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11 min read

Search Leeds: Kirsty Hulse – How science can help you have better ideas

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Kirsty is talking about the science of creativity: how to train your brain to have better ideas. A lot of the talk is going to be based on neuroscience and the fundamentals of the brain.

She starts with a fact: with 11 items of clothing there are 39,916,800 ways to get dressed.

Our brains are hardwired for predictability and structure. Humans need to be able to predict the future based on the events of the past. Without this hardwiring it would take 76 years to get dressed.

Businesses also operate on quantifiable predictability. Digital marketing reflects this with targets, metrics etc.

This is a good thing. It lets us measure success. It also means that we reward not making mistakes. Our business cultures are making it hard to empower people to take creative risks. We reward a lack of mistakes.

Kirsty interviewed 200 marketing directors and CMOs. 76% said that they were unlikely to take a creative risk. 87% of the rest of us can’t get our best ideas signed off.

This is sad! Our best, most innovative stuff is sitting in a big old pile of NO. What kind of work would we be doing if people were happier to be braver?

At the same time, the average consumer is exposed to around 4,000 ads a day, not counting all the organic stuff we’re doing.

Ad blockers are on the rise. For example, 40% of Germans use one. This doesn’t impact organic as much but it tells us of a shifting mentality.

There is an agency in London that exclusively focuses on voice search. The founder of this agency did a talk last year in which he talked about a comparison of Q3 to Q2 in 2018, with a shift in people asking for hospitality bookings.

Rand Fishkin talked about a 20% drop in mobie, organic CTR which is going to start really affecting SEO.

HIstorically, Kirsty has done a lot of link building and used to be pretty good at it. She would always speak to a journalist at the Metro to understand if a campaign was pretty good. But one time the journalist stopped replying and eventually came back saying that she gets 1000s of press releases a day.

We are operating in increasingly saturated markets. Our work today does not perform as well as it did 3 years ago, Everyone is getting better and more savvy.

The goal posts are changing.

The way we stay ahead of this is through creativity. Using creativity to emotionally resonate with our audiences.

We can see this in all the campaigns that have nailed it over the years. Everything that succeeds on a big scale has emotional resonance and authenticity.

Science also supports this idea. University research using MRI scans shows that when evaluating brands, consumers typically use emotions rather than information. They used feelings over facts.

Emotion enhances our recall of a brand or product. We’re more likely to return to a brand if it emotionally resonates. This is long lasting.

We all know Starbucks make pretty shitty coffee, but it’s okay. They’re not selling a coffee, they’re selling aspiration (or, at least, they were). They sold an ideal of who you could be. The emotional resonance of the idea gave them their success.

A recent Nielson report in 2018 showed that creative quality is the most important factor for driving sales from a marketing campaign.

Kirsty did a lot of her own research to test this theory. What we do is a bit different, so she needed to investigate more. She tried to identify if the importance of creativity applies to an SEO context.

She researched high ranking sites across different niches. She analysed the top 150 links earned in 2018 manually, trying to understand if they did something creative to get their success. She has a full post about it –

The overarching theme was that the format of the content was only ever an added bonus. The thing that set performing content apart was:

Authenticity – it has to be real and come from a place of meaning

Timing – is it relevant and on our press agenda? Are we talking about it?

Originality – is it a new concept, or an interesting take on an old concept?

Creativity doesn’t guarantee performance but it does boost it. For every creative campaign that did well, 10 failed.

Throughout Kirsty’s life she has invested time, money and effort in learning digital marketing skills. She has invested in all these skills but has never once worked on creativity.

But she believes we do need to start investing in creativity as a skill that can be developed.

In 2020, creativity will be the most important skill for employees entering the workplace. Because you can’t automate that.

We have an idea that is specific to marketing that you are either creative or technical and you can’t be both. This is not the case at all.

Think of engineers and innovators and scientists. They are all incredibly creative people and technically skilled. Mary Jackson was one of the first IBM technicians. She was creative as shit. You should aspire to be both.

Kirsty has a weird segue (in her own words) to Sputnik. She admits she’s going to share questionable historic details. It’s 1963 (or 9) and Russia has launched Sputnik 2. The US is shitting its pants. For the first time in human history, creativity started to be studied as a response. NASA started to identify what made engineers innovate. They asked questions into routines, sexuality, diet, health to try and pin down what made scientists creative.

They only found a thread with one question: do you believe that you are a creative person?

Belief and mindset let to creativity and innovation.

The main point is that creativity is a skill. It can be learned, developed and applied. It’s like swimming, some are naturally better at it but almost everyone can learn to do it.

A neuroscientist carried out twin research to identify markers of intelligence and whether it was genetic or learned. He found that divergent thinking (creativity) had no evidence of hereditary variation. It was all learned.

