So what’s the big idea? It’s a clearly-articulated concept that compels, unifies, differentiates, explains, inspires or motivates. I like Chris Wirthwein’s definition, in particular the elements of simplicity, originality and surprise. But like the judge’s definition of obscenity, ‘it’s hard to define but you’ll know it when you see it’. Whatever your ‘big idea’ might be, this article will help you find it.
Train your muse to find your big idea
Writers have a complicated relationship with their muse. This wonderful podcast from RadioLab explores Me, Myself, and Muse, talking to famous writers about their relationship with their muse and how they train it.
IBM has ‘Think Fridays’ and Google has 20 percent time. If you gave yourself a day a week or a week every month, could you come up with a big idea? Sure!
When we’re creating personas or researching content for our clients, we love to do interviews. In fact, a good rule of thumb is one interview for every 500-1,000 words of content. There’s something magical about the way a good interview – an intelligent conversation, really – can illuminate a topic and spark new ideas.
Create a ‘Skunk Works’
The original Skunk Works was a division at Lockheed Martin, founded by aviation genius Kelly Johnson. Today it takes decades to design and build a new fighter aircraft. The Skunk Works went from contract to first flight on the A-12 (predecessor of the famous SR-71) in two years. Johnson had 14 rules for his Skunk Works that allowed him to streamline the paperwork and bypass bureaucracy. What could a small, focused team achieve in your organisation?
Use the Pomodoro technique to help concentration
A giant tomato could be the answer. Concentrate for 25 minutes at a time and then take a break. It’s a mind-hack that helps you focus better. The Pomodoro technique, as it’s known, works for many people (although not for Articulate alumnus Toby Knott, as he reported in his article: I did it for science: Pomodoro and other time management techniques.)
Always carry a notebook
Inspiration can strike at any time. If you have a good notebook ready you can capture it. Personally I like Microsoft OneNote.
Change the venue
I’ve tried writing on the Underground, coworking spaces, airport lounges and on the plane and in coffee shops. Mostly I work from home. Sometimes a change of scene is enough to produce a change of mind.
Ask for help
Give yourself a deadline
Deadlines have psychological power. We find ‘sprint weeks’ helpful for tackling big, complicated tasks. You can reinforce a deadline with celebrations, t-shirts, team building and funny project names. Fear of loss is also a motivator, if used carefully. For example Write or die actually deletes your copy if you don’t type fast enough.
Use Pinterest to gather inspiration
Pinterest can be a great source of inspiration and a tool for collecting visual references. I’ve always found it a great help on design projects, for example, especially because I can’t draw or sketch and I need a way to show other people what I’m thinking.
Brainstorming your big idea
Brainstorms can be a huge suck of energy and creativity but, done right, they can help a team do more together than they could individually. IDEO’s 7 rules of brainstorming are very helpful:
- Defer judgment
- Encourage wild ideas
- Build on the ideas of others
- Stay focused on the topic
- One conversation at a time
- Be visual
- Go for quantity
Try mind mapping
Mind mapping is a good way to see unexpected connections between things.
Go for a walk
A good long walk can be the best place for breakthrough thinking.
Meditation and mindfulness
At Articulate, we like Calm, an app that helps you meditate, de-stress and sleep better. We buy it for all our staff.
Buy random magazines
Occasionally, when I’m bored, for example when I’m stuck at an airport, I love to buy random magazines about unfamiliar hobbies and interests.
The new words and the enthusiasm always inspires me. This is why I like Readly, a website that does for magazines what Spotify does for music.
Learn something new
Learning a new language is good for writers. It’s like holding up a mirror to our own working language and it shakes loose our habits and conventions.
Indeed, at Articulate, we let staff use their ‘Happiness Account’ to pay for language lessons. Currently, one is learning Dutch and another Italian. In fact, learning anything is good for creativity.
Get a good to-do list
It’s hard to be creative and come up with a big ideas if you’re stressed out with lots of little problems. That doesn’t mean doing everything else first.
Instead, a good to-do list will let you capture all your tasks so you’re not worrying about them and so that you don’t have the burden of remembering them. I like ToDoist.
Watch a random TED talk
I suppose everyone knows about TED talks now but the Surprise Me feature is a clever way of inviting serendipity.
Change your big idea strategy
Just draw the rest of the owl
Get started somehow and take care of the details later.
Although Yoda put it nicely, Theodore Roosevelt has the last word about the value of starting, doing, trying and ‘daring greatly’. Don’t let the critics (including the one in your own head) get in the way of having a great idea.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.