3 Brainstorming: Moving the Cheese Out of the Way So You Can Find Your Best Ideas

Lynn Meade

The way to get to good ideas
is to get lots of ideas and
throw the bad one’s away
Linus Pauling,
Nobel Prize Winner

Maybe you can relate to this scenario. You open the refrigerator looking for the mayonnaise and it is nowhere to be found.  You scoot a few things around half-heartedly, and still no mayo. In desperation, you call out to your roommate, “Hey, have you seen the mayo?” They come in the room, open the frig, move the milk out of the way, bump the cheese to the side, and there it is–the mayo. And there you are relieved and a little embarrassed.

I like to think of brainstorming as looking for things in the frig of our minds (profound right?).  Sometimes a good idea is there, we just have to move things around to find it.  Sometimes, like in the mayo story, you have to enlist a friend and sometimes, you just have to move the cheese out of the way.  I want to help you, to inspire you, and to equip you to find your good idea. To do that, I will talk about brainstorming, narrowing your topic, and how to move the cheese out of the way so you can see your great idea buried in the frig of your mind.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Mind the Gap
(GAP) Goal, Audience, Parameters

In the subway station in London, a voice comes on over the intercom: “Mind the Gap.” It means, when you get on the subway train, notice there is a crack between the train and the platform, so you don’t trip.  Similarly, you should mind the GAP –the goal, audience, and parameters–as you build your speech so that you don’t get tripped up.

Brainstorming begins by writing down the goals, the audience, and the parameters of your speech. If you are in a speech class it might be, “Inform college students of a health-related topic in five to seven minutes.” If you are an invited after-dinner speaker it might be, “Give a 30-minute speech after a meal to inspire local business members to achieve a goal.” Keep the GAP in front of you as you brainstorm so you don’t get sidetracked.

Refuse to Be Satisfied with Your First Idea

There is a lot of pressure, I know, to come up with an idea and it can feel so satisfying to finally have one.  It is a great first step, but don’t let it end there. Write your idea down and keep going. Keep going because there may be another idea–a better idea– hiding behind that idea.  It is an idea that will never come out until you get the first one written and out of the way. Matthew Dicks, storytelling champion says,

The first idea is rarely the best idea. It may be the most convenient idea. The easiest to remember. The one you personally like the most. But rarely is the first idea the one I chose. First ideas are for the lazy. The complacent, the easily satisfied.

Refuse to be easily satisfied.

Back to the Basics–Say Your ABC’s

On a piece of paper, write your GAP: Goal, Audience, and Parameters. Now, write your ABC’s with one letter per line. Your goal is to write one word that starts with each letter that could be a potential speech topic. Make sure the idea fits within your G.A.P.

If your goal is to persuade the audience of health-related behavior, your list might look like this.

Goal: Persuade the audience of a health-related behavior
Audience: College students
Parameters:  4-5 minutes

A -Apple a day keeps the doctor away
B-Bicycle for health
C-Colonoscopy
D– Vitamin D for depression
E-Eye exam
F-Fitness class
G-Go outside

Look at the ABC list again, there is one that does not fit the parameters. Can you find it? It is the colonoscopy. If you are talking to a group of college students, they are mostly not in the age bracket that this topic would concern them. Yes, you could tell them to make sure the older guardian gets one, but why not go for something more relevant to college students like cardiovascular health, eating carrots, or taking vitamin C? Now you can see why it is important to keep the GAP–goal, audience-parameters– before you as you work.

Be Like Sherlock Holmes
Ask Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

All the detectives do it and you should too–ask who, what, where, when, why, and how. Start with your GAP– goals, audience, and parameters– and then brainstorm asking these key questions.

Goal: Ceremonial speech to inspire and celebrate
Audience: College students
Parameters: 8-10 minutes
Who: Grandma, Barak Obama, Edgar Allen Poe, Salvador Dali
What: The invention of the chocolate chip cookie, the farmer’s market
Where: The Battle of the Budge, Paris, Crystal Bridges
When: 1492, 2020, after my first kiss, after the Boston Tea Party
Why: Because my mom loved me, because the man wanted to give of himself, to save his fellow soldier, because the climate was right
How: By walking with his walker in the garden every day, by giving of his allowance

Go Look in Your Frig

I’m not kidding. Go look in the refrigerator.  When I tell my students how to find ideas, I suggest they walk around their house, the park, the school, the ballfield, or wherever they visit and just call out things that they could give a speech on. If I open my frig, I might be inspired by what I see to think of speech topics like these:

  • Do I have to pay attention to the expiration dates of condiments?
  • How long can I keep leftovers?
  • What the heck is in Worcestershire sauce?
  • Is butter healthier than margarine?
  • Why are most people allergic to milk?
  • Why does a dill pickle make you pucker?
  •  What is the best container to store leftovers in?

I could make up at least 100 topic ideas just from my frig alone –once you open up your mind and start looking for speech ideas, you will find them everywhere.

