Are you getting enough from your brainstorm?

Do you love a good brainstorm?

I do.

It’s a great way to collect a plethora of ideas together in one place, whether thoughts from a super creative and overflowing mind or the result of collective input from a group. It’s a common enough technique, and simple to do.

Idea

 

But there are most definitely things that you can do to make sure you get the most out of your brainstorm, and to make it more effective, at least in the group sense. Let’s leave aside for a moment the lone brainstorm. I am partial to “brainstorming myself”, and use it to:

  • Offload a myriad of thoughts floating around my head that need to be captured and contained somewhere, usually on a piece of flipchart paper.
  • Organise that information in a way that I might be able to make use of it effectively. Once it’s recorded then I can start to reflect and decide how to act upon the content.
  • Perhaps generate some more ideas to clarify, modify or add to the ones that I have just “stormed”.

That’s more or less what a brainstorm is – eliciting information from inside the complex systems that are our minds. Doing it alone can be tricky. Doing it in a group is far more effective, but not without its pitfalls.

So how can we make a group brainstorm work well?

Brain

The first thing to pay attention to is WHY you are doing the brainstorm in the first place.

Obviously you are asking people for ideas, thoughts and suggestions, but sometimes a brainstorm is used primarily as a discussion starter. In this sense you might be less worried about the answers people give, and more interested in the discussion itself. A brainstorm used in this way may be most effective at the start of a workshop where you are teaching people something new; a training session. Before giving your participants the “right answers” you are opening up, stimulating ideas and helping people engage with the topic.

You may however really need to find out and gather particular knowledge from the people in the room. For example if you are looking for ideas to save costs on a project, or answers to a specific problem, you are looking to the participants for some answers. While the brainstorm has the same function of stimulating discussion and engaging people, its main aim is to elicit the ideas from the people in the room. The ideas, knowledge and experience held by the participants are what you are really after. They can provide information on a certain topic which may then be built upon and investigated in more depth later on in the session. This is more common in a meeting or facilitated workshop where the main purpose is not to teach people new things, but to help them to share what they know.

Whatever the main thrust of your brainstorm, it is important to make sure you know exactly what you are asking of people and make your questions clear.

If you manage your brainstorm well, then you will get all sorts of ideas flowing. A good brainstorm will not only help people to share their insights and knowledge, but help ignite the sparks of new ideas and produce fantastic gems of information. This is when a brainstorm can become truly valuable. It moves beyond simply asking people to offer up an answer, or even stimulating a discussion. It is about really enriching that discussion, broadening it out and creating a result that is so much bigger that the individual ideas on their own.

WHAT you do with the information elicited very much depends on the aim of your brainstorm in the first place. But, the more in depth and targeted the process, the greater the flow of ideas and the more extensive the possibilities will be for your next steps.

A brainstorm is far more that a brain dump. It is far more than collecting and recording information. It is far more than finding out what people think. It can be the start of something quite exciting, a voyage of discovery. But as with many of the simplest things; the devil is in the detail, so make sure you think about what you need!

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Much Maligned and Misunderstood – the Humble Flipchart

How do you feel about flip charts? An odd question, I know…….

I’ve noticed there is a bit of a divide – the pro and anti flip chart camps, people that either love ’em or hate ’em. There are people who express a distaste for this humble piece of equipment. And then there are those that swear by them.

Someone asked me just the other day whether I was “flip chart” or “not flip chart”. Do I use one or not in my workshops?

The answer is of course, but not always. More often than not when I use a flip chart, I use a lot of other materials too. A flip chart is a tool, a piece of equipment to use when the occasion fits. It is not a centre piece.

Jewell Facilitation Workshop024

My own flip chart is frequently used for writing down all sorts of ideas, scribbles, drawings, the odd mind map or large list. I like be able to see the big picture (literally!). It is a fabulous tool, and one of several pieces of equipment that I use regularly.

In a workshop I use it:

  • To “park” ideas
  • As a way to record the results of a brainstorm
  • To note down the main points in a conversation when needed
  • To show a diagram or do a quick drawing to illustrate a point
  • To show the aims of the workshop
  • To write up some ground rules if needed
  • To note down important questions

There is nothing special or clever about it. It doesn’t have a particular air of cool. It’s not a spendidly exciting  thing, but then it doesn’t need to be. I can see where the dislike comes from, you can get it wrong (yes, really). But in defence of this uninspiring looking piece of equipment, I would suggest that it is not about whether it should be used or not used, but about whether you can make it work well for your needs.

