of ideas.

If you don’t already have a brain trust, invite three friends (probably one or two who are NOT in the radio biz) to lunch. Once the drink orders are given, explain that you wanted the get-together to create a brain trust. Talk about how you need a creative spark from time to time and that you would like to occasionally pick their brains. If they’re as smart as you think they are, they’ll realize it could work for them too, whatever they do for a living.

By the way, lunch is on you this time…it’s only fair. Future meetings of the brain trust might be over drinks, over the phone or maybe even at a backyard BBQ. Again, you don’t want to call a meeting every day, probably not every week, but just when you’re stuck with a particularly thorny creative problem. Invite them to call the group whenever they need inspiration too. It really needs to be a two-way street.

Once the entrees are served at your lunch, you can do a trial run. Begin by saying, “There are NO bad ideas.” That’s an important component of the process, because remember that some of those so-called ‘bad ideas’ form the basis of better and better ideas. Then, it’s just like the massive staff meeting, without Gerry Tabio and his blank notepad. You probably won’t have to take notes at all. Just pose the problem and turn them loose.

NOW you are brainstorming, for real. Whether you’re in a big staff meeting, lunching with your new brain trust or sitting by yourself, just let the first thoughts out. Never second guess. Those incomplete, sometimes truly bad ideas are where the big, beautiful diamonds are ultimately found, cut and polished. Let the electricity flow. Make a joke out of it. Get really serious about it. Be cynical, lighthearted, angry, envious or any emotional approach you can come up with. The more lightning strikes, the better.

One important side-note: Aside from my original brain trust of my boys, I’ve had a few brain trusts over my career and one thing has happened every time. My circle of really close friends has expanded, sometimes enduring over years and years. Just about every friend that I would call close today has come from one of my brain trusts.

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