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Tried and True Tips for Brainstorming in Solitude

Tried and True Tips for Brainstorming in Solitude

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Karen Strauss who toiled away in the New York office of Ketchum Communications. It so happened that her sister-in-law, also named Karen Strauss thanks to her marriage to the first Karen’s brother, worked there as well. The two Karens were, not surprisingly, often mistaken for each other but they could not have been more different. One day, they hatched a mischievous identity-switch scheme to take advantage of peoples’ confusion. What follows, dear reader, is a tale of intrigue, destruction, and resurrection. 

OK, not really.

While it’s true that my sister-in-law and I both worked at Ketchum, where Karen is now a partner and the Chief Global Strategy & Creativity Officer producing award-winning PR programs and traveling the world to share her wisdom and inspire others, we never exploited our sister-in-law-ship for nefarious purposes. Background on Karen: she is one of the most brilliant, creative and witty (and generous) people I have ever known. (She is also a loving, goofball aunt.) Her reputation within the worldwide public relations industry is enviable. She has dreamt up and produced campaigns for the world’s biggest brands. In addition to her considerable creative chops, Karen is a master when it comes to leading brainstorming sessions. Her experience, warmth and humor all come into play to coax new ideas out of, essentially, nothing.

Back in the day, Karen used to regularly invite me to her brainstorming sessions. It wasn’t because I liked them (I actually loved them) or was an exceptional contributor (I like to think I was). It was primarily to set me up as a straight-(wo)man, a target of her jokes to help loosen up the other participants. I didn’t mind. It was all for the good of our clients. I respected Karen. And I loved the creative process.

Brainstorming en masse is a powerful tool but many of us (as solopreneurs, consultants, freelancers, whatever designation du jour you prefer) spend much of our work lives in solitude. What’s the best way for individuals to “juice” their own minds for new ideas? Or to simply get out of a creativity rut?

I asked Karen to share some of her tips on coaxing new ideas out of oneself when collaboration isn’t feasible. Here are three Strauss-tested and approved techniques, to light a fire under even the most resistant, or stuck, solo brainstormer:

1 . Visual cues are great at sparking lateral thinking – that is, using an indirect approach to solve problems and inspire ideas outside of traditional logical thinking. Karen suggests compiling and regularly adding to a scrapbook of inspirational images. Browsing art books, spending some time on Pinterest or Instagram, looking at design magazines and photos in new-to-you publications can also jumpstart fresh ways of thinking.

2. This one is, Karen says, as easy as can be. Jot down 10 words unrelated to the challenge. Put them aside and do something else. Come back to the list and then free associate five words around each of the 10 words. With these 50 words, ask yourself to design solutions to your challenge putting two or three of those words together to nudge your creative wheels into motion. For example, let’s say you have to come up with an idea for a promotion for a brand of scissors. Of those 50 words, you might pull out the words “children,” “smile,” and “jokester.” Now you have a start and by drawing from your own experiences (family traditions, media influences, what you ate for breakfast, etc.) you have a springboard for ideas.

3. And my favorite… “The best way to come up with a brave idea,” Karen says, “is to ask yourself – what would I do if I wanted to get fired? That liberates thinking and turns off the censors in our brains. I promise it nets the best ideas every time.” I imagine a glass of wine is helpful for this one.

I’ll add one more solo brainstorming tip of my own. Many of us in creative professions have had at least one high-pressure experience where we had to come up with a great idea in five minutes. (Just writing this sentence sent my heart racing.) Some people thrive under pressure. Not I. Give your mind time to unfold. Take a hike. Shoot some hoops. Binge watch an episode of your favorite streaming show. Bake a pie. Whatever it takes to get out of your head.


Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.

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