How to develop your creativity

By Lauren Edwards

Holding two unlike things in your mind’s eye at once — that’s one way to look at it. Or holding two contrasting value systems in your heart at once, and judging neither as better or worse.

Or overlaying one industry’s framework onto an unrelated industry.

Creativity can be as simple as weaving unlike ideas together — rather than eliminating one of them on the basis of logic, relevance or fit. We all know who the most creative people on our PR teams are, and they seem magical at times. You might wonder how they do it and whether creativity can be taught.

Yes! It can be taught. I do it all the time in my 1:1 coaching. Suggestions for you to try out yourself are below.

But first, let me tell you what inspired this post. A lightweight article in Inc. magazine — “Creative People Literally See the World Differently, Mind-Blowing Research Shows” — reminded me that the holding of two contrasting ideas at once is the methodology that underlies creativity.

The trick is to teach yourself to see two unlike things at once, without eliminating one of them. The Inc. article describes a test by psychologists where study subjects were shown two different colors, green in one eye and red in the other. How the subjects reported their results turned out to be significant, the article says.

People who scored lower on creativity tests tended to eliminate one color rather than report both.

Like me, you probably believe that nature/nurture is a blend rather than an either/or. Some of us are born with an outsized propensity for a particular trait, but we can also grow a trait even if it wasn’t destined for stardom in our DNA’s original script.

This might sound a little ethereal, so let’s look at examples.

Unlike things that are held side by side could be:

A phrase in a blog post — “Despite my righteous Target bashing, …”

The words righteous and bashing don’t normally appear together when describing many people’s favorite retail store, lovingly pronounced in French as “Tar ZJAY.” That’s a creative phrase; it puts words side by side that we don’t expect to see side by side. This gives the reader a little slap on the face that says, “Wake up!” But it’s a gentle slap that readers welcome. I like writing that gently wakes me up, don’t you?

A musical where people don’t actually sing — “La La Land” uses the device of song and dance as a way to put you inside the head of the character, letting you see feelings that wouldn’t be expressed verbally. When they sing, it’s not to the audience or one another; it’s to themselves, spontaneously. It’s not singing; it’s introversion turned inside-out for external viewing.

Novel or screenplay structure overlaid onto a news story — The best journalists do this, and I’ll bet most of them weren’t taught to do so in any kind of institute of higher learning. Like me, I’ll bet most of them just tried it and found out that it worked. You’ll see this in publications from Wired to Washington Post, including Fortune and the Seattle Times. Forget about the five W’s and H. Reporters would rather write about “heroes” overcoming obstacles in stories of transformation.

A location that’s not headquarters or a trade show — I remember when a member of a California startup’s PR team blurted out in a meeting, “And we should do the launch in Grand Central Station in New York!” Everyone was stunned for a moment, and then remained silent … in a good way. Later, people were saying,  “Of course we should! But only [Name] could have come up with an idea like that, and yet in retrospect, it seems obvious.”

Suggestions for doing this in your PR work:

  1. Anthropomorphize an industry, company or product. It leaves you with better verbs. Example: “a consumer giant about to stumble in a soft economy.” Similarly: IBM’s Watson, Salesforce’s Einstein, Amazon’s Alexa.
  2. Choose words normally used for a different industry. For example, mix biology with business to “sprout success.” Or choose a metaphor like the ocean for “successive waves of innovation” and “sailing through an audit.”
  3. Replace the classic case study structure (problem/solution/results) with a story of transformation. This means choosing a representative result and a representative problem and smishing them very close together in a single sentence in your first paragraph. Give away the punchline, so to speak, by telling the end at the beginning, but juxtapose it with one or some of the original problems. If you start with a contrasted transformation, readers will be curious as to how the miracle occurred.
  4. When doing industry analysis to develop context for a business narrative, pretend the companies in a particular business ecosystem are teams in the MLB or horses with jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Overlay a sports framework onto what you know and need to find out about your company/client. You’ll see differently.

Life experience as teacher

I realized that being a foreign exchange student to Japan in high school and a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines helped draw out my creativity. In both cultures, I learned to hold opposing beliefs at the same time and be “fluent” in both at once.

Many of my workshops and tips were born during mental collisions. For example, I learned from a San Francisco Chronicle editor to move the tension or conflict into the lead of a feature story, even if the gist of the story ultimately was about harmony and understanding. When I moved to PR, I realized “conflict” doesn’t work, so I adapted that to “subtle tension,” of which I created a whole two pages of examples for our workshop called “Creating Compelling Content.”

The “Narrative Arc” workshop that I try to reserve for VPs  includes an element of a session I had to do in my Peace Corps orientation. It involves reflection on one’s entire lifetime while graphing “highlights and lowlights.” Applied to a company, product or industry’s history — and then overlaid with my 20 questions handout — this leads to opportunities for thought leadership and truly effective talking points for getting out of a media crisis.

While at the Associated Press, I noticed that colleagues who began as sports writers ended up being the best business writers. I believe that sports trained them for business, even if they themselves didn’t realize they had carried sports thinking into business writing.

On that note, cultivating interests unrelated to work turns out to help you a great deal at work, so I encourage you to ditch the guilt and indulge your curiosity wherever it leads you.

Learning to draw is what turned my “Eagle Eye Editing” program into a distinctive success. I realized that when we proofread, our brains make corrections for us, and so we don’t really see what’s on the page. For the same reason, drawing is about overriding the brain so the eye can see what’s really there instead of what our brain tells us is there. My Eagle Eye training conditions editors to see “pitfall scenarios” where errors are most likely to hide (“hotspot editing”) and learning to “turn off” their brains on command (“brain-off editing”).

Warning: Most businesses say they want creativity, but what they really don’t want is “creative writing.” I prefer the term “creative strategy.”  In other words, don’t get flowery and fun. Stay on topic. Better yet, stay on goal.

But do let contrasting images and values sit side by side in your head and heart. It turns out that the juxtaposition may lead to something really great!


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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.

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