Prepare Yourself: A Short Guide to Discovering Your Big Idea

Bright image of adorable African American female in yellow shades and t shirt, keeps fore finger raised, indicates at yellow studio wall, advertises something with bated breath and surprised look

I’m often asked, “How do I find my big idea?” This is a good question. But here’s a question I like even better: “How will I know when I have my book idea?”

We tend to think of the creative process as being like scientific discovery. We’ll go down into our cave with our headlamp on, hammer into some rock, root around in the dirt for a bit, and re-emerge with a big idea. But this is misleading.

Are you finding your idea or does it find you? It’s a bit of both.

In this article, I’ll share a process that will lead you to a big idea (perhaps several big ideas), but it isn’t designed to help you discover anything. Instead, this process is about opening yourself up to receiving your big idea. 

Before I get to the process itself, I want you to know something important: you don’t need to wait for the idea to show up before you embark on this process. 

Through this process, you prepare yourself to receive your big idea. So if you start at Stage 1: Rapid Ideation and panic because you don’t yet have your idea, remind yourself that that is how it is supposed to work. Your big idea will come to you when you’re ready. This is the work to get yourself ready.

If this sounds totally anathema to everything you believe (and frankly, you’re wondering if I’ve lost it), it may help to remember what Denzel Washington says: “luck is when opportunity comes along and you’re prepared for it.” You don’t make your own luck or discover opportunities. You learn to recognize them and then capitalize on them when they show up. In this case, having your book idea is when your big idea comes along and you’re prepared for it.

So, what’s this magical process? Let’s break it down.

Stage 1: Rapid Ideation

The first way to prepare yourself to receive your big idea is through rapid ideation. This stage is similar to the prototype stage in product development, although I also like to think of it as the sketching stage of painting a portrait.

The goal here is to create a complete, messy draft of whatever you’re working on. So I recommend setting a goal that you can accomplish in a single sitting and then roll with it. For example, I’m drafting this blog post using rapid ideation. My goal is to get to a complete draft (about 1,000 words) where I’ve sketched everything out and have complete thoughts about each section.

If you’re writing a book, you obviously can’t draft the whole thing in a single sitting, but you can outline your book in a single sitting. You can sketch out a chapter in a single setting. Or you can draft a section of a chapter in a single setting. Pick your poison.

Not ready to start writing? Back up and do some ideating around your topic. Brainstorm and jot down everything you can think of about a single topic. You’ll likely start to see patterns emerging. This can often surface the big idea you want to write about.

At this stage, editing is your worst enemy. This means you must find a way to quiet your inner critic and just let the words flow. Remember that the order doesn’t really matter—just get those ideas out as quickly as you can!

How you do rapid ideation is up to you. I prefer to type when I’m in the rapid ideation stage. Sometimes I like to use a pen and notebook to jot down ideas, but I’m faster at typing (and not guaranteed to be able to read my chicken scratch later), so the keyboard helps me to keep up with the ideas when they’re really flowing.

Stage 2: Mind Meld

Once you have a sketch of your idea, it’s time to start honing it. That means sharing your idea in places and with people whom you can trust. This is oftentimes the scariest step. You won’t feel ready to share at this stage, but that’s exactly why I want you to do it. 

In an ideal scenario, sharing half-baked ideas with friendly brainstorming partners feels like a mind meld. Your friends are excited about your idea and pumped to help you make it better. They offer constructive feedback that helps you think differently about your idea in ways that make it better. In the end, you realize you couldn’t have come up with your idea in that form without the help of your friends, and they couldn’t have come up with it without you either. 

This dynamic is what I create with my book ghostwriting clients. They generously bring me their ideas, and I enthusiastically help to wrangle and shape them to make them better. In the end, I often can’t remember exactly what parts of the book I wrote and what parts of the book they wrote (most of my clients do at least some of the writing). It’s a beautiful marriage.

Also, sharing early and often has the benefit of helping you exercise this muscle. If you can share a half-baked idea, then you can certainly share your idea once it’s polished and in book or keynote address form. Putting it out there before you feel ready lets you practice presenting it and it allows you to start to see how others will receive your idea, meaning you can begin shaping it for maximum impact.

