I’ve written about James Webb Young’s approach to ideation in the past. Recently, when I re-read his book, I realized that my creative thinking approach to completing my 2nd book followed the same steps he described in 1936. It’s amazing how his little book has stood the test of time.
How often do you struggle with writers’ block or creative impediments? Well, it happens to me ALL the time. I don’t have a panacea per se. After 2 books and more than 300 blog posts, I have some suggestions for how to confront them, remove barriers, and get your creative juices to flow again. I’ve discovered that my way of overcoming creative blocks is very similar to the techniques described by James Webb Young in his short book: A Technique for Producing Ideas: The simple, five-step formula anyone can use to be more creative in business and in life!
James Webb Young is a forgotten icon in the advertising industry
Most modern marketers remember great ad-men such as David Ogilvy, William Bernbach, Jay Chiat, Leo Burnett, and others. However, Young’s prolific contribution and experience ranged from writing unique headlines and copy, expanding J. Walter Thompson’s (JWT) international network, teaching Advertising at the University of Chicago, serving the U.S. Department of Commerce, transforming the War Advertising Council into the Advertising Council and more.
Young used the lectures he created as the basis for his critically acclaimed book, How to Become an Advertising Man. In today’s world of content marketing, we call that repurposing content! I am particularly fond of another of his books, A Technique for Producing Ideas. This book was first published in 1939 and has weathered the test of time. It’s still relevant today
When I was reading the book, it felt as if it was describing my own creative journey
Before producing ideas, Young argued that it’s important to train your mind to think and processing information in certain ways, he called it “method.” Obviously, you want to produce ideas related to specific fields or products. Your knowledge, expertise, and insights in the fields provide the foundation to guide your thinking process in which he called “principles.” As I was reading about his explanation of methods and principles, I thought about the way I went about writing my first book. My “method” of going about the writing is to validate my own experience through researching, reading and interviewing others. My “principle” was the knowledge and experience which I use to formulate the 4 P’s of Global Content Marketing: Plan, Produce, Promote and Perfect.
I didn’t know it at that time, but the method and principle helped put random thoughts into perspective and guided my creative thinking. Young went on to explain the idea that I emphasized several times in my blog posts and both of my books: creative thinking starts with the ability to connect the dots. He quoted Vilfredo Pareto who coined the term, the 80/20 rule: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” I am so glad that Young and I see eye-to-eye.
He went on to elaborate that “the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships… To some minds, each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others, it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities.” When I read those statements, I was nodding like crazy. Yes, that’s exactly how creative thinking works for me. In my podcast episode 39 which I recorded from Lima, Peru, I talked about the importance of content localization and, somehow, made a connection between the name of Chinese Restaurants and brand/messaging localization of Tide, Head and Shoulders, and Pantene.
Young’s 5-step ideation process (for producing ideas):
- Gather raw material
- Digest raw material mentally
- Unconscious Processing
- The A-Ha moment
- Ideas meet reality
1. Gather raw material
This is what I can “research.” Doing research and understand your topic is the starting point. In the marketing world, you need to understand what you want to accomplish through your marketing efforts, whom you market to and what to say about your products as well as the relevant marketing channels. This is what Young called “specific materials.”
Young asserted that good copywriting comes from an intimate understanding of a product and its relationship with its customers. In addition, you need to continuously gather general materials. Be curious. “In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.” Again, this also makes perfect sense to me.
When I was writing my second book, Effective Sales Enablement, my specific knowledge is in marketing, yet I brought my general knowledge about my life events such as my travel observations, my son’s approach to determine his college major, and my husband’s music collections into my book. If you are curious about how these events tie with sales enablement, you can pre-order my book here Young pointed out that an advertisement is like the construction of a pattern within a kaleidoscope. “The more of the elements of that world which are stored away in that pattern-making machine, the mind, the more the chances are increased for the production of new and striking combinations, or ideas.”
Young also gave two important suggestions for this first step
The usage of index-cards: if you have any sort of specific material, write each item on a card. After a while, you can begin to classify them. The index-card method is very similar to using Post-It notes and sticking them on a wall to help you think through your ideas. In the digital age, I am in front of my computer all the time, I tend to use presentation slides like index cards to crystallize my thinking.
