Word lists, because of their simplicity, are often overlooked as a tool for brainstorming. That’s too bad, because they can be quite powerful and are very easy to use. They leverage the mind’s awesome associative powers to help us uncover new connections, insights and ideas.

In his excellent brainstorming techniques book, Thinkertoys, author Michael Michalko compares the human mind to a game of tetherball, in which children take turns hitting a ball that is suspended from a cord that is attached to the top of a pole. The object is to bat the ball harder than the other team, and wrap the cord and ball around the pole. Our minds are similiar in that we tend to habitually follow the same patterns of thinking. Unless acted upon by outside stimuli, our brains tend to get into rutted paths of thinking, like the tetherball that can’t escape from the pole.

That’s where word lists come in. By exposing our minds to random words that are unconnected to our problem or challenge, they provoke new associations, much like the ripple that spreads outward in all directions after you drop a pebble into a pond. The mind loves to make connections, and will do so, no matter how different two concepts are from each other. We can use this aspect of the brain’s “wiring” to do our creative bidding.

Here’s how to use this simple but powerful brainstorming technique:

1. Select a random word: This word must be completely random and unrelated to your problem or challenge. There are several ways to ensure this. First, you can use an existing list of random words, which may be found several places online here, here and here. Michalko also provides a list of evocative words in his book, Thinkertoys. A second source of random words is a dictionary. Open it to any page, close your eyes and point your finger at the page. That’s your random word. You can also do this with other types of books, magazines, newspapers – whatever is handy.

2. Think of as many things as you can that are associated with the random word you have selected and write them down. An excellent way to do this is to break your word down into its characteristics. What is its function? What are its aesthetics? How is it used? What metaphors can be associated with it? What is the opposite of your word? Write down as many associated ideas and concepts as possible. If you get stuck, a thesaurus can help you find synonyms, antonyms and other related words. Another powerful tool is Visual Thesaurus, which displays a rich 3-D mind map of associated words and concepts.

3. Force connections between your random word and your problem or challenge, using the characteristics you identified in the previous step.

4. Write your ideas down. Failing to do so, Michalko points out, “is like sitting in a shower of gold with nothing but a pitchfork.”

Don’t be dismayed if the majority of the ideas you generate don’t seem to be fruitful, Michalko warns. But all it takes is one valuable idea to make your invest of time worthwhile.

“Ultimately, you will not use most of the connections you come up with, but you can’t prejudge which lines of thought will be fruitful – let alone which lines of thought will lead to a big idea, like a wondrously painted Easter egg waiting for someone to part the grass to find it,” he explains.

The ultimate benefit of word lists is that they help you to appreciate your brain’s awesome powers of association. As you cultivate this skill, you’ll come to realize that it can serve you any time, anywhere – not just when you’re not sitting in your favorite brainstorming spot with a cup of coffee and a list of random words. Literally anything in your environment can become stimuli that you can use to make connections with your current problems and challenges. And that can open up a world of possibilities and new ideas that can help you to transform your world.

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By Chuck Frey

About the author

Chuck FreyChuck FreySenior Editor, founded and served as its publisher from its launch in 2002 until the partnership with Innovation Management in 2012. He is the publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the definitive souce for news, trends, tips and best practices for visual mapping tools. A journalist by trade, Chuck has over 14 years of experience in online marketing, and over 10 years experience in business-to-business public relations. His interests include creative problem solving, visual thinking, photography, business strategy and technology. His unique combination of experience and influences enables him to envision new possibilities and opportunities.