Off the Shelf: A Blizzard of Ideas

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Mimi Goss‘s iceberg model for thinking about what to include in a speech, noting that you’ll probably only have time to say about 10% of what you want to say (if that). Therefore, you must sort your ideas into those above the waterline (important enough to present to this particular audience in this particular speech), and those below it. By prioritizing your ideas based on which of them are most important for your audience to take away from your speech, you can cut them down to a manageable 10%.

While cutting your ideas down by 90% may seem daunting, know that this process is almost certainly benefiting you, and not just because presenting a smaller number of ideas will make your speech significantly more understandable and memorable (which it will). It’s also benefiting you because by having far more ideas than you need, you’ll be able to use only the best ones, rather than having to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant writes about how creative geniuses become creative geniuses. “How do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece?” he asks.

They come up with a large number of ideas. [Psychologist Dean] Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their field than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.” …


In every field, even the most eminent creators typically produce a large quantity of work that’s technically sound but considered unremarkable by experts and audiences. When the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six piece by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach. To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand. In a study of over 15,000 classical music compositions, the more pieces a composer produced in a five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.

Therefore, having too many ideas is a blessing. Being constrained by a time limit and having to cut out 90% of what you want to say can actually greatly improve the quality of your ideas, allowing you to present only the best among them and making your presentations much more successful.

In terms of initial idea generation, it certainly pays to embrace the blizzard, letting all of the possibilities fly and building the biggest possible iceberg, before you cut it down to what’s above the waterline, allowing the best ideas to rise to the top.

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