The Secrets of Successful Brainstorming

by Dean Rieck

Every now and then, a situation arises that makes even the most seasoned guru doff his sorcerer's cap and scratch his noggin. Case in point: a business called me recently wanting advice on raising response or cutting costs on their direct mail package. They sent some samples for me to look at along with testing results and, frankly, I was stumped.

The cheapest package was dead cheap. It also boasted the highest response, significantly higher than more elaborate packages with all the bells and whistles. To make matters more frustrating, because of their aggressive testing policy, everything I suggested had already been tried at some point.

What's a guru to do?

There's nothing more difficult — or humbling — than having to admit you don't have a ready answer. But for those honest enough to admit their uncertainty, there's also nothing more exhilarating, since that is invariably the first step toward discovering new ideas.

The answer? Hold a brainstorming session.

Brainstorming the Big Idea

Brainstorming is one of the most widespread and powerful creative techniques ever devised. When used properly, it can produce more and better ideas than any other process. It is based on the concept that two heads (or three, or four, or more) are better than one.

Now, many would argue that you can't create by committee. I agree. Writing, designing, and other creative acts are best performed by individuals. Creative execution by committee invariably regresses to the mean. The results are weak and watered-down.

However, brainstorming is not about creative execution. It's about idea creation. And it is almost always more productive as a group activity. The result of a brainstorming session is — or should be — a long list of potential ideas which can be evaluated, the best chosen for creative execution at a later time. Sure, you'll come up with a ton of dumb ideas, but so what? Once you get the ideas flowing, the great ideas will float to the top. And some of those ideas that seem dumb end up being pretty smart — once you test them and see the results.

This is not only a great way to solve seemingly insoluble problems, but also an effective means for generating new ideas to keep your testing program fresh. If you've had bad luck with brainstorming, you're just not doing it right. Because in my experience, conducting a brainstorming session is like throwing a match into a room full of firecrackers. There's a sudden and powerful chain reaction.

Here are a few suggestions for creating some fireworks of your own:

Before Your Session ...

During Your Session ...

  1. Each session participant must contribute ideas, accept ideas of others, or improve on ideas.
  2. No one may criticize or evaluate any idea. Alex F. Osborn in Applied Imagination said it best: "Think up or shut up."
  3. No one will hold back ideas. When something comes to mind, say it.
  4. The group will encourage wild, out-of-the box thinking.
  5. The goal of the session is quantity, not quality. Quality will be evaluated later.
  6. Ideas will be developed fully. Participants should hitchhike ideas on the ideas of others to produce more and better ideas. When an idea is developed, the group will move on.

After Your Session ...

When the dust settles, you should find yourself with some surprisingly good ideas. And the whole process often energizes your staff and improves morale as well. But don't get discouraged if it doesn't work perfectly the first time. Assembling the right group, creating an open atmosphere, and producing the best results often takes time. As with so many other things in life, practice makes perfect.

And there you have it, the complete summit on creativity in direct marketing. We've covered a lot of ground, but don't worry if you don't remember everything. What's most important is that you start to be more aware of how you approach marketing problems and that you take control of the creative process.

Improving your creative powers and operating at the third level of creative mastery is not so much a destination as a journey. Always remember you ARE creative. And the more you exercise your creative muscles, the more creative you will be.

Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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