Writers are seldom good people. You would only need to take a cursory look at their emails, messaging accounts or notebooks to see that.
It is the job of writers to push the envelope and think so far outside the box that it may as well be on fire, in another country. They think the unthinkable, share gallows humour of the worst kind and live in fear of their Google search and internet histories being revealed. They’re awful. Don’t let your son or daughter marry one. They’re maniacs.
But, what all of this does add up to is an ability to think what those in your business cannot. The term ‘storyteller’ has become popular among PR professionals and branding specialists, but if you really need a story telling or new ideas imagined you need a writer. Just don’t invite one into your house, let alone your office. At least not on a regular basis.
By a writer, I mean someone who writes all the time, for a living. Someone who is incapable of doing anything else. They may be a journalist, author, novelist, poet or writer of non-fiction. They spend 50% of their time staring into the middle distance. The middle distance is where all the best ideas are. Only they can see them. They don’t even need to be on drugs to do so. Though, you know, they may be. They’ll at least have had a sniff of a marker pen that day.
Writers can be obstinate, feckless or reckless, but they can also be brilliant, funny and genuinely inspiring. Why else do we enthuse to our children about them? Why else would we dedicate whole university courses to their works? They may prefer to spend a day in a pub or a library than turn up to work in a half-decent outfit. But you don’t look forward to reading the accounts or a marketing report on holiday do you? No. You look forward to reading the work of writers. They free your mind. They take you places, even when you’re stuck in the airport.
Writers were disruptive before anyone uttered that word at a start-up funding round. They literally make you stop and think. So, it amazes me that more businesses don’t use writers to help out their business. It’s a win-win. Writers usually need the money (for pens, drugs, rent, murder weapons) and business generally lacks any kind of genuine inspirational input. Even creative agencies can be devoid of true creativity and ideas that go beyond recycling some old Guinness ads and hoping Vice pick it up.
I work with businesses on a regular basis, sitting in on creative sessions and attending meetings with clients. It nearly always makes the process less fraught for those who employ me, as the client can see creative happen before their eyes. It doesn’t rely on strategy or track records, it’s just live thinking. Sometimes they even invite me for a drink afterwards. Just so long as I haven’t sniffed too many pens that day.
Ideas are difficult. Everyone has some. But not everyone has enough, or enough good ones at least.
Of course, some are better at having ideas than others, but there are ways that you can find to help you actually have ideas in the first place. Some of them involve you creating space for thinking, whereas others rely on you distracting your mind and emptying your head. Both can work equally, but here are my five favourite ways to have ideas. My sure-fire guide to thinking creatively.
Exercise is good for you(r brain)
I have a lot of good ideas at the gym. Others get their best ideas when they are out in the countryside or pounding the city streets for a run. I find the gym boring, but I don’t have anything much on my mind when I am there, apart from times and effort. I usually have music on when I work out, but that is more a background hum than a motivation. It keeps the external sounds out.
Slower forms of exercise can be great for thinking too. Yoga is known for its meditative side, so it is ideal for creating the right atmosphere for thinking. All sorts of thoughts and ideas will slip into your mind as you try holding poses.
Travel broadens the mind
A little travel broadens the mind and it certainly gets you thinking. But, for me, the act of travel is more important for thinking than the destination. Waiting in airport lounges is great for being bored and opening up your thoughts. Similarly, being sat on a train, alone and with no wifi connection, is fantastic for open-minded thinking. I sometimes curse the easily-available wifi or good G4 connections on public transport, as I am prone to being distracted by emails and messages on my phone. So, be bold and switch your phone right off if you can.
Bath time for ideas
Laying in a warm bath is the classic place to have your best thoughts. After all, it is where Archimedes discovered one of the laws of physics. Even visiting the smallest room has become somewhat destroyed as a moment for thinking by our constant use of our smart phones. So, run yourself a bath, splash in the bubble bath and maybe keep a notebook to hand. Just make sure it is not your best Moleskine. You can even buy waterproof notebooks, which will save you trying to punch the passcode into your phone and then dropping it in the bath water.
Netflix and chill has become something of a millennial mantra, denoting a do-nothing evening or weekend catching up on box-sets, bingeing on pizza and Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones*. But staring at a screen that is not your work laptop can help to free up your mind and the content you are watching may even provide inspiration. I find that playing video games can be great for emptying the portion of the mind that I use for thought. I get to relax and keep a notebook close to hand. *The actual millennial definition is a tad more saucy.
For some, a night on the town can result in a notebook full of ideas by the bed in the morning. Drinking, dancing and chatting can release endorphins, take your mind off work and free up your grey matter for thinking deeply. Just make sure you have that notebook to hand if you plan on drinking a lot, or those great ideas will be lost come the morning.
Personally, I have an odd thinking quirk that is very much time-bound. I have some of my best ideas at the cinema or the theatre in that strange limbo time between taking your seat and the action beginning. At the cinema, this can include thinking through the ads. But at the theatre I can achieve a relaxed reverie in the five minutes between taking my seat (notebook in pocket, G&T in hand) and the action beginning. All sorts of random thoughts go through my head, with some turning into great ideas that I have used for clients. The bonus is that you get to enjoy the entertainment too.
