How To Conduct A Brainstorming Session For Content Marketing Article Ideas
Your team is gathered around the conference table. A few minutes ago, you got an agenda with a few topics on it, but you haven’t had time to read through it quite yet. You look down at item number one on the agenda: brainstorming topics. You heave a deep, exhausted sigh. And with that less-than-stellar start, you sit through an hour or more of waning conversation (not much brainpower or storm-surge ideas) or are commandeered into listening to one or two people try to one-up each other’s ideas. Happened to you before? You’re not alone! Lots of people hate brainstorming—or what they think brainstorming is. (There’s spirited debate about whether it’s effective at all). But don’t worry… there’s a better way to brainstorm. If you’re the person tasked with leading a brainstorming session, I hope some (or all) of these tips will help you lead a content marketing brainstorm session that ends with lots of great, usable information.
Why does everyone hate brainstorming?
Let’s take a look at the pain points of brainstorming that you, as a moderator, need to address.
Problem: You’re supposed to be leading the brainstorm, but you have no idea what to do.
Solution: Not having a skilled leader facilitate the brainstorm is the number one reason most brainstorm sessions end up in failure (no pressure!).
“If you hold brainstorms every now and then, and they are led by people without skill and experience, don’t be surprised if participants ‘sit there looking embarrassed, like we’re all new to a nudist colony,’ as one manager told The Wall Street Journal.” -Robert Sutton, Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming
Fortunately, brainstorming isn’t a “you got it or you don’t” exercise. It’s a skill you have to develop, especially as the moderator. Here are some things you can do:
- Know the “why” of the brainstorm. Typically, brainstorms are successful when they’re led as a process to discovering lots and lots of ideas that may or may not be successful when implemented. Brainstorms are not about quality, analysis, or decision making… they are all about quantity.
- Clarify and enforce the rules of the brainstorm. As a facilitator, it’s your job to clearly identify and plan for the desired outcome you want. It’s also your job to enforce the rules as a neutral party. (This is why it’s not always a good idea to host the brainstorm if you’re the boss—you don’t want your participants to fear, well, the effects of participation!)
- I like this idea:
“If you are going to play the role of brainstorm facilitator and lead a group through a useful ideation process, be a multitude. Let it rip. Hang ten. Use the right brain and the left. Let all the cats you are out of the proverbial bag… and by so doing, exponentially increase your chances of truly making a difference.”
The article goes on to identify ten personas that make an exceptional facilitator and asks the reader to evaluate him- or herself on those personas to see which ways he/she can improve.
Problem: You start the brainstorm and nobody has anything to say (or any desire to say it).
Solution: Don’t brainstorm first. It’s a good idea to have “warm up” conversation to get your group acquainted with (read: comfortable with) each other. Not many people will share their ideas (good or bad) with a group of strangers, so ease into the conversation as much as possible.
Problem: Your brainstorm is a lot of talk about nothing.
Solution: Have a plan, and get specific with your problems. For content marketers, that means answering the questions your audience has (or doesn’t even know they have yet).
- Stray, but don’t get lost. A brainstorm isn’t a linear diagram. Get unorthodox. Phrase questions in ridiculous ways to see the range of responses you get, and then validate them all.
- Don’t stick to the status quo. Ask participants to take certain people, functions, products, etc., out of the equation to see what would happen (or wouldn’t happen). Jeff Haden shares a fun way to do that:
When I was a kid we built obstacle courses and pretended the ground was lava; if we fell off, we “died.” Extend that premise to your business: What if every mistake was a fatal mistake? If every shipment had to be perfect, what would you need to do? Pick any process and assume perfection, not incremental gains, is a requirement. It’s amazing how creative you can be when there are no “outs” to fall back on.
- Explore the issues your audience is having with the subject (or certain details of the subject).
- Find out and then discuss what questions they have regarding the industry in question.
Problem: People look lost.
Solution: Get everyone on board by implementing visual tools. Post-it notes, white boards, blank pieces of paper, play-doh or modeling clay… let participants brainstorm with their whole brain (right brain included!). The Crawford Slip Method is one better-known idea generation method that might interest you—it’s easy to implement, too: here’s one way to do it.
Problem: You’re doing your best, but people still aren’t engaging (or they are pretending they’re dead).
Solution: Think about the atmosphere.
- Do you have judgey participants? If you have people nixing ideas that “won’t work” and frustrating others (thus defeating the purpose), turn it around and take control. Remember, as a moderator, it’s up to you to emphasize quantity—every idea should be weighted as equal in a brainstorm.
- Do you have a quiet group? Break the team into small groups to meet for a few minutes individually to come up with a set number of ideas to present. This takes a bit of the pressure from the individual, especially those who don’t do well reacting without time to think first.
- If possible, ask your participants to come with questions or ideas. Research shows “it’s more effective to ask team members to generate ideas individually or in pairs before a group meeting at which ideas are shared and compared.” (Lateral Action)
- Make sure you have someone recording everything, too, so you can have a record of the group’s ideas that you all can refer to—these notes may also spur on other ideas in future sessions!
If it sounds like a good brainstorming session takes a lot of work, that’s because, well—it does!
But it’s worth it! Productive, idea-generating work isn’t done every once-in-a-while or haphazardly. It takes a commitment from the team and special attention from the facilitator to come up with ideas that can be utilized. But you have to promise yourself and your team you won’t stop there… content marketing brainstorms are just one part of a creative system your business needs.
“A brainstorming session should be used for generating lots of new ideas and solutions. It should not be used for analysis or for decision making. Of course you will need to analyze and judge the ideas, but this is done afterwards and the analysis process does not involve brainstorming techniques.”