PR Insider: Top 5 Phrases That Derail a Brainstorm

Lauren Begley

Lauren Begley

There are countless books, blogs, workshops and podcasts dedicated to educating PR teams about harnessing creativity and fostering a culture of innovation. If you’ve ever led a brainstorm, you have likely put considerable thought around the group of participants, the meeting location, the necessary supplies and the focused objective. The session may have gone off without a hitch, or it may have hit some roadblocks along the way. Often, these roadblocks are found in the form of off-the-cuff phrases that are meant to encourage, correct or redirect the discussion—but in fact, they do the opposite.

Here is a look at the top five phrases that will derail your brainstorm, and some suggestions for rephrasing your point:

> There are no bad ideas.
Instead, say: “There will be no judgment for bad ideas.”

There are plenty of bad ideas that are so wildly off-base they won’t ever be up for serious consideration. However, that doesn’t mean participants shouldn’t share them with the group. While the initial idea might be too outrageous to execute, it might spark a concept in another participant’s mind that is much more aligned with the core goals of the brainstorm.

> We already tried that and it didn’t work.
Instead, say: “We tried something similar in the past, but we found a challenge with X. How could we improve upon that key lesson this time around?”

It’s often a good thing when a seasoned team member can bring institutional knowledge to the group. However, if they squash an idea because a similar tactics bombed in the past, it can stifle current creative thinking. Rather than squashing an idea completely, educate the group on why the idea failed before and troubleshoot new ways of addressing those challenges.

> Think outside the box.
Instead, say: “Think inside or outside of the box.”

We often think that the only creative ideas are those big, wacky ideas that knock everyone’s socks off. This belief is dangerous for two reasons. First, it scares people who don’t naturally think “outside of the box” into believing that they are incapable of being creative. Second, it causes people to overlook really great ideas that may reside within the box. Innovation can be simple and easy to execute.

> We want quality over quantity.
Instead, say: “Let’s think of as many ideas as possible, and narrow it down from there.”

While the ultimate goal of brainstorming sessions is to generate quality ideas, this won’t happen if you don’t start with a large quantity of ideas. Encourage your team to share as many ideas as possible in the early stages of brainstorming. The quality ideas will rise to the top.

> We don’t have the budget to do something like that.
Instead, say: “That’s an interesting idea. How could we take that idea and apply it on a smaller scale?”

Budget should not limit ideation. In most cases, creative ideas can be scaled up or down within a realistic budget. What’s more, if the idea is strong enough, a client or manager may be able to locate additional funding to bring the big idea to life.

The key to a productive brainstorm session is striking a balance between pragmatic solutions and inspired creativity. Statements like those mentioned above are typically meant to be positive, but can ultimately direct your group down the wrong path. If you feel one of these phrases percolating in your mind, bite your tongue!

Lauren Begley is an account supervisor at Peppercomm. Follow her on Twitter: @LaurenBegley.


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  • Nadia

    Wow. Patronising much?

  • Anthony Simeone

    Ultimately, I think that the word “No” does more to damage brainstorming than any other utterance. Never, ever say “no” to someone’s brainstorm idea. Just hear them out, because as you mention above even the most outrageous idea can spark thoughts of a more practical nature. To dismiss someone’s idea out of hand not only limits the potential for related ideas, but can also frustrate that person and therefore limit their further contribution to the brainstorming. A frustrated collaborator is not going to collaborate well!

  • Joshua

    Why don’t you brainstorm electronically instead? It get’s rid of all of this issues associated with people saying No and being naysayers. Being able to essentially make an anonymous list then allows ideas to be raised first, and then narrowed later. There are a couple of tools like GroupMap which we have used which help with this.