On Brainstorming and Presentations

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We all hang on to this romanticised idea about how brainstorming works, usually in teams. It's when the brilliant and most creative minds of an organisation come together to think deeply about a problem and come up with new ideas and solutions. How could this not work?

Debra Kaye mocked this idealised notion of brainstorming in her talk at the Creativity World Forum in Kortrijk, Belgium recently with a slide that demanded "Stop Brainstorming".

Why Brainstorming doesn't work

Now this was surely meant to provoke reactions, but she did back it up. And in fact, if you look back at the history of brainstorming as a process, you could almost call it a history of failure. The inventor of the process, Alex Osborn, actually foresaw the problems. To avoid them, he came up with a set of rules. Namely, that brainstorming is about quantity, not quality (that comes later) and that it's about collecting ideas, but not judging them yet (that, again, comes later). Yet studies from as early as 1958(!) show that in practice, brainstorming as a process doesn't work, mostly because these rules are ignored.

Additionally, Debra Kaye argued (and rightly so) that the problem with ideas and creativity is that they don't work on command. "Let's sit together now and have some great ideas" simply doesn't work. Some people come up with their best ideas in the morning, others in the evening, while yet another person may have insights during exercise or in the shower.

The reason why, after 50 years of studies telling us that it doesn't work, we still do brainstorming "on command" is probably that it sort-of works. It does usually produce some output and some new ideas. What we fail to see is that there are often much better ideas that we didn't come up with since the people who could have had them were not in the optimal environment or mindset for them to have those ideas.

Using Brainstorming to prepare for your Presentation

KW 24: Konzentration #fotoprojekt2014 Brainstorming, or some form of it, is an important part of preparing for a presentation, which is why I'm writing about it here. You will usually work on a presentation on your own at first, so you have an advantage over the institutionalised version of brainstorming: You define the time and space for it to happen. Also, studies have shown that individuals are better at brainstorming when working on their own - they produce more and better ideas. A group of people is better at evaluating and weeding out those collected ideas.

So here are some things you could try for the brainstorming phase of your next talk:

  • Find a place and a time where you can work best, without interruption, and brainstorm away. Try to come up with as many ideas as you possibly can. Don't shy away from supposedly crazy ideas; write them all down.
  • Repeat the process as necessary.
  • Once you feel you have enough ideas, it's time for the process of weeding out. To make use of the power of a group, you could ask a friend or a small group of friends who may be interested in the topic of your talk to help you. If any new ideas come up, add them.
  • You can also do this step on your own. In that case, it's a good idea to let some time pass before you look at your collected ideas again. Try to see them from the perspective of your future audience. What do they expect you to cover? Which of your crazy ideas would work with that particular audience and which ones would better be left for another time?
  • See if you can cluster your ideas, i.e. which ideas belong together? Try to bring them in a logical or chronological order. You should see a possible structure for your presentation emerge.

Don't be afraid to consider new ideas as they come up. As you begin to focus more on the details of your topic, you will have new ideas simply because you didn't see the connections before. That's a good thing.

Summary

Brainstorming, if applied to the right sorts of problems and done with the right mindset, does produce good results. In my experience, it's an important first step before you even think about creating slides for your presentation. In fact, a result of your brainstorming process could be that this talk you're working on would better be done without slides.

Even if you do end up using slides, doing the preparation away from your slideware app will save you a lot of unnecessary work, should you find that some things don't work as expected. Throwing away the Post-it with that crazy idea that didn't work out is so much easier than deleting the slide that you already invested a lot of time into.

(Photos by yours truly; the first one is from the 2012 Presentation Zen Seminar in London)

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Creative Commons Licence "On Brainstorming and Presentations" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.