Tag Archives: creativity

BBC Bristol training

Here’s a selection of tools to help you turn insights into ideas and ideas into stories; to help you sharpen your pitch; and to use tools from fiction to tell great factual stories.

Five short courses over two days, so make sure you pick the right downloads for your session.

  1. Insights, Ideas and Stories (Tues am) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  2. Creative Toolkit (Tues pm) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  3. Storytelling (Weds am) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  4. Pitch Perfect (Weds pm) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck
  5. Format Factory (Weds pm) – PDF worksheets and presentation deck

There are more tips and tools available on the website, so if you need help with storytelling, insights, new ideas, developing stronger ideas or killing off bad ideas, have a look at these.

Three notebooks that will turn you into a “creative” type

Are you frightened of a blank piece of paper? Do you sit there thinking “I’m not a creative type”? Do new ideas stay stubbornly hidden when you need them most?

That’s how I used to feel.

I used to think that only a few lucky people were born creative, and that I wasn’t one of them.

Now I think I am creative.

I think you can be creative too. You just need to develop some good habits.

So, here’s one of my habits, involving three notebooks and a large table.

(Before you ask, you can’t do this on a computer, never mind a mobile phone. So no, there isn’t an app for this)

Head off down to your favourite stationary store (or a decent pound-store) and buy yourself:

Notebook One: A2 size or as big as you can fit on your table.

Notebook Two: A4 size.

Notebook Three: A6 size, as small as a passport or mobile phone.

And here’s how you use them.

Notebook 1 is for mind maps, spider-graphs, doodles and clumps of words that should go together. This helps you plan out a piece of work, or just get ideas down in a rough sort of pattern. Notebook 1 is how your brain works: a mixed bunch of ideas, loosely connected.

Notebook 2 is for a habit I learned from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. If ever you’re stuck, or just mentally restless, do this. Sit down and write three pages of A4. Just write. It doesn’t matter what, just keep going. It can be what’s on your mind right now, what’s going on outside, what happened today. It can be as simple as “I can hear Mum making tea in the kitchen.” If you’ve spent hours staring at a screen and your brain feels stale, do this now.

It will take you about 40 minutes to write three A4 pages. After five minutes, the nagging feeling of doubt (“Help, I can’t think of anything!”) fades away. Ten minutes in, more ideas are popping into my head than I can write down. Ideas are tumbling over each other in a stream. Sometimes a good idea or something urgent will pop up. And that’s when I switch to…

Notebook 3, which is sitting right beside me. I quickly jot down the idea and then switch back to finish my three pages on Notebook 2. At the end of 40 minutes, I will have two or three ideas in Notebook 3. This is also the book you carry round with you for the ideas that come to you during your day.

Finally, you take Notebook 3  to bed last thing at night. Before you settle down to sleep, make a note of three or four ideas you’ve had that day. Again, it doesn’t matter if they’re ground-breaking, set-the-world-on-fire ideas, just that they were yours. What you’re doing is training your brain to notice your own creativity. The more you’re aware of having new ideas, the more you’ll realise you ARE creative.

I’ll be honest, I don’t use three notebooks every day. But I feel better every time I do.

CAUTIONARY NOTE: don’t leave Notebook 2 lying around for all to see. If you want your stream of ideas to flow, you have to just write what comes to mind. You MUST NOT write Notebook 2 thinking that someone else might read it, as this will shut your ideas down and make them safe.

CREDIT: thanks to Zainab Khan for letting me test out the three notebook method.

NB: I also used Notebook 1 to block out chapters of my book before I started writing. I borrowed that idea from Hollywood scriptwriter Blake Snyder.

Ten Creative Tools

“It’s tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything like a nail.” In this memorable line, Abraham Maslow nails (forgive the pun) the problem of innovation. Too many of us only have one or two ways of working. That means we come at problems the same way again and again. Sure, it works. But will it keep working as the world around us changes? And will the same-old approach ever produce surprisingly new ideas?

Remember the Orange Test? Try it again, but this time with different colours. What’s the first thing you write down for white, green and blue? I bet it’s snow, grass and sky or sea.

Under pressure, your first answer will be obvious. So you have to push beyond your first answers to get to new and unusual. The best way to prompt this kind of divergent thinking is to say to yourself (or others) “Yes, what else?” every time you come up with an idea.

Tools 1 & 2 help you come up with lots of options right at the start, when you are looking at the problem you’re trying to solve:

  1. Why? What’s Stopping You?
  2. Questions for Insights

Tools 3 – 8 help you find lots (and I mean LOTS!) of possible ideas in response to your creative challenge:


4. Brainwriting

5. Lateral Nudge

6. Break the Rules

7. Steal from the Thesaurus

8. The Shock of the Old

The last two tools give your new ideas growing space and spot the problems that might be lurking behind them.

9. Pluses, Potentials and Concerns

10. Pre Mortem

And remember, as Margaret Heffernan says, “great ideas don’t come from offices”

The worksheets from this session are downloadable here as PDFs.

The slide deck is downloadable here as a Keynote file (117Mb).

Postcards from Estonia

Here are all the resources I used in my classes and talk at World Usability Day Tallinn 2017:

Stupid Mistakes Smart People Make (and what you can do about them) was my attempt to introduce the fascinating topic of cognitive bias in a light hearted way. I’ll post a link to the video when it’s ready, meanwhile here’s the slide deck and your own printable version of the Sunk Cost Fallacy worksheet.

10 Creative Tools gives you a selection of deliberate creative thinking techniques to use by yourself or with your team. Just like picking up any other kind of tool, some of them take a bit of getting used to. Here’s the slide deck and the worksheets.

