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Less is More: How Constraints Can Actually Help You Develop Brilliant Content Ideas

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It’s time to write a new post for your blog. You sit down to brainstorm for content ideas. The screen stares back at you. Suddenly, you’re blank and clueless. Where are you going to start?

The trouble with brainstorming is that it usually means starting with a blank slate and throwing out ideas as they come. I said trouble because counter-intuitive as it may seem, having too much freedom can actually undermine your creativity.

Using the Power of Constraints in Brainstorming

A study conducted at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Social Psychology suggests that intelligent use of constraints can breed creativity instead of diminish it. Participants of the study were divided into two groups and were made to play a computer maze game.

The first group played a version that had more obstacles making it harder to escape. The second group played an easier maze with lots of options to escape and no obstacles at all. After playing the maze game, they were given remote associates puzzles to test their creativity.

The first group who played a harder version of the maze solved 40 percent more of the associates puzzles than those who played the easier version with no obstacles. The constraints in the maze game had propelled the participants in the first group to think creatively and it showed in the test.

What the study revealed is that having limitless possibilities at your disposal is not always the best for your creativity, but the opposite.

When done the right way, self-imposed constraints can actually help you come up with fantastic ideas for your blog post.

So the next time you sit down for a brainstorming session, here are some approaches to try:

1. Become a Hero to Your Ideal Reader

‘Know your audience’. that’s the number one piece of advice for bloggers. But it’s also another abstract hollow phrase along with  content is king and “think outside the box.” You know what that means. But how do you actually do it? How do you practically learn about your ideal reader and write for him or her?

The answer is by finding out his or her major pain point, also known as challenge, struggle, dilemma and many more. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing for parents, athletes, plumbers, or shark tank cleaners. Everyone has a major pain-point which they want to solve.

Look deep into that problem and its intensity. How is it hindering your ideal reader? How is it making his life difficult? Then genuinely become a friend to him by sharing a solution you know. Imagine you’re talking to a friend in distress. You sit down beside him and say “Here, let me tell you something that might help

Of course you want to do this if you actually have a real-life experience to share that can help alleviate the problem.

In the book Empathic Marketing by Mark Ingwer, the author establishes the need for brands and publishers to meet the core needs of their readers. It supports the idea that content that have a human element and supportive tone are more likely to engage its readers than those that don’t.

Knowing that major pain of your reader is good both for you and your readers. You’ll be less likely to feel blocked that way. Plus, your readers will benefit from your personal experience in dealing with a problem you all share.

# How to put this in action:

Quora

Whenever I visit Quora, I make sure I have lots of free time because the wealth of stories people share is just irresistible. Quora is a goldmine of insights when digging for deep, heartfelt stories about different topics under the sun.

You’ll find lots of eye-opening firsthand experiences and real-life anecdotes. It makes the problem you are targeting multi-dimensional as you see it from various POVs and people from different backgrounds.

Blog comments

Search for blogs that are related to your business and read what people are commenting. Besides either praising or criticizing the blog post author, many readers would share how they have dealt or are dealing with the situation being discussed. Look for patterns of thinking and connect the dots. Is there a common issue or situation that these people share?

Forums and Online Communities

Like blog comments, targeted forums are also a great way to find personal anecdotes and stories that could kindle the creativity fire. You’ll also want to look for stories that have lots of details to give you a clearer picture of a particular issue. The more details, the better.

# Example:

Got Kids With Irrational Fears? 5 Powerful Strategies You Should Try

The author shares her personal experience in trying to overcome her children’s irrational fears by following the advice from a book. Her post could be like any other book review but by sharing personal examples, she added an authentic flavor and sets herself apart. Her post was recognized in the reputable Boost Blog Traffic for her personal take on dealing with children with irrational fears.

2.  Elaborate from the Ideas of Influencers

When you are clueless on where to begin, take  a look at what the A-listers are putting out on their own blogs. This will give you a starting point. Additionally, if you model your content after the ‘Popular Posts’ or the ones that are already accepted and liked, then you’re in a good spot for getting a decent amount of attention.

By doing this, you apply what experts call the Consistency Principle which says that we like to keep consistent with what we think, say and do and will change ourselves to ensure this is so. Whether it’s about the things we read or how we are perceived by others, experts tell us that we have a need to be consistent.

An example of this in action is when someone gets value from a company’s article then subscribes to their email list. After the initial contact which is the article, the person starts seeing himself having some form of bond with the brand as evidenced by his signing up for email updates.

# How to put this in action:

Buzzsumo

Buzzsumo is a great tool for legally stalking the Influencers in your field. In the site, simply paste the url of an influencer’s website and blog to find their most popular posts. Buzzsumo will sort the blog posts by popularity and tell you the number of social shares each post received.

Choose one from those popular posts, ideally, within the top 10 posts. Then brainstorm for spin-off topics from that.