Check Your Social Media

This one is tricky, and you will have to time yourself or you may get stuck there. Open your social media and look at your pictures, your reposts, and your most common tweet topics. Make a list of ideas that come to you as you look. On mine, I see pictures of the Grand Canyon–there’s a persuasive speech! Why you should go to the Grand Canyon. I see reposts of inspiring speakers and feel-good stories–I might research the impact of positive videos on health and mood. I might research what inspirational speakers have in common. You get the idea. Be sure to leave social media in a reasonable amount of time so you can get back to working on your speech.

Write Down Story Prompts

You have stories, lots of stories.  You can use stories in business speeches, stories in academic speeches, stories in teaching, stories in job interviews, stories in classroom speeches. The problem is that you may not remember those stories when you need them the most.  Get a special notebook to record your daily inspiration. Your goal should be to write down one to three short-sentence stories. Write enough details to jog your memory.  You might even write down what it made you think. “Today, I thought I saw a baby hummingbird. I took a picture and looked it up and discovered it wasn’t a hummingbird at all, it was a hummingbird moth. I can’t figure out why I am disappointed. Why do I think it is any less wonderous now that I know it is a moth and not a bird?”  This simple story could be placed in many different speeches to talk about when you think you get one thing, and you really get another.

Matthew Dicks, Moth storytelling champion, suggests you do “homework for life” and every day write down the answer to the question, “What was the most story-worthy moment of my life?”

In searching for stories, I discovered that my life is filled with them. Filled with precious moments that once seemed decidedly less than precious. Filled with moments that are more storyworthy than I’d ever imagined. I’d just been failing to notice them. Or discounting them. Or ignoring them. In some instances, I tried to forget them completely. Now I can see them. I can’t help but see them. They are everywhere. I collect them. Record them. Craft them. I tell them onstage. I share them on the golf course and to dinner companions. But most important, I hold them close to my heart. They are my most treasured possessions. Matthew Dicks.

 

Get Cheesy with It

Write down the bizarre ideas. The ones you know that you will never use, but they popped into your mind. In fact, encourage yourself to get a little crazy and a lot cheesy. By cheesy, I mean come up with an idea that is too silly, too outrageous, or too fun for the situation. I began this chapter by talking about how to find something in the refrigerator and how sometimes you can’t find it because other things are in the way. This is true for an idea as well. Sometimes you can’t find a good idea because the crazy, cheesy idea is blocking the path. Once you move the cheese, you are likely to find that perfect idea there waiting for you.

Sleep On It

Some of the best ideas will come in your sleep. To tap into your nocturnal creativity, it helps to do two things. One, think about your upcoming speech, the audience, and the purpose right before going to bed and then two, sleep with pen and paper beside your bed. There’s a good chance that you will wake up with a speech topic on your mind.  Write it down right away before it gets washed away by your morning cup of coffee.

Just Do It

I worked really hard to give you a lot of resources to help you to brainstorm your topic. All of this is just a worthless page of words if you don’t put it into action. Really! You just wasted your time reading it if you aren’t planning on trying any of this. If you really want to improve as a speaker start working on improving how you generate and develop ideas.

Narrow it Down

Once you have a list of ideas, it is time to narrow them down. Always go back to the G.A.P.–goal, audience, and parameters. Go down your list and mark out or refine any ideas that don’t fit. Mark them out in pencil because you might need that idea another day.

Take a good look at the remaining items and really think about your audience. What would they like? What do they need?  Make sure your topic selection has them in mind. Finally, ask yourself, “Which remaining topic excites me the most?” The best topic is one that fits the goal, audience, parameters, but most importantly, the best topic is the one that excites you.


If it takes a lot of words
to say what you have in mind,
give it more thought.
– Dennis Roth, writer 


Computer, note pad, pen and coffee on a table

Write Down Your Big Idea

Once you have your idea, write it down in one sentence. Consider these “big ideas” from top TED Talks.

Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action


The most valuable of all talents
is never using two words when one will do.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father of the United States


Fully Develop Your Idea

Now you have picked your topic, you should explore it fully.  Take your topic and write it in the middle of a paper and circle it. Write down any ideas that come to mind. I think this is best understood by seeing the process in action.

Watch this video on mind mapping. It is one of the best videos I found that clearly explains the process step by step.

Research It

Now that you have your topic and have many ways you can explore your topic, begin to refine your topic to best fit your audience. Begin researching your topic. There is an entire chapter dedicated to research that you can refer to so for now, I will talk about making your speech draft.

Write a Shi#%y First Draft

When it comes to writing, one of the best things you can do is get started. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out, just work on getting it down.

Start writing. Just start getting your ideas down. Writer Ann Handley says, “show up and throw up.”  Don’t write to be perfect, don’t write expecting it will all just flow out naturally, just start writing. Writer Anne Lamont, author of Bird by Bird, describes her writing process.

Writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later…Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

 

Silence Your Inner Critics

When you begin writing, you may have the little voices tell you that you aren’t good enough, you aren’t smart enough, and that your idea is insufficient. You need to recognize that most everyone has those voices and that your success depends on you telling them to be quiet. Realize self-doubt is normal. Be brave and take back your brain! Writer Anne Lamont, tells of her voices:

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily.

Your inner critic will just slow you down.  Take control by sitting down and writing and silencing your inner critic.


An idea is anything that can change how people see the world.
If you can conjure up a compelling idea in people’s minds,
you have done something wondrous.
You have given them a gift of incalculable value.
In a very real sense,
a little piece of you has become part of them. 

Chris Anderson, TED Talks curator


A man climbing on rocks

Climb Over the Writers’ Block

Don’t let mental blocks control you. Set yourself free.
Confront your fear and turn the mental blocks into building blocks.
― Dr. Roopleen, Author of Words to Inspire the Winner in You

A colleague of mine has a block of wood on her desk. She will tell you it is her writers’ block. Whenever she is stuck, she looks at the block and remembers you can go over the block, under the block, or around the block. If you feel blocked, try one of these strategies.

  1. Just write anything at all–(Shitty first drafts).
  2. Start writing in the middle of the speech.
  3. Dictate your ideas into your phone.
  4. Sit down and commit to writing for 15 minutes before you allow yourself to do anything else.
  5. Do something monotonous and allow your brain to relax–shower, vacuum, go for a walk.
  6. Ask yourself, how would (your favorite speaker) write this speech. Write like you are pretending to be that person?
  7. Change locations.
  8. Stay off the internet, social media, email.
  9. Tell yourself you will earn a reward for writing for 20 minutes.
  10. Allow yourself to be bored.

Refine Your Idea

Once you have your idea and it is beginning to take shape, you need to refine it. Now you have your idea, create a thesis statement–a one to a two-sentence statement summarizing the main idea of your speech.  This statement will eventually be used in your speech preview to let the audience know where this speech is headed. Send your thesis to a few friends and then ask them what they think the speech is about.  If their response indicates they have a clear picture of your topic, proceed. If not, you need to revise your thesis statement.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my thesis statement easy to understand?
  2. Could someone read my thesis statement and have a clear picture of my speech?
  3. Does my thesis statement reflect the topic and purpose of my speech?

 


A talk is a voyage
with purpose
and it must be charted.
The man who starts out going nowhere,
generally gets there.
– Dale Carnegie, author, businessman, presentation expert 


How a World Champion of Public Speaking Prepares for Presentations

Watch this short video by Toastmaster’s World champion and see if your speech fits his recommendations:

  • Could you summarize your speech in 10 words or less?
  • Does your title create curiosity and not give too much away?
  • Did you consider how to grab attention of the audience?
  • Did you limit your speech to no more than 3 to 5 points?
  • Did you end it on a high note?

 

 

Key Takeaways

 

Remember This!

  • Brainstorm to fully develop your speech idea.
  • Always refer to the GAP: Goals, Audience, and Parameters.
  • Write a clear thesis statement in one or two sentences. Make sure it clearly lets your audience know what your speech will be about.

 

Please share your feedback, suggestions, corrections, and ideas.

I want to hear from you. 

Do you have an activity to include?
Did you notice a typo that I should correct?
Are you planning to use this as a resource and do you want me to know about it?
Do you want to tell me something that really helped you?

Click here to share your feedback. 

 

Bonus Features

How to Write A Perfect Speech

Obama’s Speech Writer, Cody Keenan, gives this advice on How to Write A Perfect Speech

  1. Know what you want to say.
  2. Be clear about the story you want to tell.
  3. Say something bigger than the moment.
  4. Be authentic.
  5. Be ready to lighten the mood.
  6. Know your audience.
  7. Always be writing and read widely.

 

REFERENCES

Anderson, C. (2013). How to give a killer presentation. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/06/how-to-give-a-killer-presentation

BBC Ideas (2019). How to write a perfect speech. BBS ideas. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV1h7n0HcTE&feature=emb_logo Standard YouTube License.

Dicks, M. (2018). Storyworthy: Engage, teach, persuade, and change your life through the power of storytelling. New World.

Dunn, C. (2012). Mindmapping explained and demonstrated in five minutes.  [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAovxXGBxR8&feature=emb_logo Standard Youtube License.

Handley, A. (2015). Everybody writes Your go-to guide to creating ridiculously good content. John Wiley and Sons.

Lamont, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. Pantheon Nooks.

Lidsky, I. (2016). What reality are you creating for yourself? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/isaac_lidsky_what_reality_are_you_creating_for_yourself Standard YouTube License.

More Resources

There are many ways to brainstorm, if you are still stuck and looking for an idea, try this website:  https://business.tutsplus.com/articles/top-brainstorming-techniques–cms-27181

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Advanced Public Speaking (BETA) by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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