There is nothing genetic making you less creative. It’s a belief.

Recent research also looked at children with creative parents. These children learned creativity, becoming more creative over time.

The University of Lancaster took two groups of 10 year olds. One watched movies with magical themes and one didn’t. The magic theme group performed better in later creativity tests. This is your excuse to go and watch Harry Potter.

Some scientists in the US are trying to identify what creativity looks like in the brain. This is new stuff. But they have identified that creativity doesn’t have a single mental home. It is quite unique in this way. True creativity is that there is an interplay between all of your different neural systems. We are creating new pathways in our brains.

We can consciously influence creativity by practising exercises that require it. We are in control of our creativity, simply by exercising our minds.

The brain is not a muscle but it can behave like one. We need to train our brains to be creative. Take it to the creativity gym.

There are three ways to do this.

The first is to form habits. Kirsty used to be a stand up comedian. In 2015 she did a lot of stand up and got really good at writing puns. In 2019 she tried to write a new set and had nothing. She thought she’d lost her humour. What was going on? She’d got out of that place and wasn’t using her brain in that way. Our brains physically change according to what it is that we’re doing. A tennis player’s brain will look different to an accountant’s brain. We’re in control of our brain’s physiology through what we do. Wild.

Businesses and individuals have to develop creative habits. This doesn’t look like sitting at the same desk, at the same time, day in and day out. It is hard to be creative in the same routines. Other supporting evidence suggests that because we associate the colour green with innovation, it’s the best to boost creativity.

We have our best ideas in nature because the oxygen is better around trees. If you have a complex problem or need a brand new idea, leave the office and go outside. Put yourself in a new situation.

Highly innovative people move between topics more quickly than less innovative peers. The most creative people who do the coolest stuff are the ones that move between topics the most quickly. Develop areas and skills outside of our day jobs. Have as many strings to our bow as possible.

Edward Bono wrote a book called How to Have Creative Ideas. He suggests many different tactics so go and read it if you’re interested. Random words is one idea. Take a random word and put it against an established focus to stimulate new thinking. For example, take a problem you’re working on and think of a random word. How could you solve that problem using that random word? It sounds bat shit crazy, but go ahead and try it. Spend three minutes doing this and your brain will get better at thinking of new ideas.

A guy called Dr Robert Epstein has dedicated 20 years of neuroscientific research to helping people in business be more creative. His book, The Big Book of Creativity Games is full of activities to stimulate creativity.

He also created a survey that you can fill out that scores your living conditions based on how well they promote new ideas.

Our best stuff is least likely to occur when we’re not under pressure. Make a note and return to it when you need it.

The second is brainstorms. We can improve the way we work as teams to make our ideas more creative. Most of us use brainstorms in some way, but they don’t work that well. Research supports the idea that working separately is better than interacting in groups. Individuals working alone generate more ideas and more innovative ideas.

The reason for this is because traditional brainstorming sessions have drawbacks. Production blocking is one – you have to wait to say an idea and you focus on remembering your idea rather than coming up with new ideas. You can’t come up with new ideas whilst listening to other people and being polite.

We’re also scared of criticism. We don’t want to say ideas we perceive to be silly. At other times, certain members take over or rely on others to speak. This kind of thing happens all the time.

We can recreate the benefits with none of the drawbacks. The best way to brainstorm is to get in a group, take a notepad and pass it round. You right an idea and someone adds to it. It’s anonymous and removes the idea of evaluation apprehension. Remove verbal communication and you’ll find that the ideas are much richer.

A lot of this research was conducted in the 90s when computers were new. They found that idea generation online is a great way to do it. It removes the verbal, social pressure.

Slack is a great way to generate ideas. Write something down as it comes to mind, there doesn’t need to be a structure.

The third is developing good processes. Train your brains to come up with ideas and validate them. Kirsty’s creative process, as an example, is that you sit down with a piece of paper, write the core thing and then come up with as many related ideas as possible. Time it with 30 seconds on the clock. Don’t be critical, don’t analyse ideas, just write stuff down and see what happens. Don’t think about the consequences. Be like Boris Johnson in that moment. Write things like a drunk person at a party.

Get to the point where you find things that are a bit weird.

We want to be trying to find things that we hadn’t otherwise thought of.

Buzzsumo is one example of a tool that we can use to validate our ideas and find what’s being linked to, talked about, shared etc.

In summary:

  • In a world where people avoid risk, embrace innate creative ability to create genuine connection and emotional relevance. Everybody has an innate ability to be creative. It takes creativity to do everyday things.
  • Recognise that creativity is a skill and hone it.
  • Develop a process that works for you and use data to validate those ideas.