The Leprechaun of Irish folk-law, a cobbler by trade, has a secret stash of gold. If you catch him, he has to tell you where to find the gold. Ideas are like that; if we catch them, they must reveal their gold. But like those little green men, they have an irritating way of disappearing when you need them most. They seem solid, but if we don’t hold on to them for dear life, they are here one minute and gone the next.

A young farmer captures a Leprechaun, who confesses that his gold is buried beneath a tree in the woods. The farmer ties his red scarf around the trunk, and the Leprechaun promises not to remove the scarf. Off the farmer goes back to his farm to get a shovel, and returns to find the Leprechaun has tied a red scarf around every tree in the woods.

That’s the kind of trick ideas play on us. Say, for example, I am in conversation with someone. We are riffing on each other’s wisdom, not only building great ideas, but also finding the perfect expression of them. Afterwards, I try to capture this brilliance in notes or by writing a story, blog or article. But it’s gone; there is just too much to remember. It’s like the tree in the forest with all the red scarfs; I can’t find the one with the gold.


Outsmart ideas

Our job is to outsmart ideas, capture them, and make them reveal their stash of gold. We have to be ready for them and know their tricks. Once we have them, we have to polish them for our readers so they shine from every angle.

Here’s another disappearing trick my ideas play on me: I’m driving on the freeway at 100kms, without a red light to be seen. An idea pops into my head. It’s a really good idea, one of the best I have had. I spend the next 10 minutes hooning along, musing on my idea and how cool it is and how useful it would be to my clients. There is nowhere for me to stop and write it down, but this idea is unforgettable; it’s THAT good. And then my mind spins off like a monkey through the treetops, and I arrive at my destination, pull out my notebook and pen only to find the idea has evaporated into thin air.

How can you outsmart those tricky little leprechauns? Let me count the ways.

Ideas on the fly

A recording app on your smart phone ( or equivalent) is the solution to the problem of racing down the freeway with ideas in your head. It’s also great for the riffing conversation. The instant you realise you are in the presence of golden ideas — or even if you suspect they might be good with polish — whip out your smart phone and start recording. If you are with a friend, be sure to offer to share the voice file with them (via Dropbox — audio files are huge). If you use app, you can also have your brilliance transcribed for a tiny amount of money.

The ol’ notebook trick with a cool new twist

I have always kept notebooks; they are the quickest and easiest way to capture ideas on the run. A year ago, however, I discovered a world-beating tip to make your notebooks 100 times more useful: an index (thanks to Yep, these days, I set aside the first four to six pages of my notebooks for an index and at the end of each day or week, I make a note of what I have recorded with the page number next to it. It takes a little discipline, but we are talking about looking after our stash of gold, right? If you are a digital native, use Evernote, the world’s best online notebook with extraordinary search functions. They also have physical notebooks that link to the app. Incredible stuff.

Serves-you-right shoebox method

If you left your notebook behind, you are going to have to write down your idea on a serviette or the back of an envelope. Serves you right. Carry your notebook everywhere. However, better to capture an idea on a rubbishy scrap than not to capture it at all. I suggest, if you are the disorganised kind, that you have a shoebox or cake tin at home and chuck all your little scraps of paper in there when you clean out your bag. Then, when you come to write your chapter or blog, you can riffle through like a panner looking for nuggets.

Memory jogger for conflicts between idea capture and emergencies

What if you have a brilliant idea right before you step on stage to deliver your keynote, or just after you child falls off their bike? Make the briefest of notes of the idea and the situation or element of the environment that will jog your memory. Smells, and highly emotional moments tend to stick in our minds, and we can use them to jog our memories. Yes, it might not work, but it’s better than standing scribbling in your notebook while your kid is in tears. As soon as you can, go back and flesh it out.

A shortcut to putting flesh on the bones of your ideas

Gold isn’t so attractive a metal until it is fired and forged and purified. We need to do the same with our ideas. One of the easiest mistakes to make when noting down idea is not to flesh them out enough. ‘Receipts in the shoebox metaphor’ was the note I made to remember the idea for this blog. That might be enough for you to remember, but it might not. A simple way to flesh out an idea is to note underneath three points you would like to make about it.

Ideas are your currency; put them in your wallet

If someone handed you a $50 note, you wouldn’t say ‘Sorry, I’m too busy to put that note in my wallet.’ Ideas are the currency of authors and thought leaders. Take the time to store them safely.

PS: Want more? You might like: The question cure