Does Sting have a creative secret for writing a hit new song? Is there a trick Neil Simon uses to get ideas for plays? How about a creative strategy screenwriter William Goldman (of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame) might use to find inspiration for a new novel or movie? Turns out they have all used a version of a group brainstorming technique known as "semantic intuition," the creative technique we use to help our Fortune 500 clients create their next breakthrough product or award-winning promotion.
The oddly named, but extraordinarily powerful technique was invented by Helmut Schlicksupp, an employee of the Battelle Corporation’s office in Germany. Semantic intuition is a word-combination technique where brainstormers name an idea first, and then try to figure out what the new idea might be, given its name. As counterintuitive or even as impossible as this group idea-generating strategy might sound, there’s actually a precedent for it in the creative arts.
It was in an interview with Larry King many years ago that Sting revealed that he will often get a title for a song first, and then he will go ahead and write the song. Neil Simon, in his second autobiography, revealed that he came up with the name for the play The Odd Couple first, and then wrote the play. And legendary screenwriter William Goldman adopted a similar name-it-first creative strategy when he asked his younger daughter what she wanted him to write a story about. She said “a Princess.” Then he asked his older daughter what she would like him to write a story about. She said, “a bride.” He put them together, and we got his novel--and then the movie--The Princess Bride.
Inventing Breakthrough New Products
So if you want to use this strategy to create a new product, or a promotional concept, or even a new social media idea, how might you do it? How might you name something when you have no idea what that thing is you’re naming?
It’s actually very simple. You generate lists of words--usually three lists of words (never more)--and then randomly combine words from these lists to create your “name.” Let’s say, for instance, you are trying to invent a new pen or “writing instrument.” The three categories of words (or even phrases) you might generate are:
1) Features, functions or parts of a writing instrument
2) Verbs or actions associated with a writing instrument
3) Benefits of a writing instrument
So some of the writing instrument “features, functions, or parts” could be: a plastic shaft, an ink tube, retractable head, steerable, hold-able, sharable, promotional tool, brand-able, etc.
The “verbs or actions” could be: draw, record, sketch, trace, erase, colorize, outline, document, etc.
And finally, the “benefits of a writing instrument” could be: immediately capture thoughts, share a message, express things colorfully, show your style, doodle/keep your mind occupied, compose an essay, personalize a garment, etc.
Once you have these lists of words, then the fun starts. You randomly combine words from each of the three categories of words to create your new product “names” or “thought-starters.” Here are a few examples:
“Retractable head, colorize, doodle/keep your mind occupied”
“Ink tube, outline, personalize a garment”
“Sharable, trace, immediately capture thoughts”
These thoughts-starters are designed to get you and your fellow brainstormers thinking differently. What they won’t do is provide you with the answer.
If we take the thought starter: “sharable, trace, and immediately capture thoughts” and add some creativity and imagination, it might prompt an idea for “an electronic tracing pen.” Huh?
The “electronic tracing pen” is a pen combined with a mini-camera, and a mini light projector. The way the electronic tracing pen might work is that you first take a picture of something you would like to draw. Then an electronic replica of this picture is transferred to a mini-projector on the pen. The mini-projector is detached from the pen, and placed on the surface of drawing paper. The mini-projector then projects the electronic replica image across the paper so it can be traced.
How did the “electronic tracing pen” idea emerge from the thought starting words “sharable, trace and immediately capture thoughts?” The word “trace” became the key thought starter of course, but the term “immediately capture thoughts” was important as well because it prompted the idea of a mini-camera on the pen. You could also make the case that “sharable” helped inspire the idea, because the traced image would certainly be sharable.
It’s important to understand however, that the goal of this technique is NOT necessarily to use all three words to inspire a new idea. If you use only two words, or even just one word, that is fine. The ultimate goal is to get a great new idea, not be constrained by the words.
So that’s the semantic intuition technique. Simple, right?
Creating Game-Changing Promotions
We have found that besides being a great technique for inventing new products, semantic intuition also works for creating new promotions. Let’s say you want to create in-store/retail display ideas to promote a new suntan lotion. The three lists of words you might use to generate your thought starting “names” could be: 1) places in a store, 2) kinds of promotional appeals and 3) benefits of the product.
Places in the store might include: customer service, pharmacy, aisles, parking lot, flower shop, the photo department, etc.
Kinds of promotional appeals could be: shelf talkers, Buy-one/Get One, instantly redeemable coupons, gift with purchase, floor graphics or displays, etc.
Product benefits could be: look healthy, prevent skin cancer, avoid redness, moisturize the skin, non-greasy, easy-to-apply, etc.
One random combination of these words would be: “photo department, gift with purchase, and look healthy.”
This thought-starter combination might inspire you to create “before and after” point of sale materials/posters for both the sun-care aisle and the photo-department of the retail store. The “before” pictures would show rather pale family members. The “after” pictures this same family with great, healthy-looking tans. This “before and after” promotion could then accomplish two goals: promoting sales of the manufacturer’s sun tan lotion in the sun-care aisle; while at the same time advertising the retailer’s high-margin photo-processing business--especially for families with multiple rolls of film they need processed when they return from their beach vacation.
Why is the Semantic Intuition technique one of our all-time favorite creative techniques? Well, for one, it’s a lot of fun. More importantly though, it works! Just ask new-idea mentors Sting, Simon, and Goldman!
For more business ideas, sign up for the Fast Company newsletter.
--Bryan Mattimore is a cofounder of The Growth Engine Company, whose clients have included City of New York, BNY Mellon, Thomas', Ben & Jerry's, Sony, DKNY, Wyeth, Unilever, IBM, Honeywell, Pepsi, Centrum, Dove, Crayola, Bauer, Ford, and Craftsman. He is also the author of Idea Stormers. Check out an excerpt here.
[Image: Flickr user Tc Morgan]