Where do you find ideas?: Frequent Questions

Q: Where do you find your ideas?
A: Everywhere I look.

I once turned the plot of The Sound of Music into something akin to a business school case study. That may be the splashiest idea I’ve ever had for a speech—and writing it won me an award. But I try to weave something unexpected into everything I write. And those unexpected touches can come from anywhere.

I read widely, though probably not as widely as I should; I generally only read fiction if a friend wrote it. Fortunately I have some talented friends. I read Harvard Business Review, sure, but also The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. HBR lets me in on what my clients are thinking about, and Vanity Fair yields a lot of great anecdotes I can re-use. But The New Yorker may be the best writing teacher I’ve ever had (of the non-human variety; pace, Ms. Schieffelin). Just about every article from writers like Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell is a master class in style and sticky ideas.

How sticky? Can you remember a specific magazine article you read more than 14 years ago? I can.

Adam Gopnik offers a master class in how to find ideasUnless you’re a subscriber, The New Yorker‘s website only offers an abstract. But Gopnik republished “Mr. Ravioli” in his collection Through the Children’s Gate.

But where do you find ideas?

You think I’m digressing? You asked about ideas and here I’m talking about writing. Hey—without ideas there is no writing. None worth reading, anyway.

I can boil it down to its essence in three words: Show, don’t tell.

So if you’re writing about the phenomenon of hyper-busyness and its impact on our relationships, don’t begin with facts and figures. Tell us a story.

Gopnik opens his essay by introducing us to his three-year-old daughter Olivia’s fantasy life and her imaginary friend Mr. Ravioli. Olivia’s parents have never met Mr. Ravioli—not because he’s imaginary, but because he’s always too busy. Too busy, even, to play with Olivia. Instead, they engage in an endless game of imaginary-phone tag.

Imaginary friends exist to fill a void; but Olivia’s imaginary friend creates a new void. What, Gopnik asks, does this say about his daughter? And about the world we’ve created?

Of course Gopnik gets to the experts, and the theories behind them—the meaty intellectual stuff one expects of The New Yorker. But I don’t remember the article because of what some psychologist said. I remember it because Olivia’s story drew me in. And that made the story—and its message—stick.

You want people to remember what you have to say? Find ideas. Develop new habits, of seeing, reading, going to arts events. (I’m at the theater today.) Go on Story Safari™.

You can find ideas everywhere, if you look beyond the obvious. Don’t leave home (to communicate) without them.

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