Storytelling will help you turn your ideas into stories. Storytelling is the best way we’ve developed to remember and spread information, so why not use it for your business? Slide deck and worksheets here.

If you want to ask any questions about these, email me steverawling@gmail.com


Love, Hate and New Ideas

Here’s a really simple introduction to design thinking and the creative process. I developed this with 160 teenage guinea-pigs at a BBC digital taster day in Teeside University this week.


It goes like this. Every student gets their own card (A5 postcard worked well – see below for download). Then give them these instructions:

  1. First, I want you to think about all the things in the digital world you really love, all the products and services. But I also want you to think about WHY you love them. Make a good list in the first box.
  2. Then I want you to think about the things you hate, things that drive you mad, not just in the digital world but any part of your life. So, write down “I hate it when…” Hate matters as much as Love because if people really hate something, they will pay you to come up with a way of avoiding it.
  3. So all this gets you thinking about new ideas. They maybe ideas that help you do more of what you love or less of what you hate. This is how designers think. This is how people come up with ideas in the digital world. And that matters because (a) it’s fun, and (b) people will pay you money for your ideas.

It always helps to tell a story to illustrate the point. I chose UBER’s foundation story (or a version of it).

Version one: There were two American entrepreneurs sitting up late one night in Paris, moaning about how hard it is to get a taxi sometimes. Imagine that’s you, in a foreign city where you don’t speak the language, can’t phone a taxi and worried that even when you find a cab, the driver will rip you off because you’re a rich tourist. They were thinking “I hate it when you can’t get a ride” and guess what idea they came up with? (At least one student will get UBER).

Version two is a bit more subtle, and I saved it til the end of the day. Remember those two American entrepreneurs, stuck at night in Paris without a taxi. Well you know what, their FIRST idea was to set up a limousine hire company. They got much further down the line before that idea turned into UBER as we know it today – an easy way to hire a cab on your smartphone. Because the truth is most new ideas don’t work at first. And the secret is, don’t be discouraged, keep trying. Don’t say “this doesn’t work”, instead say “THIS DOESN’T WORK YET“.

Download this: Love, Hate & New Ideas worksheet

Life lessons from a raindrop

I spent years trying to master 35mm photography, with mostly disappointing results. I never took a picture as beautiful as this one… so why is that?

This is NOT a story of improving technology. The camera on my Google phone is good, but the lens on my old Nikon FE was 100 times better. The life lesson from this raindrop is that technology allows me to improve my creative process – in two ways.

1. Creativity loves cheap failures. Here are all the attempts I made to photograph yesterday’s raindrop:

Most were rubbish. But it’s like Linus Pauling – double Nobel prize winner – told his students, if you want to have good ideas, you need to have lots of ideas and then throw the bad ones away.

Digital photography beats film because it makes failure so cheap. There’s nothing to stop you taking shot after shot until you get a good one. Then throw the bad ones away.

Digital = cheap failures.

My 35mm experiments were expensive – five or six quid to develop 36 shots, maybe only one of which would work. The cost of producing 90% disappointing shots hovered at the back of my mind every time I picked up the camera. Not so nowadays. I shoot as much and as varied as I like. The only cost is my time. Digital vs film is a perfect example of divergent thinking, which lies at the heart of every good creative process.

2. Expertise grows with rapid feedback. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein reckon that expertise flourishes when we get “immediate and unambiguous feedback” on our actions. Think of the difference between learning to drive a car and learning to pilot a supertanker.

Every touch on the brakes or steering wheel gives the novice driver immediate and unambiguous feedback. We try, we learn, we improve. Steering a supertanker into a stormy harbour, with cross currents, winds and tides is much more subtle. 17 year olds learn to drive cars. I doubt there are many 17 year old supertanker pilots out there.

Digital photography is like learning to drive a car. We snap, we check, we snap again. Feedback is immediate and unambiguous, right there on our screen. The feedback on my 35mm film took days. By the time the photos came back from the lab, I’d forgotten what I was trying to learn.

So, Life Lessons from a Raindrop:

If you want to get good at anything, experiment as cheaply as you can, get clear feedback as quickly as you can.

And always look for beauty, even on the rainy days.

  • 11 tips on how to learn from your own mistakes here.

Credit: Supertanker picture from Pixabay.com

Why bosses say they want radical new ideas but pick stale old ones

Psychologists have found a strong unconscious bias AGAINST creativity that pops up when people are evaluating new ideas. This means no matter how much your boss tells you he/she wants fresh thinking, their gut instinct makes them treat new ideas like a bad smell. Sound familiar?

Unconscious biases are preferences and prejudices that we don’t know we have. For example, you might be unconsciously wary of someone with Arab Muslim heritage – even though you’re not racist – simply because of all the terrible news coverage of terrorism since 9/11.

You can test for unconscious bias (links at the bottom if you’re interested), and so the authors of this study did exactly that. They tested if people unconsciously preferred practical ideas over more radical ones. Here’s what they found:

“Just as people have deeply-rooted biases against people of a certain age, race or gender that are not necessarily overt, so too can people hold deeply-rooted negative views of creativity that are not openly acknowledged.”

This hidden bias against creativity got worse when the test subjects were put into situations of uncertainty.

We all talk about the importance of creativity. But unless you’re the kind of person who loves uncertainty, you may unconsciously prefer ideas that are safe, unoriginal and practical. I reckon this is why bringing new ideas to life feels like such an uphill struggle.

The authors conclude “our results suggest that if people have difficulty gaining acceptance for creative ideas especially when more practical and unoriginal options are readily available, the field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

Here’s one technique that might help people around you be more accepting of your creativity – move your doubters from “How” to “Why”

Credit: “The Bias Against Creativity” by Mueller, Melwani & Goncalo

Test your own unconscious biases here.