Since its humble beginnings as a crank newspaper put out by college students in 1988, satirical news source The Onion has been cracking Americans up with headlines like "Kitten Thinks of Nothing but Murder All Day" and "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job" (to mark the inauguration of President Obama).

How has it managed to come up with so many hilarious headlines for so many years? According to fascinating recent TED Ideas post by ex-Onion staffer Brian Janosch, the answer is a really, really good  brainstorming technique -- one you can totally steal.

The difference between good and bad brainstorming is huge.

Before we get to Janosch's advice, it's worth noting just how tricky good brainstorming can be. You'd think sitting in a room and throwing out random ideas would be pretty straightforward, but science shows that traditional group brainstorming doesn't work well. Other studies suggest that being strategic about how ideas are generated and discussed can radically increase your output of good ideas.

It appears the folks at The Onion have read this science based on their simple but effective approach to brainstorming. Here are the three steps Janosch outlines:

  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. Contrary to what you might imagine, these headlines don't come from an over-caffeinated group around a big, messy table -- in fact, The Onion's process begins with everybody apart. Everyone is allowed to come up with ideas at their own pace, in their own space," explains Janosch.

  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. This can be a ruthless thing to endure as a creative person, but it's ultimately in service of the process," 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. Each idea that survives this process is crafted with care, and it's been tested by the group and built up by the team. By the time it's ready to move into production, it's bigger and better than when it began."

There are obviously aspects of this process that are going to be unique to a media company. You organization isn't likely to need hundreds of joke headlines a week. But the underlying process can work for nearly any company. It is backed by science and it works for several reasons.

Three reasons this is a great way to brainstorm.

First, it's a great way to ensure quieter voices get heard. "As we strive for more diversity in the workplace -- creating spaces that respect all voices -- there's something innately exclusionary about the 'get in a room and spitball' model. Not just that men have a propensity to dominate these rooms, 'cause we're working on that right, guys? But it's a space that caters entirely to extroverts," Janosch writes. 

Second, by setting a target for many (but short) initial ideas, you are going to get lots of them, but most will be less than great. That's by design according to Janosch. "By intentionally creating excess, you automatically set a quality standard but you also prevent people from getting precious about their ideas," he explains.

Finally, stripping these ideas of anything that ties them to their creators in the initial vetting meeting prevents emotions and politics from getting in the way of clear-eyed evaluation. "By detaching the idea from creator, you're giving every idea its own chance to thrive," Janosch concludes.

Interested in stealing The Onion's approach to brainstorming? Check out the original post for lots more details.

Published on: Apr 10, 2019
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