We all know the pain: staring at a blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike.

The end goal of "Ideas" feels woolly, a barely tangible thing in the far future you need to reach. On top of that, you have pressure from higher-ups, setting deadlines and goals, none of which help with that first hurdle: getting started.

This ultimate guide—full of techniques, processes, tips, and tricks—will consider and explain what it takes to capture, create, explore, refine, and implement those seemingly illusive ideas.

Getting Off the Starting Blocks

1. Don't waste your initial thoughts

This may sound silly, but it's important to capture your initial thoughts about an idea when you first become aware of having to come up with it. Your first reaction, inclinations, and associations with a topic are only fresh once, so be poised to record them.

Often, I find if I'm busy when I first hear that an idea is needed, I get overenthusiastic and start coming up with thoughts immediately but because of my busy state I don't record them properly. Then, later, when I do have time, the creativity has stalled or the thoughts feel stale.

You can delay ideation until an optimal time when you can get more from each thought: They can be made fully formed rather than remain fragments.

2. Take the pressure off

You're not going to hit the jackpot the first time around. You also have to avoid getting too hung up on your first idea. The reason mind maps are so favored is that you can aim for quantity, not quality—just get them out with no judgment and have a look at what you've got afterward. At least, then, you'll have something written down.

For me, I find that the background worry of not being able to come up with a "genius idea that's guaranteed to go viral" (we all think it; I'm not rolling my eyes, you are) inhibits my ability to think freely. So let yourself off the hook: You know you're going to get there. Ideas will come, so you can relax, safe in that knowledge.

Make a start, and things will flow.

3. Inspire yourself

Ideas tend to be borne of experiences. What we're familiar with—what we read, observe, and consume—all influence our ideas. That's why you feel more at home with briefs that sing to your interests rather than those that don't.

In the latter case, where ideas feel particularly lacking, my advice would be to inspire yourself. Go off and research what you need to, and submerge yourself in that world.

It's damned hard to think of a fresh idea with little point of reference, so look for resources that will open up your mind.

Filtering for Diamonds

How do you take a bunch of half-thought ideas and turn them into one that stands strong on its own? If you have a mind map in front of you, highlight what seem your best ideas and number them in order. Pick, say, the best 10.

From there, spend some time fleshing out the thoughts to see which have legs. If you can't expand an idea more than an extra line or two, it's probably not going to go very far. That's not to say they have to be complicated; the simplest ideas are often the best.

If you can, find your human soundboard—the person who's best at listening to your ideas, helping you expand the best ones and telling you straight when you're talking nonsense. Now, this person typically isn't going to be your Mum. (Though Mums may be great at most things, they may not be familiar with specific aspects of business, so you'll often find yourself having to over-explain.)

Look to someone who understands the basics and who doesn't think like you. If you're creative, test your ideas on someone who's more practical. Having a go-to person (sometimes colleague, sometimes friend, ideally a mix of the two) really helps you to stretch your ideas.

And because you're comfortable around them, you won't be scared to voice even those wackier thoughts (which can easily end up being the best).

How to Decide What's a 'Good' Idea

A favorite rule of mine is topic + format ≠ idea.

An example might be deciding to make an infographic on online advertising. That in itself isn't an idea; there's no meat to it. National Awareness Days tend to fall into this category, too, when adopted by brands that are completely unrelated to those occasions.

Taken from Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick, the following are some criteria you should apply to each idea to ensure it's a "good" idea.

Simple: Can you sum up your idea concisely?

That's not to say your idea can't be complex; rather, the most essential elements should work together without there being holes in the story.

  • Unexpected: Does it feel like you've already seen this idea? If so, ditch it. If the idea doesn't feel original to you, it won't excite your audience because they'll also feel as though they've probably seen it before.
  • Concrete: Are you 100% confident with every angle? You don't have to know the ins and outs of every aspect of the idea at the beginning, but iron out any wishy-washy elements so you can better ensure it's going to work.
  • Credible: Is your idea believable? Rein yourself in if your idea is running headfirst into absurdity: You need your idea to be both concrete and credible.
  • Emotion: Does your idea evoke an emotion? Emotions are how you get your audience to care; so, whatever feeling your end goal is trying to establish, make sure your idea ticks it.
  • Story: Are you telling a story? Storytelling is an age-old way of engaging someone. If your idea can tell a story, it helps people become invested in it.

A 2019 study looking into the creativity of initial ideas highlighted the difficulty of evaluating creative ideas. Participants were asked to come up with three ideas, multiple times over, on a variety of topics, and each time rank the ideas in order of how good they thought the ideas were. Then, they were asked to develop each initial idea. Thereafter, an independent team of experts assessed the creativity and potential of each idea. Findings were that after development it was actually the "second-best" idea that triumphed.

