There's something intimidating about a blank page of flipchart paper. Even if you've set up your brainstorming session for success, when your team members gaze at the empty page, they're likely to think: "Nope, I don't have any ideas. Not even one."

That's why you should try the exercise for breaking the ice or kicking off brainstorming known as "newspaper blackout."

Developed by writer and author Austin Kleon, newspaper blackout is based on the concept that it's easier (and more fun) to cross things out than it is to create ideas from scratch. 

In his book, Newspaper Blackout, Kleon recalls how he started using a Sharpie to black out newspaper pages to create a kind of poetry. He was trying to be a short story writer, but he was blocked. 

"One day, I looked over at a stack of newspapers," Kleon writes. "I might have had no words, but there, right beside me, were millions of them.

"So, fed up with my short story attempts and failures, I picked up a permanent marker and started blacking out words, leaving a choice few uncovered. I didn't know what I was doing, or why. All I knew was that it was fun to watch those words disappear behind that fat black marker line. It didn't feel like work, it felt like play."

That feeling of play is what you want to create in brainstorming as well--that participants aren't struggling or sweating, but instead are using their fabulous brains to develop awesome ideas.

Kleon offers a simple recipe for creating newspaper blackout "poems": 

  • Grab a newspaper.
  • Grab a marker.
  • Find an article.
  • Box the words you like.
  • Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like.
  • Black out the words you don't need.
  • Pretty soon you'll have a poem.
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    To adapt the blackout idea for brainstorming, I recommend these eight steps:

    1. Rip pages out of a newspaper like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. (Newspapers that are more copy rich are better than those that are very visual, like USA Today.) By the way, you can use two-page spreads from magazines, too. I find that The New Yorker, The Economist and BusinessWeek all work well.
    2. Create a specific assignment that relates to something you're trying to accomplish through brainstorming (or, if you're using the exercise as an icebreaker, to a topic relevant to your team). For example, I've created assignments like: "Describe how internal communication helps organizations succeed" or "Convey what problems customers need us to help them solve."
    3. Divide your participants into teams of two to six people. 
    4. Give each team a newspaper page and both a thin and a thick black marker and ask them to complete a newspaper blackout concept that answers the assignment question.
    5. Allow at least 15 to 20 minutes for the teams to do their exercise. If a team gets a little stuck, offer guidance, including Kleon's advice: "What you're doing when you're making a blackout poem, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, is 'shopping for images.' You want to begin looking for a word, or a combination of words, that forms an image in your head. You want an anchor--a place to start. If you identify this anchor, it's easy to branch out from there."
    6. If a team gets very stuck, see if providing a different newspaper page will help.
    7. Ask each team to present and narrate its finished work.
    8. Post the pages on the wall and perhaps on a bulletin board in your work area.

    And remember: Have fun! The newspaper blackout technique is helpful, but it shouldn't be too serious.