How to easily brainstorm business ideas in Google Docs

Sharing an idea can be difficult, but thinking and writing about the idea first can make it easier to explain. These five tips help you structure your thought-process before sharing it with others.

On April 19, 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted "Most of my meetings are now Google doc-based, starting with 10-minutes of reading and commenting directly in the doc."

Dorsey responded to a thread from Steven Sinofsky on the critical role of writing and collaboration in modern work. All technology leaders would do well to consider the dual role of writing. As Thinking on Paper puts it, "the first goal of writing, like reading, is to understand; only then can one make that understanding available to others in writing."

While I don't claim to be an expert on either writing or thinking, the following resources and ideas have helped me when I need to share technical ideas.

1. Structure for reasoning

A structured document provides a framework for your argument. In The One-Page Proposal, Patrick G. Riley suggests that nearly all proposals benefit from being written as a single-page document with eight sections: Title, Subtitle, Target (or goal), Secondary Targets, Rationale, Financial, Status, and Action. As he puts it, "The One-Page Proposal delivers all the necessary information its reader needs to make a decision, as well as the all-important pitch."

If your organization uses a formal format for documents, create a template. In G Suite, if your administrator allows people to submit templates, click here, then choose "Submit template" in the upper right to make a template from a previously created Google Doc. The same link allows you to access the template gallery and create a new document from an existing template.

Screenshot of G Suite document template gallery

To help structure your thinking, create a document template that other people in your organization can use. For projects, you might try The One-Page Proposal format.

2. Review topic sentences

Read the first sentence of each paragraph. If a person reads only those first sentences, does the document convey your key points? In most cases, you can place details, examples, exceptions, reasons, or added context elsewhere in a document. Reserve your precious few first sentences for the ideas that matter most.

Expand acronyms and explain technical terms by adding the word the acronym abbreviates the first time you use it (e.g., DKIM, or DomainKeys Identified Mail). This reminds readers of an acronym's origin, and removes confusion in the case of acronyms that hold different meanings. In a Google Doc, use Ctrl-F to find every instance of an acronym, or Ctrl-H to replace each acronym with words.

3. Consider an image

Add an image only when it enhances an explanation. An image may help clarify a sequence, illustrate a concept, or show a similarity or difference. A carefully constructed image created from data may also aid understanding. Dan Roam suggests in his book, The Back of the Napkin, there are six distinct ways to show things we see: "Who/what becomes a portrait, how many becomes a chart, where becomes a map, when becomes a timeline, how becomes a flowchart, and why becomes a multi-variable plot."

Google Docs gives you several ways to add visual elements. You can create an image directly within a document on your computer with the Insert > Drawing option. Or, insert an image created elsewhere (Insert > Image), insert an image created in Google Keep (Tools > Keep notepad, then drag-and-drop your note into your Doc), or insert a chart from a spreadsheet (Insert > Chart > From Sheets...). You can also insert a slide into a Google Doc: open Google Slides, in the left column select a slide, choose Edit > Copy, then switch to your Doc and choose Edit > Paste.

4. Give yourself time to think

Whenever possible, complete your document at least a day before you need to share it, then the next day review it with refreshed eyes. Use either system tools or a text-to-speech app to read the text. Find text-to-speech apps here.

5. Give other people time to think

Ideally, I recommend you share your document a day or more in advance of your meeting to allow people time to read and consider the ideas. In many settings, people don't choose to take time to read.

To make sure everyone understands the issues, allow time at the start of your meeting, as Dorsey noted, for people to read and comment. To estimate how long people might take to read through your document, count the number of words (Tools > Word count) then divide by 200, which is a rough estimate of the number of words per minute that most people can read per minute. Add additional time for people to think, and add even more time for people to insert comments (Insert > Comment) on your document.

What role does writing play in your organization's meetings? How do you allow for time in your schedule to think and write? How do you use collaborative tools, such as Google Docs, in decision-making processes? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@awolber).

Also see

Photo (from left to right) of books: The One-Page Proposal; Thinking on Paper; The Back of the Napkin (shown on an iPad)
Photo: Andy Wolber

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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