Labeled the "Tortoise and the Hare," this limited study suggests that with development time our more "absurd" ideas triumph. The key takeaway is not to discount ideas even if you don't initially see their merits.

If you were to expand this study's findings into a bigger list of ideas, say 20, your winner may not be the second—but the fourth. The point is this: Show each idea a little love to see how far it can grow.

How to Get Unstuck

If you find yourself sick of thinking about a topic, straining for an idea, stop. Stop trying, and go and do something else. Walk around the park, make a brew, have a shower, chat to someone about something completely unrelated.

Obviously what you can do to distract yourself really depends on where you are—an inspirational shower is not always on hand—but it's the act of doing something different that can make something click into place when you revisit it.

There are also lots of ways to come at an idea. You don't have to just think of something great and connect the dots in your head. Mix it up by brainstorming formats that could work: videos, infographics, social media competitions. Changing up the "packaging" of how you're envisioning the final outcome can freshen things up.

Similarly, group ideation sessions are an effective way to bring in alternative perspectives. You shouldn't limit them to just the "creative" people, either; often, you will find that people from different departments may have insights that you can expand on. So, although not everyone has a knack of creating full-fledged ideas, harnessing other perspectives can really refresh the paths your own thoughts were going down.

Though it may not be practical to hold regular idea sessions, there are a few ways to get around that limitation:

1. Introduce a daily standup

Take just five minutes with your team each morning to summarize your main tasks for the day, check in, and then float some quick ideas. You can even turn things into a competition for who can come up with the worst idea—so that those that come afterward are guaranteed to be better.

Keeping an environment where people can express their latest "shower thoughts" means there's no pressure and you slowly build up a bank of ideas for when you need them.

2. Create an ideas dump

Have an ongoing document where people can note their thoughts and ideas. You'll not only have a record but also see each other's processes and build off one another, regardless of whether you have the time to sit down and discuss. Similarly, looking at other relevant ideas helps as inspiration for when you need an idea but you feel like you're alone.

3. Keep swipe files

When you're surfing the Web and come across something cool—a campaign you like, a format that is unusual, a neat piece of information—save it. Create a file where you collate all the little bits of gold you find, even if it's just bookmarking them on your computer, so you have something to inspire you when that rainy day comes.

Do You Care?

Let's be honest for a second: Have you ever sat in a meeting, or an ideas session, and thought, "I really don't care about this?" Not because you're having a bad day or you're struggling for motivation but because the idea doesn't interest you. At all. You're not passionate about it, and you can't really see the benefits of doing it.

That conundrum faces many every day. After all, you don't want to be the one to stick your head up from the trench. To be shot at for not sticking in your ranks. However, sometimes, you'll find that everyone else in the room is thinking the same and all it takes is one person voicing doubts to shift the entire focus.

But if you end up in a minority, it's always good practice to challenge ideas. Let them be defended by their creator, and the idea becomes stronger for it. Better you than your client or higher-ups.

How to Sell Your Ideas

Once you've got your idea to the finish line, and the time comes to get buy-in from others, the way you present things can make all the difference.

  • First, you need to know your idea inside out. Think of any holes and cover your bases so you know what the strengths and weaknesses are. Being prepared allows you to confidently back your idea and often reduces the number of questions people ask.
  • Second, explain your reasoning. Back it up with data and case studies. Tell the story of what you're trying to do and why, and that'll help the pieces click together in other people's heads. Whether you're pitching to a client, your colleagues, or your boss, you can get enthusiasm for your idea by showing them the whole, the bigger, picture.
  • And, last, be clear on what it's going to achieve. In the end, there needs to be a point to everything you're doing; and by showing you have considered goals and created an idea to meet them, you'll get more people onboard.

Infinite Ideas, Infinite Possibilities

In conjuring up ideas, there are no limits. There aren't boundaries to the ways you come up with one, the methods you use, the place you have to be to come up with it. And though most of the time you have a brief, that doesn't have to constrain your ideas. The only limits are the ones that pre-exist in your mind because of what you've seen done before. Forget everything you know, and give yourself free rein to imagine.

Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you do just that. Happy ideas-hunting!

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The Ultimate Guide to Coming Up With Useful Ideas

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image of Amber Dawson

Amber Dawson is the creative content strategist at Adzooma and divides her time between writing and coming up with ideas for its blog.

Twitter: @ambermaydawson

LinkedIn: Amber Dawson