How To Lead an Effective Brainstorming Session

Nov 29, 2022 Samantha McGarry

We’ve all been there. Someone calls a brainstorming session and you all turn up, but either no one speaks or everyone has wild ideas that don’t apply to the goal of the meeting. That’s because a productive brainstorm requires focus and structure – both of which, I know, sound counterintuitive to the general randomness of idea generation. But trust me on this. 

Here are some tried and true tips to help you run or participate in a fulfilling brainstorm with your work squad: 

Prep yourself and others 
  • Ensure all participants have some context about the objective and what’s expected of them.
  • Provide some advanced materials, but not too many. From a strategic comms lens, this may include background on the initiative, target audiences, scope of resources and an overview of what’s been done before versus what’s brand new territory. 

Set the tone 
  • Avoid the typical conference room setting if possible. I like when people can sit on the floor, in comfy chairs or even outside. It’s nice to provide things that participants can fidget with, too, if you have them handy. 
  • Set the scene, and let everyone know that all ideas and voices are welcome. The only bad ideas are the ones that aren’t communicated, even if half-baked. 
  • Remind people not to be distracted by limiting thoughts like, “there’s not enough budget,” “no one would ever agree to this” or “we tried it before and it didn’t work.”
  • Have a whiteboard or big post-it notes and/or assign a notetaker. Aim to capture as much as possible, even if none of it makes complete sense. Record the session if you can. 
  • Read the room and watch the clock. Is someone hogging the air? Do people look bored or uncertain? Diplomatically invite everyone to share the time and space you have available. Let them know that they can follow up with thoughts afterward, too.
  • Step in if needed to change the energy. Encourage the group to step back and assess the larger picture, ask a “what if” question or invite people to imagine the other side of the coin. 

Reflect and decide next steps 
  • Designate a small group to review and vet the ideas discussed. 
  • Assess which ideas are strategies and which are tactics. A new strategy might be the realization there’s an entirely new audience worth exploring or a new story worth crafting. The tactics would be the channels used to execute the ideas.
  • Assign the ideas into buckets. These are the buckets I like to use, but you can certainly create your own, of course. 
    • Totally wackadoodle 
    • Viable/worth exploring
    • Never gonna happen

This system will help decide which ideas have “legs” right now, which to save for the future and which should never be spoken of again.

What you do with the ideas at this stage is totally up to you. You could share them with your team for a gut check or with clients as a delightful surprise (we love to exceed expectations). Or you can fully flesh them out or bake them into a strategic plan. Or all of the above. 

A successful brainstorming session, for me, is like an injection of energy and excitement. The feeling of potential is contagious and empowering. 


Topics: Leadership, teamwork, brainstorming
Samantha McGarry

Samantha is the executive vice president of Story Crafting at Inkhouse. Her curiosity for business and technology - combined with her love of semantics and communication - has translated into a 20+ year career in PR.

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