Recipe for a Successful Brainstorm

Allen Clements

November 29, 2017

Our recipe for a successful brainstorm is constantly changing, and that’s a good thing! It’s how we consistently present novel concepts that excite our clients. Here is one recipe that has proven to deliver tasty results.


  • 1 subject matter expert. This is a producer who has developed a full understanding of the client’s product and need.
  • 1 notetaker. The notetaker can be anyone who can take notes while also adding to the conversation.
  • 1 realist. The realist will bring us down to earth at certain points in our brainstorm. While we are going for volume of ideas, do not underestimate the value of the realist.
  • A mix of 2-3 regulars and crazies. The idea folks!
  • 1 writer, editor, or director. This person can think linearly and will start putting pieces together during the brainstorm.
  • 1 note card (per attendee) with 5 or 6 practical points about the project.
  • 1 moderator with a secret note-card listing constraints.

Our recipe for a successful brainstorm is constantly changing, and that's a good thing. Its how we consistently present novel concepts that excite our clients. Here is one recipe that has proven to deliver tasty results.


Preheat an interesting space to a comfortable temperature. Not too cold or participants may get uncomfortable, and not too hot or they may get sleepy. Ideally, this would be a novel space, one that is not your everyday environment but also one that is free of over-the-top distractions like noise or foot traffic. At MAKE, we like to head to Steinman Park when the weather is nice for a change of scenery.

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

Once you’re in the perfect space, start by cracking the big picture into a bowl for everyone to take in. Sprinkling on too many details can cause inconsistencies in the dough and keep it from rising. A brainstorm is most often used for overarching concepts so let’s start there, with the big picture: Here’s the client. Here’s what they do. Here’s what they want to accomplish.

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

Next, hand out the practical point note cards. The points I like to use are:

  • Target audience
  • Target medium
  • Essense of message
  • Style or tone of message/brand
  • What you want someone to do and/or feel

These can be taken directly from your creative brief and are best when simplified to a single sentence. Note cards work great for easy reference and force you to keep the info short. Keep the info on the card to a need-to-know basis. We don’t need all of the details all at once to generate concepts. Remember, your brainstorm group is off working on tons of projects and won’t necessarily benefit from having too many details, instead it may limit their imagination. What you want to do is present a landscape to the creatives from which patterns can emerge.

Don’t add any constraints yet. Wait until you get the pure ideas first. Constraints revert people from creative to technical thinking. That conversion is an important part of the process but we don’t want to go there yet.

Whip everything together furiously. In this part of the recipe, we need speed to really generate options. No idea is bad. Take notes but keep the notes high level. Just write a few words to jog your memory later on. Encourage people to piggyback on each other’s ideas and try different combinations during this part of the process.

Try and make crazy happen quickly. I once saw a speaker in the creative field who suggested that getting to crazy has to happen before the novel ideas can emerge. Even if you are doing a 30 second commercial for a funeral home, you should get to crazy as quickly as possible. Vampires? Sure!MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

Now slowly mix in the constraints. This is where we bring our big patterns to detail level. Call out ideas that you, as a subject matter expert, know have some traction and even consider some that you aren’t sure about yet. Add a constraint here or there. Example: “Derek, the idea that you mentioned is good but how could it work within 60 seconds?”. Or the ever popular, “Do you think we could do Aaron’s idea with the CGI spider if we only had $16k to work with?”. Notice that these questions are empowering rather than constricting. It’s by asking HOW CAN WE rather than CAN WE that truly innovative media is made. A friend of mine who is a permaculturist and woodworker told me, “Constraints can sometimes be the best designers.”

So we keep adding constraints until we reach a few ideas that will work. After the meeting, it is the job of the writer to add details and mold the idea, bringing the concept to fully-baked status. The writer can connect back with the person who conceived a particular idea to ask questions if necessary. They can also absorb all of the material that has been collected about the company, the product, and the project.MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm


Write several short treatments to present to the client. How many? Well this is a hotly debated question. Some people would say just go with your best foot forward or your favorite.  Others would say that you should present 2 or 3 options. When we get into more than 3 options, this tends to be too large of a portion for the client and may be too much to digest. It provides more work for them and doesn’t show focus on your part. If you go with 2 or 3 ideas, be sure that you are illustrating the strengths of each. The client may be able to tie into the fact that the humorous concept should connect better to a single demographic whereas the dramatic story-driven concept may hit a broader range but with less relatability to each. This may illuminate certain internal goals for your client that they haven’t shared with you.

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

Show clients that you heard them. One way to do this is through a summary statement before the pitch. Another is simply to include the why details for your visual styles, the characters you’ve chosen, etc. For example:

We see this as a pre-dawn shoot because it helps to illustrate the “hopeful” tone we talked about during our creative session with you.

Or, the viewers of the particular medium you are using to distribute this has been statistically shown to respond well to action and excitement.

Be visually descriptive. The client has to be able to envision what the end product will look like. Use words and terminology that paints a picture. If you can’t provide an illustrated storyboard, show a reference clip or mood board. We love this internet age in which you can find sample photos that help provide a feel for the end product.

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm

Show them that this is not stone. Offer options throughout such as how one type of musical score could take it in a different direction. Though you used a sample evocative statement to make your point, another that is more in line with their brand could work better. This helps to soften reactionary objections which could round file the best idea just because of a malleable detail.

Do it live. In this day and age and with our ability to do work across state and national boundaries, presenting your concepts in person isn’t always possible, but if it is, you will have the ability to include body language and facial expressions with your pitch. You’ll also be able to rapidly react to theirs. The worst thing you can possibly do is email a PDF and ask them to review it. PDFs don’t talk or answer questions. A good compromise is to schedule a phone call or a Skype/Facetime call with the client where you will pitch your concepts. After the call, send them a document for review. Remember that oftentimes, your client will have to pitch your ideas to their employer, and so much can get lost in translation. By pitching in person (or over the phone) and sending them a well laid-out document, you are helping to equip them to be the best salesperson for your great ideas.

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm


Don’t just settle with this recipe for a brainstorm. Be sure to experiment until you find what works best for your team! There are tons of studies about brainstorming and many have developed methods they believe assist with generating ideas. I suggest experimenting with different methods to put you in a different place each brainstorm and see what comes of it! Here are some brainstorming methods to experiment with:

MAKE films - Recipe for a successful brainstorm