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16 Brainstorming Ticklers

This lesson is a part of an audio course Sizzling Sound Bites by Marcia Yudkin

Ready to play? Start filling up your notebook in response to these questions or prompts. If any of the items don't seem to apply to your situation, try anyway. You might be surprised at the fruitful connections you are able to make.

Keywords. Brainstorm a list of keywords related to your business or topic area. The more words, the better – verbs, nouns, and adjectives. For instance, keywords for a fence company would include a fence, boundary, perimeter, surround, keep in, keep out, bounds, picket, enclose, yard, borderline. You'll use this list with several of the later steps, so continue adding words until you hit a wall.

Thesaurus. To lengthen your list of keywords, look up major keywords in a thesaurus or synonym finder, and add other words you see that relate to your business. When I look up the keywords I started with for the fence company, I can add lots more to my collection: limits, border, verge, hem, frontier, edge, pen, coop, wall, corral, pound, hutch, rampart, moat, ring, and more.

There's a decent online thesaurus at In my home office, I have three thesauri, and they differ from one another. There's an old Roget's hardback whose binding is clumsily taped back together, but which I like because it includes long lists of thematic words. For example, it has more than three whole pages crammed with words for boats, ships, sailing vessels, parts of ships, sails, rigging, and so on. I also have The Synonym Finder by Rodale, which is paperback and much more contemporary than the Roget's. I also have Roget's Super Thesaurus, whose pages are not as yellow as the Rodale now and thus easier to use.

Even 75 to 100 words at this point are not too many.

Homophones. Consider whether any of the words you have listed so far have a homophone – another word that sounds the same but is spelled differently. (Some people call these homonyms.) If so, jot down the sound twins. For example, one keyword for a human resource company is "hire," which can sound the same as "higher." Or if you have the word "barefoot" on your list, here you'd write down "bear foot," as in the foot of "bear," the animal. I'm not sure where that would take you, but right now, that's not the point. Write everything down.

Clichés. Look through your brainstormed words and phrases, and see if any suggest common sayings, mottoes, or clichés. For instance, a custom tailoring shop would spot the word "stitch" and jot down A Stitch in Time, In Stitches and Stitched Together. Remember, don't judge or filter what comes up; write down all the possibilities. Or if you're brainstorming for a plumber and you had the word "flush" on your list, you'd now jot down "royal flush beats a full house," "flush left," "flush out," and probably more.

Outcomes. Now write down words that represent the benefits and results your clients and customers receive from your product or service. If you're a financial software manufacturer, you might cite these: speed, convenience, accuracy. For a public relations firm, results would include fame, reputation, increased sales, credibility, shorter sales cycles. No cleverness is needed for this step!

Names. Add your own name, if you're the business owner, to the brew. Does it suggest a homophone or pun? Publishing guru Dan Poynter P-O-Y-N-T-E-R called his newsletter Publishing Poynters. Do the same with geographical names. Write down the name of the town, neighborhood, county, region, and any slang words or nicknames for any of those. Ditto for acronyms or personal nicknames, such as in "All the way with LBJ."

In my own neck of the woods, there are quite a few words associated with the locale that companies use in names: the official county name, Hampshire; contemporary nicknames, such as Noho and Happy Valley; historical associations, such as Calvin Coolidge, who once served as mayor; even farther back, Norwottuck and Nonotuck, which refer to Native American names for our locale; monikers made up by local chambers of commerce, like Pioneer Valley; geographical terms, like River Valley, referring to the Connecticut River; cultural allusions, such as Five Colleges this or that, and a few more. That's quite a bit to work with!

Audience. What qualities characterize your clientele/readers/listeners? A yacht chartering concern might reply: exclusive, busy, demanding, tasteful, famous, private, wealthy, multilingual, cosmopolitan. Here the fence company might add either "home" or "industrial" to its list.

Superlatives. Since we assume you wish to be the best of your kind, consider words that imply mastery, excellence, superiority, biggest, best. Return to the thesaurus for this step if you like.

Also, think of what the best or top ones of different sorts are called, such as king, big fish, pinnacle, mogul, goddess, roof, sovereign, prime, premium, summit, fastest draw, etc. Do these words, in combination with any of the previous ones, have sparkle, as in Queen of Clean?

Opposites. Now brainstorm what your customers or fans are trying to avoid or get rid of. For an embezzlement detection and prevention firm, it's theft, cheating, cons, loss: aha! Loss Busters. For a house cleaning service that straightens up as well as cleans, what they're getting rid of is chaos: We tame the chaos.

Yearnings. What wishes, no matter how far-fetched, does your target audience often voice? For example, a word processing service might call itself Done Yesterday. A used auto parts shop claiming to be the biggest in the area could use this tagline: Everything but the kitchen sink.

Legends. Sometimes an evocative slogan or tagline uses figures from ancient mythology. A website known for breaking stories that conventional news media won't touch might style itself: Newspapers' Nemesis. (Nemesis was the goddess who exacted revenge against those who were arrogant toward the gods.) Or, for a moving company: The Hercules Crew with the Touch You Can Trust. Browse mythological references. Don't forget that there are not only Greek, Roman, and Norse gods, but also Japanese, Korean, Indian, Hawaiian, Native American, and many other cultures' gods. One of my clients named his company after a Japanese water sprite.

Pop culture. When you think of what you're trying to communicate, what movies, songs, advertising jingles, comic book or cartoon heroes, or TV shows come to mind? Maybe it's "Can't Get No…" or Rocky Balboa, Spiderman, or "Survivor." You'll have to beware of violating copyrights and trademarks, but you can still riff off popular scenarios, images, and lines. Don't be too obviously imitative.

Emotions. What is the feeling you hope to evoke? Jot down words and phrases associated with that mood as well as scenarios where that feeling gets expressed. If you want to spark indignation, write "How dare they?" "Boiling mad," "unfair," "protest," "riot," "Whose side are you on?" and more. If you want to evoke relaxation, you will write down "Ahh," "Mmm," "More, please," "stress melting away," "a good soak," and so on.

Images. If you can't find the words for what you're trying to say, maybe you can visualize it. Close your eyes and see what pictures arise when you envision your message. Draw them in your notebook and ask a friend to come up with words from them.

Details. Record iconic specifics in the notebook: numbers, names, incidents, legal cases, famous punch lines, any single fact that has uncommon significance. For instance, write down "63.3%" if your crusade concerns food safety, and that's the percentage of unsafe poultry found in one government inspection.

Exclamations. What do people often say in situations like those you're trying to communicate? That's how writers came up with Crest's "Look, Ma, no cavities!" Clairol's "Does she or doesn't she?" Deborah Tannen's book title, You Just Don't Understand, and the book and movie, He's Just Not That Into You.

Comparisons. This one is something you have to do at lightning speed. Write down whatever word, idea or image comes to you first, even if it's just a fleeting thought you are tempted to dismiss. For every category I'm going to say, answer the question, "If your topic (what you're trying to create a message about) was a ___, which would it be?"

  • Vegetable ("If it were a vegetable, which would it be?").
  • Season.
  • Landscape.
  • Job.
  • Color.
  • Tool.
  • Playing card.
  • Country.
  • Shape.
  • Animal.
  • Crime.
  • Kind of weather.
  • Motor vehicle.
  • Dessert.
  • Smell.
  • Temperature.
  • Piece of clothing.
  • Weapon.
  • Bank transaction.
  • Compass direction.
  • Earth, air, fire, or water.

Good job! Let's take a break here, and then we'll go on in the next lesson on how to mix and match, tweak and fine-tune.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin