Brainstorming: Doing the Data Dump Productively
Here's how to do productive Brainstorming:
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.
There are several high-tech products on the market that 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.
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.
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 his or 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.
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.
As each concept comes up, the entire group should help to explode the concept. For example, once "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."
Continue to do the same for other concepts that people in the group suggest. There are certain concepts that 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 3.3.
FIGURE 3.3 A typical Brainstorming whiteboard.
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.
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 may 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, since it may stimulate someone else to bring up a related fact that may 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.
Roman Columns: The Technique of Clustering
Brainstorming will generate a host of ideas of varying importance, loosely related to one another. The first step in getting from this relative chaos to an organized, clearly focused presentation is a technique known as Clustering.
Actually, we've already used Clustering to a degree. In the previous group Brainstorming example, every time the group exploded a concept into a series of related concepts, forming a group of linked circles on the whiteboard, they created a cluster. These clusters reflected the natural relationships among the ideas as they poured out during Brainstorming: parents and children.
Clustering is a necessary technique for organizing any complex material for presentation to an audience. It's also an ancient concept, dating back to the classic rhetoricians of Greece and Rome.
There's a story, probably apocryphal, about a Roman orator whose memory was legendary. (It may have been Cicero, although the documentation is sparse.) The orator often spoke in the Roman Forum extemporaneously for hours, without referring to a single note. His secret was a memory technique that is still used today. We can imagine him explaining it to a curious admirer in a dialogue like this: "You asked me how I can speak coherently at length, without written notes. Did you notice today how I walked around the Forum as I spoke?"
"Indeed I did. I assumed you did so in order to reach out to those in every corner of the audience."
"In part," replied the orator. "But there was a more important reason. As I walked from point to point around the edges of the Forum, I paused for a time at six different marble columns. Those columns are my memory aids. Each one symbolizes and reminds me of one group of ideas. Thus, rather than memorizing dozens of particular details, I have to recall only the six key ideas. Each of those key ideas evokes the details related to it."
Did Cicero really use this technique 2,000 years ago? No one knows for sure. But today I urge my clients to use the same technique in their presentations. Clustering lets you reduce the 40 or 50 ideas that fill your whiteboard to five or six Roman columns, the key ideas that will organize all the rest. Each column has a group of subordinate ideas. Now instead of trying to organize many ideas at the detail level, you can organize them at the 35,000-foot level.
When you look at your whiteboard filled with ideas, you will find key clusters emerging from the chaos. Examine the whiteboard and use a new colored marker to highlight the most significant ideas. The idea is to make the parents stand out visually from the mass of data, as in Figure 3.4.
FIGURE 3.4 Parents and children.
As your group works on identifying clusters, you may find yourselves identifying links and connections that didn't occur to you before. That's fine; just draw lines on the board as needed, or erase and redraw the circles if necessary. You may find yourself shifting concepts around: "Say, doesn't that point about the changing demographics of our market belong with 'Key Trends' rather than with 'Sales Potential'?" "How about connecting 'Cost Savings' to 'Customer Benefits' instead of to 'Unique Product Features'?" No problem; move the children and link them to the most appropriate parent.
If some ideas seem to have no connection to any of your Roman columns, now is the time to ask whether those ideas are truly relevant and necessary. Perhaps they don't deserve to survive the transition to the finished presentation. And if you think of new ideas now that ought to be inserted, go ahead and add them. That's not at all unusual.
As you can see, the technique of Clustering begins the process of organizing and introducing logic into the presentation. After having deliberately held back your left brain, you can now let it begin to get into the act.
Splat and Polish
You may be tempted to short-circuit the process by skipping the Brainstorming stage. "Why not start with clusters of key ideas?" you might say. "I could probably sit down right now and list the five main points we need to emphasize. That would save us all a lot of time." That's your logical left brain speaking. It wants to avoid the messy, uncontrolled process of free association. But the human mind doesn't work that way.
Start by unloading a "Splat!" of ideas in whatever order they came out, free-form, a classic Data Dump. Organize them later, and later still polish them into words and sentences and paragraphs and, ultimately, into slides. I call this process Splat and Polish.
In my many years in the media, I've learned that this same process is followed by most professional writers, from novelists to journalists to playwrights to technical writers to historians. Not one of them will write a single page of text until they've done their research, brooded over their topic, and assembled a mass of notes about it. They may note their ideas on Post-Its, on dog-eared index cards, in spiral-bound notebooks, or simply in stacks of loose pages. Those notes, of course, are their Data Dump.
Results-oriented businesspeople, unfortunately, don't use the same process when creating a presentation, or for that matter, when writing a report, a speech, or a memo. That's the way businesspeople are accustomed to think: Get to the endpoint as quickly as possible. Find the shortest distance between two points. They figure that the quickest way to get a presentation done is to just start writing. Logical, yes? Yes, and wrong.
Here's a story that illustrates the pitfalls that the Splat and Polish philosophy can help you avoid:
Judy Tarabini (now McNulty) was a vice president in the technology unit of the Hill and Knowlton Public Relations Agency when Ben Rosen, continuing his promise to help me grow my business, introduced me to the firm. After I delivered my program successfully to one of Judy's clients, she began to call on me regularly for her other clients.
In 1993, Judy joined the corporate communications department of Adobe Systems. It wasn't long before she called on me to work with Adobe. This time she had a high-level, mission-critical presentation: Adobe was about to introduce its Acrobat product, and they were planning to have their entire senior management team, about 15 strong, fan out into the market to make launch presentations. Judy was so positive about my program, she convinced Adobe's entire senior management team, including the founding chairman and CEO, John Warnock, and his co-founding partner and president, Chuck Geschke, to participate in a story development session with me.
As always, we started with a blank slate. I stepped up to the immaculate whiteboard in the amply appointed executive conference room at Adobe's then-brand-new corporate headquarters in Mountain View. (They have since moved to even newer and more advanced facilities in San Jose.)
I started drawing out the executives. We began with Point B, we continued on to the WIIFY, then we moved on to the Brainstorming. As those very bright and very high-powered people spouted their thoughts, I raced to capture them on the whiteboard. We got lots of clusters: the Acrobat rollout schedule, the distribution plan, the Acrobat partners, the product benefits, the market, and many more. Before long, the whiteboard was filled to the edges with clusters of ideas.
Then there was a pause. I looked around the room and said, "Please take a moment and look at all the clusters on the whiteboard. Tell me whether we need to alter any of the ideas, whether we need to consider shifting associations, or whether we've omitted anything."
A thoughtful silence ensued. Then suddenly, reverberating in the silence, there was a sharp thwack! Chuck Geschke had slapped his palm against his forehead, as in the "I shoulda' had a V-8!" television commercials. Then he broke into a sheepish grin and said, "We've left out what Acrobat does!"
Does that sound odd? Sure it does. But it happens a lot. You're so close to your business that it's easy to take key ideas for granted, to overlook or forget about concepts that are second nature to you but unfamiliar to your audience members. That's one huge reason why you should never try to end run the Brainstorming process and rush past story development. Take the time to make certain that everything (and I mean everything) that may be relevant has had a chance to surface. Realizing what you omitted five minutes before the start of your presentation will be too late!