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Time to stop brainstorming

Brainstorms don’t work; at least not in my experience. And that’s a dirty little secret that no one likes to admit. I interviewed dozens of creators and commissioners of successful factual TV programmes and asked how many commissions they’d won as the result of a brainstorm: they invariably looked embarrassed and admitted they couldn’t think of one. 

Nonetheless, brainstorming is popular because it’s a fast way to come up with lots of ideas; it provides time out from ordinary work and often involves biscuits. But a properly run brainstorm takes hours to organise. You have to find a mutually acceptable time for the ‘right’ attendees; write a brainstorm plan; devise an ice-breaking exercise; assemble stimuli and track down a flip chart and marker pens.

Everyone leaves a brainstorm feeling they’ve been ‘creative’ but all they’ve really created is a pile of self-adhesive notes. If there are any decent ideas among the biscuit crumbs, someone still has to research the subject, structure a programme idea and write a proposal. And you can bet no one has time to do that kind of grunt work on an idea over which they have no sense of individual ownership. Brainstorming is like a snow flurry in the city: pretty for an hour or two but nothing sticks - if it does, it turns to slush overnight.

If you add up the time it takes to run a brainstorm and multiply by the number of people in the session, it costs, at a conservative estimate, around £500 for a two-hour session. Thirty minutes spent one-on-one is much more cost effective. Especially if that time is spent with a commissioner. Indeed, brainstorms that take place in a commissioner’s office often do work but only because it behoves everyone to defer to the commissioner’s own ideas. Commissioning editors are more likely to buy into ideas they’ve helped originate. But that’s not a brainstorm, it’s a conversation.

Next time someone suggests a brainstorm, do yourself a favour: use some creative techniques to originate channel-appropriate ideas using your knowledge of the market. And then go talk to a commissioner.

Nicola Lees is the founder of tvmole.com and author of Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch.

Posted 06 September 2010 by Nicola Lees
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