From time to time, I am offered a job. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that someone would wish to have me in their office on a full-time, permanent basis. But it happens at least once a month now. It’s getting worrying.
This strange phenomenon happens despite me clearly stating on sites such as LinkedIn that I really do not want a ‘real’ job. The salaries are not bad either. Usually.
But, apart from a pathological hatred of being tied to just one job and to office hours, I really do not see how anyone could get value out of me in a full-time job. To quote someone or other, I tried it once and didn’t like it. I’m not dismissing those who work in offices as such, but I don’t see how great ideas can solely come from in-house.
I have certainly flourished in short-term contracts in other people’s offices, but never with a boss, a contract and an annual season ticket. I am a freelance creative person at heart. I lose interest, I don’t buy in to most workplace cultures and I detest the idea of being subjected to other people’s choice of radio station or music, for life.
Now, this may just be down to my own character, but I truly wonder how any truly creative person can thrive in an office environment for any length of time. How do you have good ideas on the clock? And how do you muster up enthusiasm for the novel when you are three years in and have meetings to attend?
For most jobs, it makes more sense to hire in ideas people and (the best) writers as you need them.
Creators of ideas need to wander about, have a pint at 3pm on a Tuesday, sit by a river, go abroad, compile a best of Bowie playlist, take some pictures and have a day out at the seaside eating chips and playing in penny arcades. Not many employers will put up with that.
We’re flighty, but brilliant.
Our best thinking often happens while our brain and our hands are distracted elsewhere. It doesn’t happen in a meeting room every Tuesday at 10am sharp. It happens in the shower, playing PlayStation, strumming a guitar, at the theatre or strolling around a museum or gallery.
We need distraction, not direction. Though that is not to say that we can’t be inspired by the odd meeting, brainstorm or round table. We still need to bounce ideas around.
But if you put us in an office then we’ll have our best ideas on holiday. After all, you wouldn’t expect to see your favourite novelists sitting in a cubicle from 9-5, or grabbing a Pret sandwich at their desk to impress their boss with their presenteeism.
We’re free range. We need to breathe. We’re often a little odd.
So, don’t fence us in. You’ll get better work, at a lower cost. And we can go to the park.
Ideas are nebulous things.
An idea can be useless passing thought, or the route to fame and fortune. Some people place a huge amount of importance on their protection. Whereas other prefer to let them go free.
Less experienced copywriters, authors and journalists will worry about people ‘stealing their ideas’. As if the notion to interview Brad Pitt or a hot take on fidget spinners has only occurred to them. But, shocking as it may be…
There is no copyright in ideas.
Of course, this applies strictly to ideas that have had nothing done with them. So, things that have not become a film, a book, a piece of software or even an article. Your idea for life-size killer robot ponies is stealable until you at least get to work on them or apply for a copyright, patent or trademark. Sucks to be you. Get the monkey wrench and the jodhpurs out.
So, what can you do to protect your ideas?
Well, aside from getting cracking on them, there is nothing that you can do, bar not telling anyone what they are. Your value as someone who has ideas is not in the single potentially great idea you have. It is in both the execution of those ideas and the ability to have a whole lot more. Relax a bit. Not everyone is out to swindle you.
When being interviewed about another project, I once said that my ideal job would be to have someone come around on a Friday and pay me for all the ideas I had been unable to use that week. Now, that has sort of come true. I am happy to sell ideas on in the knowledge that there are hundreds coming up right behind them. Each client inspires new thoughts and new ideas. That is how original thinking works.
If you want to work in sectors that rely on ideas then you have to be confident in selling the ones you have, working up others and knowing you can have more. Intellectual property is hugely valuable, but not until you add value.
So stop worrying and start thinking. Ideas are powerful. But if they sit unused they simply die, their potential untested. Get your ideas out there and move on.
Ideas are subjective things. They provoke emotions. Love or hate, usually.
If it’s a maybe then it’s probably not good enough. You really want ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
I like to think that my ideas are great. But some of them are terrible. Those are usually the best ones. It’s subjective, you see. Keep up.
Working in ideas is a strange pastime, but you have to remember that although daring people have hired you, they can become less risk-positive when presenting the results to their boss or to their board.
You can sit and laugh and enthuse about that great, daring idea. But they may phone you afterwards, saying ‘I think we should go with plan B’. It’s hardly an unusual occurrence.
For this reason, my initial consultations on ideas with a new client usually consist of two days of work and one page (or so) of ideas.
It could also result in me calling or emailing before deadline with a time sensitive yes/no idea for them to make a call on. Something that is reactive, but which needs working on and getting out there today. It’s usually a result of my mind working overtimes on ideas for them while reading the papers or listening to the news on the radio.
This work that needs a quick call is often the best/worst. Again, depending upon your opinion.
But it is certainly the sort of work that is most likely to get a reaction from the world at large. I’ve had ideas at lunchtime that were global headlines by teatime. But I have also heard no a lot of times.
We’ll never know how those ideas would have flown. But you can be pretty sure that at least one would have got someone fired. Maybe it could have been you…