by Lynda McDaniel
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series that looks at how to bring more creativity to your business communications.
“The brain is a lazy piece of meat,” writes neuroscientist Gregory Berns in his book Iconoclast. He explains that when we’re at our desks, writing more reports, proposals, blogs and articles than any day should bear, our brains get in a rut, and we turn out the same old stuff.
Instead, we need to “jolt the attentional systems awake” and change “the environment in which [we’ve] become comfortable.” Which is scientist-speak for “Get out of your office!”
Take a walk or write at a café. Work in a sunny lobby or simply switch your writing tools. Instead of a laptop, try pen and paper; instead of your desktop, take your laptop somewhere different. These physical changes set the stage for new ideas and insights that seem to sail through your mind. These gems are ephemeral, so capture them in a notebook, smartphone or anything handy.
Words are your wardrobe at work
In the digital age, our writing is our calling card. Often people know us only through our words. Consider the manager at a Fortune 100 company who issued an RFP. She told me the proposal with the best idea was so poorly written she turned it down. The applicant’s writing illustrated what he’d be like to work with, and she wasn’t interested. I don’t want that to happen to you—I want you to enjoy increased profits and prestige by making your proposals, reports, articles, blogs—even email—more compelling.
If you’re concerned that writing more creatively means more work, don’t worry. You can write more creatively in the same amount of time—maybe even less. For starters, try these four steps to write faster:
- Write first drafts fast.
- Separate writing and editing.
- Turn off your monitor.
- Write Xs if you can't think of the right word.
Most of us write lousy first drafts. That’s just the writing process. So let the words rip and write as fast as your fingers can move. Don’t worry about typos or syntax; you can wrestle with the words later, which is another way of saying don’t edit as you go. That just slows you down and stifles creativity. For anyone who can’t break this habit, turn off your monitor. You’ll write drafts in record time. Finally, don’t stop for the bon mot on the tip of your tongue. Type Xs and keep writing; the word will pop to mind as you edit.
Creativity under cover
Another way to tap into your creativity—and you’re all creative, no matter what you tell yourself—is to go to bed. Seriously. That liminal phase between sleep and slippers is ripe with creativity. Just focus on a problem or idea and ruminate. According to Mark Beeman, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University who studies the neuroscience of creativity, we do some of our most creative thinking when we’re half asleep. He also recommends “sleeping on it,” literally and figuratively. “When you're stuck on a problem,” Beeman said in a recent NPR interview, “getting away from it for a while helps.” Keep this in mind next time you’re tempted to submit a report at 4:30 p.m. just to get it off your to-do list. While this feels delicious at the time, the next morning too often reveals typos and a lack of clarity that you could have caught.
Wake up your creativity
Brainstorming techniques foster creativity any time of day. When you draw a blank or feel overwhelmed by demands on your time, try one of these strategies:
- Genius Generator
- Mind mapping
- Devil’s advocate
Genius Generator is the perfect antidote to frozen synapses, or no ideas, and spaghetti head, a tangle of ideas. Set a timer, write for 10 minutes, and don’t stop! That’s key. Keep writing even if your mind goes blank. Just write Xs until your brain kicks in again. While you write, your critical editor gets quieter with each tick of the timer. As the mind quiets, the brain’s search engine has an easier time scanning the right hemisphere for associations. When something clicks, eureka! Inspiration strikes.
After the timer goes off, circle the good stuff. Now prioritize those key points in the most effective order. There! You have an organic outline, one that evolved naturally in less than 20 minutes.
Mind mapping starts with a central idea posted in the middle of a page. Write everything that comes to mind. As themes develop, link them together and pretty soon you have a web of possibilities.
List-making is just that: a numbered list of ideas about your topic. Genius Generator and mind mapping are messy; list-making is brainstorming for neatniks. Finally, try exploring your topic as a devil’s advocate. You’ll get beyond your love affair with your idea, discover different angles, and find objections you can preempt.
Now that you’ve jolted your “attentional systems awake” and tapped into your endlessly creative brain, you’re ready to incorporate this inspiration into your communications. The second installment of this series includes 10 creative writing techniques you should bring to work every day.
Lynda McDaniel is the founder of the Association for Creative Business Writing and the co-founder of The Book Catalysts. She is the past chair of the San Francisco IABC Independent Communicators Roundtable. Her writing, coaching and training focus on easy ways to add creativity to business and nonfiction writing. Sign up for more creative business writing tips at http://afcbw.com/more-tips/.
Appeared originally in IABC International’s CW Bulletin.