Brainstorming: 10 Rules of Brainstorming

How can you get the most out of a brainstorming session? PRWeek sent Suzy Bashford to pick up a few pointers on creating a relaxed but creatively charged atmosphere at agency Credo Communications

1 Consider group dynamics carefully: There are no set rules about size, but with a large group it's best to break it up into sub-groups.

Credo invited nine participants: two journalists, two ex-broadcast journalists turned PROs, two clients and three agency representatives. The group split into twos and threes to carry out exercises.

Specialist journalists can add a significant contribution. Consumer technology journalist Simon Munk feels that PROs could get more from them than just ideas for press coverage. They could be vital in product development too: 'Ask questions like "do we think the product is any good? Will it sell?" Although maybe these are questions that are difficult to ask in front of the client,' he admits.

2 Break the ice: Credo managing partner David Hargreaves opened with a warm-up exercise. This helps generate a relaxed atmosphere even if participants feel a bit silly - as here when asked to pull an object from a bag, such as a pink rubber duck, and come up with something they have in common with it.

Other consultancies' ideas range from Midnight Communications's think of ten reasons why the world would be a better place if all cars were yellow to Kinross & Render's sticking a pin in a dictionary and saying something incorporating that word.

Bear in mind, though, that journalists might not always be impressed by these games. Munk found the bag exercise bizarre.

3 Plan and structure the brainstorming in advance: Credo briefed attendees about the subject of the session: press coverage ideas for launch of a product, code-named I-Snoop, which enables owners to listen-in on conversations. One side of A4 outlined the product and target audience. 'You don't want to overwhelm participants,' says Hargreaves.

Hargreaves did not supply a written timetable or agenda. Some PROs, however prefer to create one, to prevent participants going off on a tangent.

Credo logged all the ideas generated, as gems will often go unnoticed at the time due to the volume of suggestions. Taping is also a good way to ensure everything is picked up.

4 Set ground rules: Cultivating the right environment for creativity is essential and negative comments are a surefire way to put a lid on the juices flowing. Hargreaves used the mnemonic 'SUN-RAIN' standing for Suspend judgement, Understand the idea, Nurture it, don't React badly, Assume you've understood the idea or INsist that your solution is the only solution. The group largely adhered to them.

Setting a positive tone is good practice. As Charlie Morgan, in-house PR manager at gadget company Firebox says: 'You'll get more out if the session if people aren't criticised.' Some agencies even suggest banning phrases like 'playing devil's advocate for a moment'.

5 Get the group thinking creatively: Creative thinking comes from the same part of your brain as comedy, according to the head of Firefly's creativity lab, Jaime Gill. This could explain why Credo's session, where there was no shortage of gags and laughter, produced lots of ideas.

These ranged from the serious - using the I-Snoop as the hook for a heavy hitting piece on corporate espionage - to the light-hearted, from I-Snoop gadget company Kane, to use the product to detect any shenanigans at the office Christmas party. Both Kane CEO Robert Fedder and director Martin Stockman approached the session with a good dose of humour, but not all clients are so prepared to get their hands dirty. Others may expect the agency to come with pre-prepared ideas, reasoning they're paying for its creativity.

6 Pick the location carefully: The brainstorm was held in a board room in Credo's offices, which wasn't ideal as the directors were called out to take phone calls on several occasions, interrupting the flow. To avoid this, some agencies advocate using an out-of-office location such as cafes, parks or even beaches. Unusual surroundings can encourage lateral thinking, although being too elaborate can 'create a mindset that the budgets are big, which will encourage the group to think extravagantly,' says Hargreaves.

7 Keep to pre-set timings: Timings were knocked off course when two attendees turned up ten minutes late, meaning the client had to repeat the explanation of the product launch. Setting timings is a good idea because it focuses minds.

The brainstorm lasted one-and-a-half hours. Agencies are divided about the optimum time for a session, with suggestions ranging from 30 minutes maximum to two hours minimum. Some professionals suggest small, frequent bursts are best, or that mini-breaks should be taken throughout.

As to what time during the day and week should you choose, 3 Monkeys Communications chief executive Angie Moxham swears that her experience shows you should never brainstorm after lunch, on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon. 'Tuesday mid morning is proven to be the best time,' she claims.

8 Appoint a chairperson/facilitator: Hargreaves took on the role of facilitator, often standing up to direct the group, and encouraged people to explain or develop their suggestions. He would also consistently pull the group back to a good idea, or chivvy it along if it lingered too long on one thought. After a brain-dump, Hargreaves asked everyone to pick their favourite three ideas. The three receiving the most votes were then developed through a role-play, where a PRO would sell in an idea to the journalist. An effective chairperson is one who is approachable, confident and happy to focus on developing others' ideas rather than articulating their own.

9 Pick appropriate props: In Credo's case, there were a few target publications on the table and posters describing the product's target market.

As Hargreaves filled a page on the whiteboard, Credo partner Nick Rappolt then stuck it on the wall to keep the ideas fresh in people's minds.

Credo went easy on the refreshments, offering only soft drinks or water. Other agencies claim stimulants from chocolate to sweets to coffee can aid creativity. Opinions are divided on alcohol - while some believe it triggers creativity, others think it is unprofessional. Some participants may feel more creative if they can play with something as they think too, such as moulding putty.

10 Act quickly when it's over: Hargreaves advises the next step is to sit down with the client and develop the workable ideas from the session that relate most strongly to what they think are the biggest selling applications of the product.

At this session Stockman was concerned that some of the ideas could be interpreted as negative takes on the idea of snooping. He was keen that Kane was positioned as 'the good guy' and using 'spying' in a positive, fun way.

And make sure opportunities haven't been missed. Brainstorms tend to focus on the big ideas, and the smaller ones suitable for niche publications can get lost in the crowd.

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