Is there a way to use a flipchart properly?

Well actually yes there is, or rather there are ways to use it badly that are probably what spur on the idea that they are not to be encouraged.

There is such a thing as “death by flipchart”. It’s the lo-tech version of “death by powerpoint”. They both mean the same thing. They refer to a tool used badly, the impact of which is to make you feel talked at, slide after slide (or sheet of paper after sheet of paper) with little or no regard for the audience or group of people listening, watching or reading. Most of us have been in the audience and experienced this at some time or other. It’s boring and so rather than risk being in this position, perhaps people prefer to avoid them.

Powerpoint, or perhaps Prezzie or Sway are all valid ways of presenting information. It is not the tool that is to blame but the way it is used. You can include them very well in a workshop, but they are not THE workshop.

flipchart

And the humble flip chart is the same. When I worked in Nepal many years ago, we used a flip chart with “newsprint” the hand made and comparatively expensive paper to write on. We used it sparingly and didn’t write down endless tracts of information. This was so long ago that in fact the then high tech version of presenting information was on an overhead projector. I digress…

A flip chart is a valuable tool, but only if you use it well. My top tips for using one are as follows:

  • Do not write pages and pages of information out and flip through them.
  • If you are preparing information in advance, make sure it is in sequence and that perhaps you mark your pages so you don’t get in a muddle.
  • Write clearly and choose good pens. I really can’t emphasise enough the good pens.
  • Green and red markers are often hard for some people to read, particularly at a distance- I tend to avoid them.
  • Using all colours of the rainbow to write in may seem appealing from where you are standing, but remember people do need to read what you have written.
  • Make sure you write big enough for your participants to actually see.
  • A flip chart is something to support your information on. It is not something you are glued to, it is not a comfort blanket. You can move away from it and use other materials (something I highly recommend in fact).
  • If you are writing things down as you go, remember your audience, don’t just talk to the flip chart.
  • We are not all lucky enough to have primary school teacher neat and tidy writing, and we are not all good at writing on a board in straight lines (I’m not, and I’ve been doing it for years!). But equally scrawling all over the paper in millions of different directions is not helpful.
  • Summarise, paraphrase or use short hand where appropriate if you are writing as you go along. Most of the time you don’t need to get every word, for example if you are doing a brainstorm. Your participants won’t want to be reading great long sentences and you will take a lot of valuable discussion time doing so, not to mention a lot of paper!
  • If you are taking notes, recording a brainstorm or taking down ideas it’s a good idea to take the pieces of paper off the flipchart as you go along and stick them up on the wall somehow. That way you can see all the information. If possible, think in advance where you are going to out these pieces of paper and whether you have space to display them.

And there I rest my case. It is a simple piece of kit, not to be overused and I would say generally doesn’t work well as a solitary thing. By which I mean you will need some other activities to go with it.

If you want to see me and my flip chart in action, it plays a minor but important supporting role in my next workshop and will be there together with a large variety of other pieces of equipment and materials.

Do you have a favourite piece of equipment in your workshops?

 

 

 

Reflections on life and learning in Nepal.

Today I want to talk about Nepal. I want to talk about that breathtaking and fabulous country that taught me so much. And about the fear and worry that hits you when you realise your friends were right there, in the midst of a massive earthquake.

I lived in Nepal for 4 years, 1999-2004. I went out there initially as a VSO volunteer training special needs teachers, parents and community based rehabilitation workers in Speech and Language Therapy (and a million and one other related things). I somehow went from being someone with a solid accademic knowledge but limited experience (having only graduated two years before) to being an absolute expert almost overnight. I was called upon as the person who seemed to know best about anything from complex disabilities and disorders to child development, psychology, fundraising and proposal writing, training and facilitation as well as becoming the resident English scholar. That’s pretty big when you’re only 23.

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Training, facilitation and pink arrows!

So, here’s the news for today – I’m not a trainer. I am a facilitator. That’s not to say that I haven’t done lots of training in the past. In fact I spent three years training lots of lovely people in Nepal as a VSO volunteer. I absolutely loved it, which is probably why I ended up staying for three years not two!  Most of the training I did was around language development, a whole plethora of communication skills,  and disability. VSO trained me immensely well to take the leap from Speech and Language Therapist, to trainer in anything vaguely related (and lots that wasn’t). The training skills I learnt to use were participatory, as in they got the people being trained by me (the participants) properly involved.

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