At this stage, my favorite thing to do is brianstorm with others. My friend Erin Braford and I started what we’re calling a Half-Baked Happy Hour for just this purpose. It’s a safe container where you can share an idea you haven’t shared with anyone else, and get whatever kind of feedback you want on it (e.g., support, stories that relate, clarificatory questions). If you’d like to stay in the know about this and other events, subscribe to my newsletter.

A word of caution: You may be tempted to skip this stage, since it is so scary. But it’s a great way to build confidence (the first phase of cultivating your Thought Leadership Ecosystem). And if you skip the mind meld, the next phase where you’re testing your idea will actually be the scariest part. So really, you’d just be kicking the can down the road. If you’re hesitating, ask yourself: “Would I rather share this idea with friends who love and support me, or strangers on the internet who are spoiling for a fight?”

Stage 3: Test Your Ideas

After you’ve shared your idea with some trusted people and received some initial feedback, you can make whatever adjustments to the message you would like. Then it’s time to start testing your idea on bigger audiences. 

My favorite place to test out ideas is on LinkedIn. I have an engaged audience there who loves to come to my sandbox to play with the ideas I post. You may prefer to play with ideas on Substack, or share on your blog or with your email list—wherever you like to hang out. The goal here is to further sharpen your idea and see if it resonates with your audience (aka the people who might want to read your book or hear your keynote).

For example, when I wrote my book last year, I had the idea of writing a book about writing for other business owners. So I shared my idea with my entrepreneurial friends to get their reaction to the initial idea. In turn, they shared their challenges with writing. To test out whether those challenges were wide-spread, I shared many of those ideas in posts on LinkedIn. It was an easy way to gather some informal market research.

It’s often helpful at this stage to have a few different versions of your idea ready to share in different contexts.

For instance, if you’re writing a book or creating a keynote address, you’ll want to have three versions:

  1. The 30-second pitch laying out the ONE main thing
  2. The outline laying out your THREE main supporting points
  3. The summary laying out the key examples, stories, research, or other details supporting your three main points

When I was applying to philosophy professor jobs, I had to create an elevator pitch (we called it a spiel because… academia) about my dissertation. It was a 30-second pitch I could give if I happened to find myself in an elevator with someone who might be (or know) someone who could offer me a job. A 30-second pitch is 80-120 words.

To get to your 30-second pitch, think about the ONE thing you want people to know. You can create three or four sentences with your 80-120 words, but all of those sentences should clearly relate back to your ONE thing.

You can expand your 30-second pitch to more of an outline version (think 350-500 words) including the three main supporting points. It’s great to memorize the bullet points of this outline in case someone wants to hear more. It’s also helpful for when you’re having a conversation with someone and have time to go deeper into your idea.

You can then expand your outline into a summary (think 1,000-1,500 words), laying out the key examples, stories, research, or other details that support your THREE big points that support your ONE thing. This is a great asset to remind you of the big picture as you continue to write and refine your big idea.

Stage 4: Rinse and Repeat

The final stage is to iterate. After testing your idea and tracking the results, you’ll have a hunch about what resonates with your audience. You can then share your message far and wide, all the while continuing to test new ways of explaining your concepts and reworking the finer points of your argument.

You can never repeat an idea enough, especially an innovative idea that you want to be known for. This can be psychologically challenging because it’s easy to get bored listening to the sound of your own voice. Just remember that no member of your audience (except for maybe your dad and your best friend) is reading everything you write.

So, share with reckless abandonment and relentlessly track what’s working, leaning into the messages that make people’s eyes pop or eyebrows raise.

Flow through these four stages all the while keeping your mind open to receiving your big idea. Idea discovery isn’t a matter of picking a time and a place to have a breakthrough. All you can do is prepare yourself to receive your idea when it comes to you.

How will you know when you have your book idea? You will know. You’ll feel a shift in your mind or your heart and you’ll just know. When you have an idea that won’t leave you alone, that’s it—that’s your book idea.

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