5.5 Idea Generation

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Greg Williams: CC BY 2.0

Every message begins with an idea. While it is true that many tasks are assigned by others, the actual creative work of crafting a message still rests on the skill and imagination of the individual doing the information searching and writing (that’s you!)

One important skill that good communicators develop early in their careers is the ability to understand what it is possible to ask about. Any idea is fair game. Because solid information strategy skills allow you to find answers to just about anything, you are not limited to those questions that can be answered easily and quickly. Advanced methods for finding these answers free you up to ask unusual, different, and perhaps difficult questions.

A variety of techniques help you generate ideas for messages. Brainstorming, making idea maps and point-of-view diagrams, keeping a journal or daybook for scribbling notes, and reading everything you can get your hands on are all methods you can use to provide grist for the idea mill. A well-developed sense of curiosity will open you to new ways of looking at the world around you. Common sense and healthy skepticism (not cynicism) keep you grounded.

Donald Murray, in Writing for Your Readers (1992), describes the idea-generation techniques of idea mapping and creating point-of-view diagrams for communication professionals. Idea mapping, he explains, is a more creative way of exploring a subject than using traditional subject outlines. The central, broad subject or topic is drawn in a circle on the middle of a page. All of the related ideas that occur to the “mapper” are drawn out along lines that emerge from the center circle. The new lines stemming from the center idea are like branches on a tree, each of which may have more related, narrower ideas that branch out from the ideas derived from the center.

In idea development, this technique is not intended to serve as a definitive method of topic outlining, but as a quick and intuitive first step in thinking about possible angles of the topic. You may need to spend no more than five minutes making a map.

A point-of-view diagram uses a similar technique. A subject or topic is again drawn in a circle in the middle of a page. Draw as many “arrows” pointing inward—toward the central topic—as you can imagine. The arrows represent the different people or organizations whose points of view on the subject or topic can be tapped. By diagramming the topic in this way, you can generate a variety of perspectives on that idea and even begin to identify possible audiences or interviewees for the message.

It is easy in the idea generation stage to fall into overuse of clichés and stereotypes. It is a challenge finding a fresh, unique perspective for the message on which you are working. One of the best ways of ensuring that you’ll avoid clichés and maintain a fresh perspective is to truly understand all angles or perspectives from which a message topic might be seen.

As a journalist dealing with the issue of the U.S. government drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge, for instance, you would probably expect widely varying perspectives from an environmentalist, a major oil company executive, the governor of Alaska, from a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, and from a park ranger in Alaska. As an advertising professional for the National Park Service, you might use many of these same sources to understand the topic even though your intent for the information will be quite different than the journalist’s. For any types of media, however, getting these collective, diverse perspectives will help you to find a fresh approach for addressing this issue.  This will also help you narrow a broad topic to an interesting and manageable sub-topic.