How has The Onion managed to come up with so many hilarious headlines for so many years? According to a recent TED Ideas post by ex-Onion staffer Brian Janosch, the answer is a good, three-step brainstorming technique:

  1. Create ideas alone. "At The Onion, every story begins as a headline. There is no general call for ideas; instead, there is a call for 15 headlines from every writer," Janosh explains. The Onion's process begins with everybody coming up with their own ideas separately.
  2. Vet ideas as a group. "Because The Onion is dealing with such a high volume of headlines, it actually holds a short pre-meeting before the main creative session. This pre-meeting brings everyone together solely to separate the gems from the garbage--and 60 percent to 70 percent of the headlines are killed in an hour," he continues.
  3. Build on the best together. Finally, "people pitch and propose how each headline might play out as a full story; many of them can't. Only 3 percent of headlines survive this process, but those that do are rich and three-dimensional," he says.

There are obviously aspects of this process that are going to be unique to a media company. Your organization isn't likely to need hundreds of joke headlines a week. But the underlying process can work for nearly any company.

Published on: May 9, 2019