Tuesday, December 18, 2012

From the vault: 10 Top Chef-inspired "quickfire challenges" for writers

From time to time, my clients ask me to coach writers in their communications operations, and part of that process involves coming up with challenges that limit the amount of time or tools they can use to prompt some learning.

Although some suggest you should kill rules in order to boost creativity in your work environment, retreats and training sessions are different, a microcosm where we have to jump-start creativity in a short time period. Under those circumstances, this tactic is a great way to help writers learn how to jump into a task, or to find out what they can do in a short amount of time. I'm inspired, often, by the "quickfire challenges" I see on Top Chef, where the chefs have to cope with ingredients from vending machines or cans, or other liabilities, while preparing something fantastic in five minutes. Here are some quickfire challenges you can use with your team of writers, or just another writer you want to pair up with so you both can improve:
  1. Mise en place writing relay: On Top Chef, this is the preparation nightmare: Two relay teams have to decide who's fastest at several basic prep chores, like chopping a bowl of onions in fine dice or breaking down a chicken or separating eggs; the team to accomplish all those chores satisfactorily and fastest wins. Get creative with this one: Your mise en place might put teams through the process of finishing the microcontent that accompanies a news release or article, with the first person writing a headline, the second person finding an appropriate photo, the third person writing the summaries for the web and the keywords, the fourth person writing Facebook and Twitter updates. In that case, it should be a release they haven't seen before. Or, choose another writing task that involves a lot of prep, break it down and give it to the relay teams.
  2. Pacesetter practice: Get the fastest, strongest or most senior writer to set the pace by producing a short piece of writing as fast as she possibly can. You'll want to choose a format in advance. Run a timer while she does it; when she's finished, that's the time to beat--everyone else has to do the same writing exercise in her time, or less. When chef Tom Colicchio did this on Top Chef All-Stars, the chef contestants had to beat his time of just over 8 minutes preparing a complete entree. They all had a chance to see and taste his dish before their timer began.
  3. Canned-content challenge: Everyone gets a different stock photo and has to write a caption for it in 5 minutes--in a way that would allow it to work in one of your publications or websites. The chooser of the photos can have some fun with this.
  4. The missing ingredient test: Write a document (speech, letter, invitation, news release, quote) using no adjectives. Or, no use of the words "the," "new," or the common word of your choice. In one communications shop I worked in, that would have been the word "major." A variation: Give everyone the same document and tell them to edit it so that certain words don't appear, but are replaced with better alternatives. Don't let them use a thesaurus, and give them 10 minutes.
  5. Throwdown challenge: Draw names to pair up with another writer in the office. Write down something you write better than anyone else, then swap: She has to produce your special skill, you have to produce hers--in 15 minutes.
  6. Out of your box challenge: Write down three things: a) one format you don't like; b) one type of content you've never produced (or have not yet produced well); and c) your favorite style or writing trick. In 15 minutes, write something that combines a) and b), but omits c). Get a panel to read it and rate it.
  7. Pairings practice:  The leader chooses three existing written items about disparate topics--say, an event announcement, a news release about a new research study or product, and an award or promotion. Writers get 20 minutes to figure out a theme that will tie all three disparate items together, and to write the transitions that will make that flow through the three-item piece. How can you make them go together when they don't match?
  8. Writing mistakes bee: Have the entire team crowdsource a group of tough-to-spot writing errors and mistakes (grammar, spelling, formatting, you name it). Make a list of 25-50 items and get the team together. One person starts by identifying the error and its solution correctly; if she makes an error, she's out and the next contestant steps forward until only one person is left standing. (If someone can't identify the problem in 10 seconds, he's out.)
  9. MacGyver challenge: Create a news release without access to a computer or smartphone. If it has a battery or a plug, you can't use it. Or, do it with one hand tied behind your back. You have 15 minutes for this one.
  10. Divide and conquer challenge: In 30 minutes, using just a news release and its contents, write as many other types of content as you can: letter, tweet, Facebook update, speech, etc.
You can get more inspiration (or a great appetite) from Top Chef: The Quickfire Cookbook. And if you like these challenges, they're among the tools in my toolkit when I facilitate training sessions or retreats for communications teams, like these 5 creative communications retreats to get your team sailing forward on blogging, social media and more. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz to start planning your communications or writer retreat today.

This post updates one I published in 2011.

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