How to supercharge your digital PR ideations for better ideas.

In this article Where ideas come from Go with the flow to create new ideas Structuring your ideations Engage your Executive Attention Network

Ideas are fleeting things. The good ones usually spark when you least expect them and, if you’re like me, you’ll race to grab a pen before that ember dies away into darkness. The trouble is that it can be tricky to conjure new ideas in a pressurised work environment with all the distractions that come with office life.

Digital PR thrives on an ecosystem of ideas designed to excite journalists and readers. It makes the process of coming up with a new angle or campaign the most exciting part of the job but also the most daunting. Some people simply don’t feel they’re creative enough. Others find it difficult to work out what’s the right idea for their needs.

The good news? Creativity is a process, not sorcery, and I’m going to tell you how to have ideations that consistently deliver good ideas you’ll want to run with.

Where ideas come from

Before we get into the ideation process, let’s explore how ideas are actually born. Forget the notion of people being ‘left-brained’ and ‘right-brained’ – science has since debunked this. Instead, a 2013 study by cognitive neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico suggests creative cognition stems from a network of ‘hubs’ in the brain, each of which handles a different creative task.

Within this we have something called the Executive Attention Network, which is called into action when we’re focusing on tasks. We also have the Default Network, where we imagine different perspectives, consider the future or think about what someone else is thinking. It’s this network that comes into play when we’re daydreaming, allowing us to come up with new ideas in a low stress environment. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘flow state’, or ‘being in the zone’.

Go with the flow to create new ideas

This Default Network is the key to helping us come up with ideas. When we’re being critical and analytical we’re tapping into the Executive Attention Network, which won’t necessarily get us into that flow state we need for those lightbulb moments of inspiration.

So, instead of sitting down and trying to force ideas, engage the Default Network by going out for a walk, doing mundane chores or just looking out of the window and daydreaming. Ideas are about making connections between disparate elements – and sometimes these connections are made without us even thinking about them. This is known as ‘divergent thinking’.

One of the ways we encourage divergent thinking in our own ideation sessions is by starting with the ‘alternative uses’ exercise. Here the leader gives the group an object and everyone has a minute to come up with alternate uses for that object. For example, if you have a hot water bottle maybe you could use that as a nifty ferret house or a shatter-proof vase. This is also a great way to get people to relax before the ideation kicks off.

Structuring your ideations

The worst thing you can do when it comes to an ideation is to throw a bunch of people in a room and say: “So… does anyone have any ideas?” Every ideation needs a framework to encourage creativity and openness from participants. We do it like this:

  • Divergent thinking exercise (2 mins)
  • Review of brief (3 mins)
  • Silent ideation (20 mins)
  • Spotlighting (20 mins)
  • Voting (5 mins)

We’ve already talked about the divergent thinking exercise, so let’s break down the rest of the session.

Review of brief:
This shouldn’t be the first time that participants see the brief. A 15-minute briefing session a couple of days before the main ideation will give people time to come up with potential ideas using their Default Network. The review in the session is just a quick refresher of your objective and what the ideation is for.

Silent ideation:
The meat and potatoes of the session. Pass out packs of sticky notes and have participants fill out ideas. If it’s an online meeting, software like Ideaflip lets you use virtual sticky notes. The aim is to fill as many notes as possible, even if ideas are half-formed. The small writing format means you don’t have much space to waffle on: ideas are short and to the point.

Once you have a wall full of ideas, take it in turns to go around the room and have participants talk about their ideas. At this point encourage others to jump in and develop ideas or add in their own if they’re similar enough. Here you want to be making ‘idea clusters’, which will help you build out a solid campaign later in the process. The important part here is that there are no bad ideas. Being critical at this moment triggers the Executive Attention Network, blocking imagination and potentially discouraging others from sharing their thoughts. The time for criticism comes next.

Now that you’ve got a lovely wall of idea clusters, it’s time for participants to vote. In a virtual situation you can throw markers or stickers over the ideas you like, or if you’re in person just hand everyone a coloured Sharpie and ask them to dot their favourites.

Engage your Executive Attention Network

Here’s where you use your critical expertise to shape your final ideas. We always bring in one expert from another area of the business (design, web development, SEO or content) to mould ideas based on how well they think they’ll work in the media, how feasible they are given the available budget, what kind of content we want to put on the site and so on. This crucial final stage is designed to get the idea into a form where it could be executed, so fire up your Executive Attention Network and sort the good ideas from the bad.

Ideas may be fleeting, but with this mindset and structure you’ll have your team dreaming up incredible digital PR campaigns in no time.

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