Brainstorming Content 101

Three ways to get better content: reverse brainstorming, blind writing and mind-mapping.


by Dave Robson

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Brainstorming is the least fun part of content creation for most people. Maybe that’s why fourth-tier consultants like to show up with play-dooh and guitars—they’re trying to make idea generation fun. In our experience, trying to make brainstorming ‘fun’ is a great way to a) stop having any fun and b) come up with no ideas.

So here are a few techniques that work. They may not be ‘fun’, but they work.

Reverse Brainstorming

First, imagine your goal. Then, list all the ways to stop your goal from happening.

Why? Well, for one thing, listing all the ways to screw yourself over will be helpful when you need to avoid said ways you can screw yourself over. For more, check out 5 Sure-Fire Ways to Screw Up Your Content Marketing.

More importantly, listing all the ways something won’t work might help you start thinking about all the ways something can work.

At the very least, your list will get very silly, with items like “challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger to a paintball battle royale” and “invest all our money in pork bellies”. Sometimes, getting things stupid and silly out of the way makes people feel more willing to share ideas that they’re cautious about but might actually work.

Blind Writing

Remember when we said that these ideas wouldn’t be fun? Well, blind writing is the least fun way of brainstorming. It also works very well.

Here’s what you do. Get a pen and a pad. No computers. Empty your desk or stake out a conference table. Hell, get out of the office and sit on a park bench. What you need to do is set a timer for ten minutes, put your pen down, and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off.

You have one rule and one rule only: don’t stop writing until the timer goes off.

You can write anything you want. You can write, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to write”. You can write, “I’m all out of ideas and this is the most painful brainstorming method known to man”. You can write, “Those jerks at Kuration deserve a lifetime of wet towels and warm soda for putting me through this awful mess”. But you aren’t allowed to stop writing.

With this method, you’ll come up with lots of stuff. We’d call them “ideas”, but there’s going to be lots of textual bric-a-brac there too. Not everything will be good. In fact, lots will be bad.

The point, though, is that you’re forcing the part of your brain that writes to write. Writing is a discipline like any other: running, cooking, shooting bottles with a slingshot. No one runs a marathon the first time they lace up their runners, nobody gets a soufflé to rise the first time they mix batter, and most kids break a window instead of all ten glass bottles when they get their hands on a slingshot. At least, kids who had a fun childhood.

Bonus tip: Want to get more out of blind writing? After ten minutes of blind writing, you get ten minutes of creative distraction. Time yourself again and read a bit of a novel, play a video game, or throw around a Frisbee. When your ten-minute buzzer rings again, put your fun thing down and write again. Alternating like that works pretty well.

Another bonus tip: Blind writing is usually solitary, but if you’d like to keep your self honest, involve other people. The presence of other people around the conference table also writing forces you to write too. And since people won’t be happy with you for putting them through this, we highly recommend you combine this tip with the last tip and set up a Nintendo in the conference table. A round of Smash Brothers is a pretty decent reward for blind writing.

Mind Mapping

This technique is so old we’re pretty sure that Howard Carter found a roll of papyrus in King Tut’s tomb with the hieroglyphs for “mummy” written in the centre and phrases like “might freak out Abbot and Costello” on the outermost branches.

Still, its longevity suggests that it works pretty well. Basically, you need three things to make a mind map:

One: a main idea. You write your main idea in the centre of the page or whiteboard. If it helps, you attach or draw a picture. We’ve never cared for drawing, but pictures help.

Two: some supplementary ideas that radiate from the main idea as branches. You draw a branch from your main idea and jot down a supplementary idea. For example: blues rock -> Eric Clapton. You write down a few supplementary ideas (for our example: twelve-bar blues, boogie jam, Lonnie Mack, electric guitar, etc.), and then you have the beginnings of a web.

Three: some tertiary ideas that radiate from the supplementary ideas as twigs. Same deal as before: you draw a twig from your supplementary idea and jot down a main idea. From our example: Eric Clapton -> cocaine. What you get is a web of ideas.

So what’s the point of a mind map? For one thing, it’s a good way to organise information, particularly if you incorporate pictures and colours. From our example, we could make branches and twigs related to artists red, branches related to music theory green, branches related to history blue, and so on.

Second, mind maps help you identify natural associations. Each association links to yet more ideas.

Third, mind maps are a very intuitive way of organising information. If we make a mind map of a whole content marketing campaign, one branch can lead to the blog posts, another to YouTube videos, another to research—your whole campaign can be mapped out and organised this way.

Mind maps are good for looking at the big picture while still seeing a large amount of information, and most importantly, help you explore ideas quickly.

Want to read more about brainstorming? Check out Brainstorming 102. Need even more? Try Brainstorming 103.