5 ice-breakers for your next brainstorming session

Feeling creativity’s cold shoulder? These activities can help get ideas cooking for your team.

Have you ever left a brainstorming session, only to feel that you’ve wasted your time? The solution could lie in how you begin.

As PR professionals, we are masters of multitasking. We juggle such tasks as creating communications plans, pitching reporters the latest breaking story, and editing a presentation, all while thumbing through emails on our smartphones and updating our Twitter feeds.

It’s no wonder that when we enter a brainstorm session, our minds aren’t always fully engaged or ready to spout out creativity on demand. This is why the first five minutes of your brainstorm is crucial.

Ice-breakers are short activities at the beginning of the session meant to calm the mind and usher in creative thinking. These activities are not for the purpose of generating creative ideas for the brand, organization, or issue at hand (though, we welcome it when it happens). Rather, they help refocus the group from the hectic demands of their workday to a calm, mind-expanding setting where ideas can take root and thrive.

Here are my top five brainstorm ice-breakers:

The brick: Ask your group to think about an average red brick. Then, have everyone spend five minutes coming up with as many uses for that brick as possible, either on paper or out loud. Once they hit on the obvious uses like a doorstop or a paperweight, their minds will force them to think about more innovative solutions. This ice-breaker focuses the mind on creative solutions and helps participants practice looking at something common in a new way.

Bumper sticker: Hand out a sheet of blank paper or an index card to each participant. Ask the group members to create a bumper sticker that summarizes the challenge of the brainstorm. By forcing everyone to consolidate the problem to one word, phrase or image, you simplify the problem—at least mentally—which will make it easier to come up with a solution during the conceptual portion of the brainstorm.

Word association: Select a random word or phrase and write it on the board. Ask the participants to share any words that come to mind when they think of that word and write them on the board as well. (Some prefer a “web” writing format.) For example, “sports car” might evoke “speed,” “Autobahn,” and “mid-life crisis.” Then, select a sampling of words from those words and free-associate with those as well. When you step back and look at all the words the group has generated, you can look for interesting or surprising connections. This ice-breaker will teach the group to expand their view of “what’s relevant.”

Ad play: Tear out advertisements from a recent magazine or newspaper and hand one out to everyone in the group (or two small groups of two or three). Give everyone five minutes to “reimagine the ad” as though it is telling a story about the brand, organization, or issue the brainstorm will focus on that day. Then, have each person or group present the new version ad to the group.

Plan a party: Describe the target audience to the group. Then, ask the participants to plan a party for that audience. Where would it be? What would be the theme? What music would they play? What food would they serve? What entertainment would they feature? By getting in the mindset of the target audience, the group will be better prepared to come up with relevant ideas during the brainstorm portion of the meeting.

Brainstorming is about creative thinking, but unless we deliberately shift our minds away from our day-to-day demands, we will have difficulty tapping into that part of our collective psyche.

Lauren Begley is an account supervisor at Peppercomm, as well as the founder and editor of The Innovation Mill, She has published for PRWeek, PR News, commPRO and Manager’s Edge and has been a featured speaker for a number of webinars and workshops about social media. In 2011, she was named one of PR News’ “Top 15 PR Professionals to Watch.”

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