The second suggestion by Young is to use a scrapbook, especially for the general material gathering. Journaling these general raw materials – without concern for formatting, structure, or organization – is key. Young initially had no concept of how this would fit strategically into a purpose. He simply had been habituated into journaling his thoughts on a regular basis, no matter how seemingly insignificant or irrelevant they were.
2. Digest the material mentally
Once you’ve done your due diligence with the first step, the second step involves mentally digesting the raw materials you have gathered. Young found that this stage of the process “is harder to describe in concrete terms because it goes entirely on inside your head.” During this step, you’re looking to synthesize the seemingly unrelated and random bits of information in order to find a meaning of some sort.
However, you don’t have to get too intense during this step. In fact, doing so will often work against you. “What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and felt them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit.”
Although I may not use index cards to pull different thoughts together, I often write things down to see if I can somehow build the relationships among them. At this stage, ideas aren’t fully formulated, and you won’t necessarily find your Eureka! moment, but documenting them is absolutely essential to the overall process of ideation. They are precursors of sorts to your actual Eureka! moment. The second thing is, you’ll undoubtedly get ridiculously tired and fed up with this process and want to let it go – but don’t quit. The mind, after all, cautions Young, has a second wind of sorts, and you have to hold out for it.
3. Unconscious processing
Webb also emphasizes the significance of this phase despite the fact that it isn’t actionable in nature. At some point, you’ll become completely hopeless and dejected and begin to feel about as useful as a discarded styrofoam take-out container. That’s the signal that you’ve done all you can to find that new combination or new ideas. This is the stage that I’d call “let it go.” The point of getting outside of your own head during this process is to decompress and move on to other tasks at hand while you allow your thoughts to synthesize and incubate. Based on my experience, this stage is essential, even though it’s a little messy and disorganized.
I found this stage vital for the writing of my second book, Effective Sales Enablement. I interviewed a lot of sales professionals, marketers and sales enablement managers, all of which had different experiences, different approaches, and different backgrounds. The information I gathered from them was raw. I needed to synthesize, find commonalities and structure their approaches in a logical way. I needed to present this so that readers would be able to understand. While I was trying to structure the materials, I got lost and frustrated several times. I had to walk away and not to think about them for several days. This stage of the ideation process is about taking time to internalize the material.
4. The Eureka Moment
Next, we move to the “constantly thinking about it” stage. I call it the stage of active simmering. It’s hard to say how long this stage will take. For me, I make a conscious effort to “think” and “rethink” the ideas to foster the incubation when I take my morning shower or even during my yoga practice. I am relaxed, but not totally relaxed. However, I often find a Eureka moment will just sneak up on me when I least expect it. While writing Effective Sales Enablement, it was difficult to write the opening part of each chapter. I wanted to bring some personality to each specific sales enablement topics.
The Eureka moment always came when my mind was floating between the unconscious and active thinking stages. The active thinking part is critical for me even when I reach an impasse on a client project and don’t have a good idea on how to proceed. To get past it, I gather all the information, make an effort to connect the dots, walk away for a while, then came back to proactively think it all through. Viola! Something always come up when I follow the process.
5. The Cold, Grey Dawn of the Morning After
This is literally what Young called it. “In this stage, you have to take your little newborn idea out into the world of reality.” Soon you’ll realize that your new idea is not as marvellous as you think. According to Young, it’s important to submit your ideas to the criticism of the judicious. Then, you refine your ideas and make it even better. This is similar to the MVP (minimal viable product) stage of a start-up. You have an idea or a product which is ready to be tested.
Using the feedback you gather, hopefully, you can make the products better and be ready for the real product launch. For my book writing, I submitted my final version of each chapter to my editors and several marketing, and sales enablement managers to read and critique. Their feedback was instrumental. Some of their feedback provided insights for the later chapters. It’s interesting that my ideation process is pretty much the same one Young described. The whole creative journey is a mix of unconscious and conscious efforts. The key thing is that you have worked at it. Ideas come when you proactively pursue them. The whole process is both frustrating and liberating. That’s what life is all about. Do you have a specific methodology for ideation? Tell me about it! I’d love to hear from you!