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Managing the Brainstorm: During the Session

Here's how to do productive brainstorming:

  1. Set up a large whiteboard or an easel with a big pad of paper and lots of push pins to mount the sheets. I prefer a whiteboard because it allows me to erase and rewrite free-flowing ideas at will. It also results in a neater and easier-to-read set of brainstorming notes. Have on hand a supply of markers in several colors. Use different colors to indicate different groups or levels of ideas.

  2. Gather your brainstorming team. It should include all those who will participate in the presentation as well as any others who have ideas or information to contribute.


Several high-tech products on the market can capture written scrawls electronically from a whiteboard to a computer and then to a printer (my favorite is eBeam from Electronics for Imaging). These tools are very cool but not essential. You can always ask someone to hand-copy the notes during or after the brainstorming.

  1. You, as the presenter, or someone from your group (with reasonably neat handwriting), should handle the markers and capture the brainstorming ideas on the whiteboard. This person is your scribe. In my programs with my clients, I act as both scribe and facilitator. As a facilitator, I assume a neutral point of view and simply take down all ideas as they come up, without judgment. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Let them all flow. That is the essence of right-brain thinking. I also ask that each person in the group feed her ideas through me so as not to lose any ideas in side discussions, crosstalk, or digressions. I post all the ideas on the whiteboard for all to see and share. Have your scribe assume a similar role. Your scribe should not have a bias for or against any idea that emerges. Consider your scribe as Switzerland: neutral in all events.

  2. Launch the brainstorming session by having someone, anyone, call out an idea about something that might go into the presentation. One person might say, "Management." You or your scribe should write the word management on the whiteboard and then draw a circle around it to turn that concept into a self-contained nugget.

  3. As each concept comes up, the entire group should help to explode the concept. For example, after management appears on the whiteboard, pop out whatever ideas come to mind that are related to management. For example, there are the various members of your company's top management team: the CEO, the chairman, the CFO, the executive vice president. You or your scribe should jot these down as they come up, circle them, and link the circles to form a cluster of related ideas. Call the major idea in a cluster the parent and the subordinate ideas connected to it the children.

  4. Continue to do the same for other concepts that people in the group suggest. Certain concepts come up in almost every business presentation: "our products," "our customers," "market trends," and "the competition." Depending on the specific purpose of your presentation and the issues your company is currently facing, some concepts are going to be unique to the presentation. As you work, you'll gradually fill the whiteboard with related concepts that might look something like Figure 4.3.

Figure 4.3Figure 4.3 The results of the brainstorm.

  1. As you work, be flexible! Don't be afraid to bounce from concept to concept as necessary. While the group is exploding the concept of "marketing plan," someone might interject, "Oops! We forgot to list Jim, the marketing vice president, as a member of the management team." No problem; squeeze Jim in on the whiteboard. If necessary, use the eraser. Someone else might say, "There's a market statistic I'd like to include, but I'm not sure the latest data is available." No problem; note the idea wherever it belongs with a question mark in the circle. The placeholder will remind you that further research is needed.

Avoid wordsmithing ideas. If you get bogged down in debating the proper words, you'll impede the free flow of fresh concepts.

As the brainstorming proceeds, you'll find that ideas pop up all over the place. The ideas will shift, connect, disconnect, and duplicate as they seek relationships with other ideas. This is your right brain at work. As ideas continue to come up, they will move around. Let it happen. Relationships will emerge, change, and develop. Capture all the activity on the whiteboard.

The Spirit of the Brainstorm

While your team is brainstorming, the right brain must rule. Remember that most businesspeople are left-brain-oriented, conditioned by education and experience to apply logic, reason, and rules to every activity. Learn to stifle this tendency during your brainstorming. Avoid wordsmithing ideas. If you get bogged down in debating the proper words, you'll impede the free flow of fresh concepts. It's hard to avoid wordsmithing at first, but you'll find it surprisingly liberating.

Remember: There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Avoid censoring any ideas. The person whose idea is rejected is likely to feel rebuffed and might become reluctant to offer other ideas. When anyone mentions a new idea, jot it somewhere on the whiteboard, even if it strikes others as trivial or irrelevant. Even a needless idea can be useful because it can stimulate someone else to bring up a related fact that can turn out to be important. Get it all down. Don't worry about recording "too much" information; not everything on the whiteboard will end up in your presentation. Consider all ideas during brainstorming as candidates, not finalists. The right time to do the data dump is during your preparation!

Avoid thinking about structure, sequence, or hierarchy. If you find yourself wanting to say, "That idea ought to go up front," or "That idea ought to close the presentation," while other ideas are popping up, it would be like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. Structuring front-loads your mind with sequence, order, and linear thinking, the hallmarks of your powerful left brain. Instead, let the concepts tumble out in nonlinear fashion, just the way the synapses of your brain fire naturally. Think about structure later. Remember: Focus before flow.

Give yourself enough time to do a thorough data dump. Don't put down your markers the first time there's a long pause in the conversation. Chances are the group is just taking a mental breather. Most brainstorming sessions feature two or three false finishes, each followed by an explosion of new ideas, before the group has really exhausted its store of information and ideas.

When you are truly done, your whiteboard will be filled with lots of circles. At that point, the entire group will be able to see all the elements of your story, all the candidate ideas, laid out for easy examination and organization in a panoramic view.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should: It is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that many businesspeople use in strategic planning, product development, or problem-solving sessions. Well, these are the very same minds and the very same subject matter that go into a presentation. Why not use the same process?

One of the benefits of brainstorming is that it's like spreading out all the parts of a kid's bicycle onto the living room floor before you start trying to follow the all-too-complicated assembly directions or the way a chef lays out all the ingredients for a complicated dish before the cooking begins in what's called a mise en place. Spreading out the raw materials of your presentation gives you ready access to and control of all your ideas.

Contrast this approach with a left-brain, linear process. The typical left-brain method is to start by designing Slide 1: "Okay, we'll open with our company mission statement"; then Slide 2: "Now let's talk about the management team"; then Slide 3: "Now the statistics about the marketplace"; and so on. The problem is that, as you focus on the slides one by one, each slide effectively covers and hides the slide before. As a result, you're looking at only one concept at a time. You never see the whole story at once; therefore, you never see the best way to organize all its components into a single, compelling whole that flows powerfully from start to finish.

Instead, the brainstorming approach follows the right brain's natural functions. It allows your ideas to pour out in a random, nonlinear fashion, ensuring that every relevant concept (as well as every irrelevant one) gets a place on the radar screen. Later, you'll enlist the help of the left brain in bringing order to the raw materials you've generated.

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