03 Apr Distill ideas (or get a distillery—both are useful)
How do you transform broad ideas into narrow ones? With a big idea, how do you know you’ve hit the mark?
Last week I met with an audio engineer/composer who said in his personal and professional life, he thought the art of distilling information was becoming more important than ever, and he asked if I could talk to him about my creative process. We’d booked an initial 30 minute chat, and I was a bit hesitant—distilling information about distilling information seemed like an overly complicated meta-cognitive task, and one I didn’t know if I could even do in such a short meeting. But even though every creative project has unique variables to consider, there are a few general tools, tips, and tricks I use to help discover, hone, and whittle ideas.
DUST OFF THE PSYCH 101 TEXTS
At every stage of the creative process, understanding people is always the number one priority. From early strategy, right into the throes of creative chaos, if you want your ideas to matter, it’s critical to understand what people want, need, and aspire to be. So if you’ve got them kicking around, dust off your University psych books. Or, just as good, go spend some time listening to people.
ASK WHAT’S THE EMOTIONAL GOAL?
This sounds like fluff, but it’s actually something I try understand before I start doing any work with any idea. Because if you don’t even know what you’re trying to make people feel, how are you going to make exceptional choices about the words, art, design or sound design? Being really solid about an emotional goal means you have something to test your idea against.
ASK WHAT’S THE BUSINESS GOAL?
Acquire users? Retain users? Build product buzz? Click the ‘buy button? Sign up for a newsletter? Share with friends? Knowing the business goal might not apply to every creative idea and process, but if you’re making something, there’s a good chance you want someone to react, then act. Ahead of time, be clear and specific what that action is.
GO WIDE OR GO HOME
When it comes to ideas, if you want to end up with an exceptional one, you first have to take the time to generate a LOT of them. This sounds easy, but there more ways than you can imagine to screw up idea-generation. I think you need a GREAT team, a GREAT understanding of what your desired end-goal is (see above), and some brainstorm best practices to generate as many (not necessarily GREAT) ideas as possible. (Brainstorming is a whole different, fabulous topic.)
HACK & SLASH (RUTHLESSLY)
William Faulkner wrote, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” And the same is true for ideas. But even if you and your team know you need to slaughter 99% of what you’ve generated, it’s good practice to record all the ideas (even the seemingly horrible ones), because you never know what they’ll spark later on. (With time and a new twist, I’ve had really bad book ideas turn into really good ones.)
CAN YOU ELEVATOR PITCH IT?
This one is hard to do, it takes time to do, and it’s worth doing. An idea has strength if you can express it in a single, simple phrase. That’s often my test. If someone needs a half-hour to tell you what their big idea is, they might not yet know quite what it is, or it may be too complex or too vague.
TEST WITH YOUR TEAM, YOUR INNER CRITIC, AND THEN THOSE WHO ACTUALLY MATTER
Creatives generally have great intuition. But I’ve never met a creative genius who hasn’t made some big mistakes. That’s because it’s really easy to have an opinion about ideas, and it’s tougher to set aside your intuition and then TEST. Once you’ve got an idea and you’ve tested it against all your tough criteria, don’t be afraid take it in front of a really qualified audience. And never be afraid to be wrong.
Obviously, there’s a bit of magic with each of these steps. Careful consideration of all the unique variables is a process that has to happen with every different project. But in general, if you know people, understand what you want them to feel, have clarity about what you want them to do, are able to generate tons of ideas, can hack and slash those until you’ve got a few gems, and then test with qualified opinions, you’re on the road to finding and distilling something grand.
Kudos to Niche Wines (and especially their Foch), as this elixir often helps me with that extra bit of inspiration.