For example, let’s take a look at Mike Vardy’s Productivityist blog, here are the top 10 posts Buzzsumo fetched up:

Buzzsumo query

If we pick the top post which is ‘How to Make Mondays Work For You’, some possible spin-off topics could be:

– 12 Things Successful People Do Every Monday

– Want Your Willpower to Last Throughout the Week? Here are Things You Shouldn’t Do on Mondays

– 18 Things To Do Before Monday to Boost Your Productivity

Side note: When sharing your spin-off content, make sure to tweet the Influencer, letting them know you wrote a post similar to theirs. Who knows? They might love it and share it with their followers. That’s instant exposure for you!

3. Use the Power of Metaphors

I love how metaphors add a richer dimension to an otherwise bland writing.  They help you convey your point instantly. Here’s a nice example of a metaphor by Groucho Marx: “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running .”

What if you could use a metaphor as a starting point for your article? Is that even possible? Yes!  Instead of starting your brainstorming session with a blank page, think of an object, event or situation you can tie to your topic to illustrate the message you want to convey.

It’s exactly what Daphne Gray Grant’s did in her book 8 1/2 steps to Writing Faster and Better. Using the metaphor of painting a room, she outlined the steps to faster writing. She also emphasized how it should be done in order — just as you would when painting a room; starting from deciding on the color to finishing the sanding.

Metaphors work so well because of what experts call as “schema“.  When we compare our subject to something people can easily picture in their minds, it becomes clearer and more memorable.

# How to put this in action:

Write your main argument on a piece of paper and brainstorm for objects, people or situations you can connect to this argument.

The key is to keep it simple. The best metaphor is the one that your readers instantly “get it”. If they need to have a Phd. in programming to understand the analogy, then you’re doing it wrong (unless, of course, if your target audience are a bunch of computer programmers). But if you say something like “He’s the Grinch of Thanksgiving” then everyone will know what you mean.

# Example:

An Infalliable Way to Test the Quality of Your Story

In this post, the author compares testing one’s own writing with that of the quality of coffee. Creating his own “coffee test” for creative writing and even having an official name for it, the author cleverly gives the topic a very fresh, unique perspective.

4. Have a Rolodex of Title Templates

Anyone could really use some inspiration when brainstorming topics for their content. But for most people, inspiration is not always available when you need it the most.

According to Thrash and Ellioy , two researchers who studied how inspiration works, inspiration plays a key role in the writing process.  It involves both being inspired by something and acting on the inspiration.

Good news is, inspiration doesn’t have to be out of your control. You can inspire yourself by reading up and looking at things that get you motivated.

When it comes to brainstorming, you can prime your mind by having a rolodex of titles you can refer to. It’s enough to spark some inspiration and get your creativity going.

# How to put this in action:

There are so many references out there but I’d like to use Pauline Cabrera’s mammoth list of  templates. When searching for ideas, go over each of this and ask yourself “If I were to use this template, what would the title be?” Packed with lots of ideas for a year’s worth of content, this list is great for getting that dose of inspiration you need.

title templates pauline cabrera

5. Document a Method or Success Story in Your Field

Do a case study. This method is easy because there’s no pressure to create an original story. You just report how something is done. If there’s a major problem you and your readers are experiencing, talk about how someone in your industry is solving it with a particular method. (You might need to do an interview about this).

According to The Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation mental simulation plays an important role in making ideas concrete and getting people to care. Showing your readers how a solution works in a real-life problem is a great way to unblock yourself as well as put out something your readers will appreciate.

# How to put this in action:

One Shy Writer’s Lazy LinkedIn Strategy for Landing Great Freelance Clients

In this study, the blogger shares her strategy for getting more clients despite the fact that she hates promoting herself. The title itself is telling. Instantly, it makes you think “What is she doing that I’m not?”

Of course you can document your own or other people’s success on a particular issue. Make sure you have enough details that readers can mentally simulate. This will get them thinking how they can apply a solution to their problem.

6. Define Your Angle

Don’t write on a subject. That’s a surefire method for getting blocked. It’s not only boring for you but also for your readers. Instead, have a solid argument.

Don’t talk about jumping ropes. Talk about how jumping ropes are the best cardio workout tools to use at home. Again this is where we take advantage of constraints in propelling creativity.  As Marissa Meyer of Yahoo pointed out in Businessweek…

“Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”

# How to put this in action:

Start by taking your topic on the extreme side. Talk about how it’s the best, the easiest, the fastest, etc. Doing this gives you a unique point of view and helps you focus everything you write from that POV. Of course, use good judgement. You don’t want to hype-up something that’s not. If you do that, make sure to back it up with proof explaining why it’s the best on something.

One way to do this is to think along the lines of the following adjectives:

greatest, simplest, easiest, fastest, smartest, the best, the most +, beautiful, brilliant, epic, essential, excellent, dangerous, unbelievable, horrifying, important, inspiring, kickass, killer, mindblowing, successful, outrageous, proven etc.

Conclusion

Brainstorming is a major element in your content creation process. After all, great topics don’t come instantly but with persistent ideation. While you are free to  start with a vast range of possibilities, don’t feel like you absolutely have to.

Don’t be afraid to start your brainstorming sessions with some limitations. When done the right way, it can force you to sharpen your focus and come up with brilliant topics your readers will love.

Do you use constraints when brainstorming topics for your content? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Header Image Courtesy: TheMuse