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Agile Marketing Series: Story Onion—An Exercise In Collaborative Brainstorming For Marketers

Don’t underestimate the power of collaboration.

It not uncommon for agile software development practitioners to utilize “extreme” programming, as it’s sometimes called. Web developers program sitting side-by-side coding together, it’s the ultimate form of teamwork. One person composes while other team mates edit to keep the work moving forward. Working together like that is core to agility, and agile marketing is no different.

For marketers, the most basic place to begin to develop side-by-side collaboration skills is through free-form brainstorming exercises.

Layer the onion.

One brainstorm exercise— call it “Layering the Onion”— begins with a single word written in the center of a page, and grows to fill the entire page with words and phrases brainstormed by the group. The exercise then ends after every participant has used three or four words or phrases from the outer edges of the page to write a story. (Note: a mindmap works better than a whiteboard. I’ll explain why in a second.)

Have one person on your team serve as the facilitator. The facilitator should edit minimally. Similar to a “scrum master” in scrum meetings, the brainstorming facilitator should elicit and type down whatever the group says. The facilitator should not try to guide, but instead they can group words on the page as seen fit, or ask for clarity. This is okay so long as it doesn’t slow down the group brainstorm.

Start with a single word.

Any word will do. It doesn’t matter what your group throws out, and as with most brainstorming exercises, the less thought and the more free-flowing, the better.


Type that word in the center topic. The group then brainstorms aloud for a few minutes, saying other freely associated words or phrases in response to the original word: whatever comes to mind. There are no right answers here!

The facilitator writes what she hears, grouping around the original word / central topic however guided by the unconscious mind. “‘Peanuts’: What do you think of?”

  • “Georgia!”
  • “Charlie Brown!”
  • “Shells!”
  • “Elephant!”
  • “Stadium steak!”
  • “Allergies”
  • “That weird, flakey red skin!”

Build another onion layer.

Next, jot down another round of words, phrases, or images in response to the initial words that were written down during the first round. Expand the map in radiating layers of words, phrases, images pulled from the internet, or random comments like layers of an onion.

  • “‘Georgia’: What do you think of? Or ‘Charlie Brown’?”
  • “Snoopy and Woodstock”
  • “Heat and peaches”
  • “Barbecue”
  • “A comfy blue security blanket”
  • “What about ‘That weird red skin’?”
  • “A sunburn on a bald head”
  • “A hazmat suit with a rip in the elbow”
  • “Have you ever seen the inside of pomegranate?”

The facilitator writes it all down, as fast as possible, filling the map and taking up no more than four minutes.

Now, everyone make up a story.

Once the map is full, each person in the group selects a few words or phrases and uses them as a personal brainstorming prompt and — for eight minutes — record anything that comes to mind. Anything!

The less “focused” or “on-topic” the better, because there is no topic.

Write a paragraph, draw a comic strip, arrange a scene with desk toys, write software code for a barbecue recipe requiring the cook to wear a blue blanket or suffer a rash of red skin unless she rubs her hands with warm peaches while pretending to be the Red Baron. The point is it doesn’t matter.

Give your story a twist.

Do whatever you have to do in eight minutes move past those first-generation relationships that came to mind when you started with “peanuts.” Think of the experiment from my previous blog post with the 4 year-olds and the Frog and the Waiter. Tell your story from the perspective of the blue blanket.

Write a public service announcement given by Foghorn Leghorn warning about the dangers of pomegranate allergies. Then come up with a response from the pomegranates about how they have been mischaracterized. The crazier the better.

Stick to the time limit.

Even though eight minutes isn’t long enough to fully work out a cohesive story, try to find the kernel of an interesting idea. Make up something that barely makes sense and try not to self-edit. You want a pile of abstract clay, not a detailed sculpture. The limited timeframe is an advantage.

Finally, share what you’ve created.

Have someone from the group volunteer to share his or her story. Be brave. Don’t worry about whether it’s “good” or makes sense. After the volunteer reads or shares his story, open it up to group comments, offer positive feedback, or share the story that they came up with.
That’s it! End the exercise after about 20 minutes.

Story Onion Brainstorm Exercise Steps

  1. In a group, come up with a central word and write it down in a map. Add a ring of freely associated words around it, and then add a second layer of words, phrases or images freely associated from that first layer. 4 minutes max.
  2. Working alone or in pairs, pick words, phrases or images from the page and create a story. 8 minutes max.
  3. One person shares his or her story with the group, and the group offers positive feedback about the story (ex. what might be added, what they liked, or someone else may tell their story, if time allows.) 8 minutes max.

Chart the group’s progress completing brainstorming sessions. Why? To have a visual reminder that it happened. Tools like Mindjet make this very easy.

Think of brainstorming as a regular thing like a scrum.

Top Ways Your Group Can Fail Miserably At Brainstorming Exercises

Using the Story Onion exercise, your group should eventually be able to come up interesting and overflowing words, images, and ideas—all emanating from a single directive. But look out: There are ways a group can fail at brainstorming.

Make a literal list of synonyms. Synonyms aren’t very useful. Aim for disparate thoughts and divergent tangents—not convergent thoughts or logical tag clouds.

Dismiss brainstorming as stupid, frivolous, indulgent, childish, arbitrary or easy. If you don’t think you won’t get much out of a creative exercise, then it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are too important and have better things to do, then please go do them.

Few things are more painful in the workplace than group-think projects guided in a heavy handed way. Having a manager facilitate and try to force the brainstorming session to end with an “actionable” resolution does more harm than good. Better not to do the Story Onion, than to do it in a way that must converge on what’s already in the head of the highest-paid-person-in-the-room.

Only do the brainstorming exercise once. Like scrums, brainstorming exercises work best after repeat sessions. You have to develop trust within the team. The first few times you brainstorm together may not be very interesting. It may be uncomfortable. That’s to be expected. But when it comes to trust, time has no substitute.

Trust is the key. Be positive.

A major impediment to storytelling—marketing or otherwise—is lack of trust. When we make up something on a blank page, we are vulnerable and exposed. In fact, you may be surprised by who is “good” at this kind of divergent brainstorming. (Hint: It’s not always the “creatives.”)

Therefore, it’s essential to keep your group feedback positive. Without trust, no one will be able to brainstorm on nonsensical subjects. If you are not able to brainstorm on silly, nonsensical subjects with nothing at stake, then how will you be able to work under pressure on “business critical” tasks? The twently minutes you spend every week on a silly brainstorming exercise will come back in marketing ideas you never thought possible and aren’t afraid to try.

Over the course of several “Story Onions,” your agile marketing group will recognize important insights about themselves, the company, the customers, the brand, the market, and the human condition, in general.

Why make up stories?
In a general sense, the “Story Onion” strengthens your storytelling ability, and storytelling is essential to agile marketing. Eventually you can do this brainstorming in pairs, in a fully collaborative way, the same way agile programmers program in pairs. You can modify or come up with your own exercises, too. Learning how to think of stories takes practice, but it’s one of the most natural human skills.

Agile puts individuals over processes.

If we are going to do just that, we must become good storytellers to understand what customers want and to see relationships in our market where we did not see them before.

The “Story Onion” improves the kind of thinking that leads to improvements in teamwork, performance, and innovation in your agile marketing department.
Begin by making stories with group-created words and phrases, and your group will eventually be able to make stories from data measured in the market. Data is a story waiting to be told, and data-driven stories are central to the job of agile marketers!

The fun’s just beginning.

Once you develop the trust and participation necessary to develop stories together, you will soon be ready to the most exciting aspect of agile marketing: the horse race of hypothesis testing, pitting one execution of a story against another.

More on hypothesis testing next time.

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