February 6, 2018

Idea generation machine

Maybe you think that the topic a TEDx event is focused on comes from some international organization. That somewhere there is a committee that knows what issue to cover in your 3rd TEDx year. That’s not true! The TEDxDornbirn team, as all other TEDx teams worldwide, has to find its own topics.

An interesting theme is the basis for an appealing event. The topic is the common thread through all speakers and speeches. The topic can inspire, can show actuality, can speak to potential participants – or achieve the opposite!

Therefore the TEDxDornbirn team didn’t want to leave this important decision to chance – and they contacted me to help them find a topic. I have to admit that I am not an idea generation machine. I am also not an idea expert. But the good thing about generating ideas is the same as in coaching: ask an expert the right questions and the solutions seem to come by themselves …

We believe that good ideas just appear, from one second to the other. You just have them. And of course, sometimes this is true. But one can also use helpful techniques to provoke the generation of ideas. There are some rules and tools to accomplish this, that I want to share with you.

First of all some thoughts on our brain: our thoughts use tracks. Think of them as ski-tracks. These tracks go in the directions your thoughts usually go to. A road often travelled is one we are more likely to take. So just sitting down and thinking leads mostly to similar ideas, as our thinking follows patterns we are used to. This is why good ideas sometimes come up when you are at the toilet or taking a shower: your brains wanders, freed from its usual tracks it may end up in places it normally wouldn’t.

The idea generating process is something everyone can easily try. You could do this by yourself, but a group normally helps you avoid getting stuck. On the other hand a group doesn’t guarantee better results. If people who learned the same profession, have known each other for a long time and/or work in the same field or company a brainstorming session will likely not yield results that are groundbreaking. Homogenous groups will think alike and arrive at similar ideas.

At least some people in the group should be experts on the relevant question/problem. If there are no experts in the group, improving the groups knowledge on the issue should be step one.

As the TEDxDornbirn team consists mostly of people now participating for the 3rd time at the event, they can all be perceived as TEDxDornbirn experts. So we directly turned to setting the rules.

The rules we decided on for our idea generation session where the following:

1. Quantity over quality. First we write everything down. Later on we prioritize or evaluate. Ideas provoke other ideas. Ideas can be combined to a better idea. Ideas can be understood differently. So at this point all ideas are interesting.

2. No critics. Not internally, so no inner voice and also not externally, so no critiques to and by the others.

3. Be open for stupidity. Fantasy. Loose reality.

4. Copy. Use the ideas of others to inspire you.

5. Persistency. Go on. And on. We all learned that the good ideas come after 20 minutes of brainstorming. This is mostly true.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least: don’t stick to an idea. Write it down and turn to what comes up next.

Of course the output has to be evaluated at some point. But as it’s always easier to pick two good ideas out of twenty then to just generate two, this was left open for later. Broadening up a topic is easier than to refine it, so showing up the extremes is a good way to start off.


For our session we used associating questions to leave our personal brain tracks. Here is the full list, so make use of it whenever you need ideas:

– What would the topic of the event be, to get your biggest critic to come? Think about the teacher you hated most: when would he/she come? Or what about your ex-girlfriend/-boyfriend?

– If money, time, etc. would be irrelevant: who would be your most preferred speaker and what would be their topic?

– What would be the topic of YOUR speech?

– All speakers cancel short term, so your team has to cover all talks. What would every single one of them talk about?

– Who would be your favorite sponsor? Which topic would make him/her come?

– If the last two topics would make a pattern, which would be the logical successor?

– What would be your favorite location for TEDx Dornbirn? Theatre, circus, … how would this influence your theme?

– Next TEDx takes place in Alice’s Wonderland. What would be the topic?

– TEDx Dornbirn is a patient visiting a doctor. What would be the diagnosis? What therapy or medication do you recommend?

– If TEDx Dornbirn would be a service, what would you book it for?

– What would be the biggest potential failure at the next event? The worst thing that could happen? What would be the topic, so that it would fit?

– What do you hate most about your job? Is there an issue you regularly fail to solve? What would be the title of a lecture covering this issue?

– Your grandma comes as a speaker! What would be her topic? Other speakers could be your grandpa, aunt, dad, etc.

– Imagine TEDx would take place at 8:30 in the morning. Or on a winter evening. How would this change the theme?

– TEDx is super hip! It covers all recent societal changes that you experience in your personal surroundings. What is the topic?

After that I had planned another more strategic part, a role play, with Sarah as the personalization of „TEDx“ on the psychiatric couch, and a method to combine ideas. In the end, none of it was necessary! The good thing about brainstorming with volunteers is – surprise – that everybody volunteered to participate. The flood of ideas for upcoming events was so huge, that there would be no further sessions needed for the next 40 years …

by Katrin Beste
Informationdesigner in Vienna