Brainstorming Exercise Material for Brain Tsunamis!
Lucky me, I was always the kid picked for brainstorming sessions. People used to say that I would “shoot for the stars” but “could be pulled back into low orbit when necessary.” I’m not sure how to take that but whatever it means, it got me invited to a lot of brainstorming sessions and eventually led to a lucrative consulting career teaching brainstorming techniques to large corporations and small studios. The hardest part was trying to figure out why I was so good at coming up with ideas and how to get others to be just as innovative in a meeting.
The best brainstorming sessions always started with an exercise to loosen up participants. One of my favorites was what I call, “Unfortunate Cookies.” Perhaps you’ve played a similar game when dining at a restaurant that ends with a fortune cookie. Have you ever heard of the “Chinese curse” where the statements “…in bed,” “…on the toilet,” “…until you die horribly” or some other ending that works perfectly with the printed fortune? Think about it. Remember your last fortune cookie? Those endings always work in perfect tandem.
With “Unfortunate Cookies” the aim was to take a collection of those inscrutable pieces of paper and write a completely new curse. It’s not as easy as it sounds. The fortunes were affixed to pieces of blank paper and then passed around for session attendees to add their curses. After everyone had a chance to add some endings, they were read aloud to peals of laughter…and numerous complaints to human resources!
The results of this and similar exercises was to loosen everyone up with a little laughter but it also brought out the confidence of attendees who were more introverted than extroverted. Creatives do tend to be in their own little world and introversion is more common to the personality type. This isn’t to say that introverts have nothing inside to add to a brainstorm. They are usually the one’s who hold a wealth of ideas but no way to bring them out.
By showing them that anonymous contributions to the warm up exercise brings acceptance, it instills confidence and makes them an integral part of the team. There are many exercises that can be used. The “Unfortunate Cookie” can’t be used more than once a year or it loses its luster and ability to create thoughtful ideas. It also takes a crap load of lunches to collect a couple of dozen fortunes for the exercise.
Instead of buying a hundred pounds of white rice and accompanying orders of General Tso’s Chicken, just spend $1 to purchase this stock photo and create your own “Unfortunate Cookie” exercise. Topics include:
- Fortunes written by Chairman Mao.
- Corporate jingle fortunes.
- Fortunes that rhyme with “orange.”
- Fortunes that propose to that special someone.
- Death threat fortunes.
Another fun exercise to loosen people up is the ever-popular “Captioning.”
Search out a retro photo, make enough copies for everyone and ask attendees to come up with their own captions, and then read them aloud.
Captioning is an important exercise as it makes the brain come up with wording for a visual. It forces the person to stretch their creative output within certain parameters and sometimes leave their comfort zone. THAT is important in brainstorming! You need to make people think differently to find solutions out of the ordinary.
You can use the same approach and add word balloons. Fill in one balloon with something normal and leave the second blank. Have people fill in that blank. This is another example of having people stretch their thinking within certain boundaries.
If you were to use two exercises in a warm up for a brainstorm, starting with something more open, such as the “Unfortunate Cookies,” you should finish with an exercise that will be more restrictive, such as captioning, which will draw in the focus of those participating. It all depends on what results you are trying to achieve in the brainstorming session.
The Name Game
One of my favorite scenes from the old Dick Van Dyke Show was when he sat at breakfast with his five year-old son and they tried to come up with names for butter. What would it be called if it weren’t known as “butter?” The obvious answer is “Mooshlick!”
There are many brainstorming sessions that use rename or repurpose an everyday object and while it is a good warm up exercise, it may not fit what the brainstorm is for in terms of desired responses. It’s more important to keep people thinking completely out of the box so they don’t get comfortable with everyday objects and thinking.
If need be, find a visual of an object that has no discernable use (like an antique bed warming pan) and ask participants to figure out uses for the object. When you tell them what the actual usage is, it will release certain chemicals in the brain that will excite and invigorate and THAT is what you want warm up exercises to do!
All Brainstorms are NOT the Same!
The ultimate goal is to get people “in the mood” and to help them lose their initial inhibitions/introspection. One way to do this is to ask people to approach a non-related topic, which will not influence anyone in the company. The purpose is to get minds thinking in a flexible and creative way.
Many brainstorms start warm ups with the familiar and that isn’t productive enough in the ten minute warm up to generate the best ideas. Exercises such as physical exercises, creating smaller groups and asking for familiar answers to familiar objects, situations and/or topics will help release endorphins and start the mind gears cranking but the ultimate aim is to achieve these and take it to the next level. It’s the same with brainstorming – don’t settle for the first answer. Open thought should take innovation to the highest level possible. No thought is wrong or too outrageous. It’s better to aim high and have to bring the ideas put forth down a bit, rather than trying to keep pushing lackluster ideas higher.
When the brainstorming gets into full swing, just remember these simple rules:
- Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas.
- Quantity counts when starting, not quality.
- Every person and every idea has equal worth.
- Withhold all judgment of ideas.
- Build on the ideas put forward by others when it is part of the brainstorm rules and everyone understands it is a TEAM effort.
- Have a team distill the ideas later, away from the brainstorm participants.
- Everyone must come away from the session believing they have contributed to the betterment of the company/product.
*Author’s Note: Using images found on the web for ANY business usage may be considered a copyright violation. Play it safe and spend a dollar or two for proper, legal images.
About the Author
Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider
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