From the Lab: The Other Coffee Shop Effect

Yesterday, we saw that being exposed to a moderate amount of ambient noise (~70 dB) can make us more creative, a finding that has been dubbed the “coffee shop effect.” As I found out while researching yesterday’s post, however, there’s more than one phenomenon called the “coffee shop effect.”

The phrase “coffee shop effect” has also been used to refer to the finding that we are more creative when there are other people in the room, even if we’re not interacting with them. (This is an extension of Eileen Chou and Loran Nordgren’s research showing that we are more willing to take risks in the presence of others, because we feel safer that way.)

Depending on how you feel about coffee shops, this can be yet another good excuse to go to one, or it can simply be added to the list of benefits of group work, described in the group chapter of The Science of Speaking.


From the Lab: The Coffee Shop Effect

In a 2012 study, Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu, and Amar Cheema found that a moderate (70 dB) level of ambient noise is more conducive to creativity than either a low (50 dB) or high (85 dB) level of ambient noise. 70 dB is about the level of noise at a coffee shop, causing some to dub this “the coffee shop effect.” For reference, 50 dB is the level of noise in a quiet suburban home, and 85 dB is the noise level of a blender. This suggests that if you’re having trouble being creative, you may want to venture out to find a bit of noise, or else turn on the TV or radio, which can also provide a similar level of noise.

This is something I originally learned from my wife Melissa, who always like to have background noise when she’s working. Before I met her, I had always worked in silence, and while I still prefer that for certain tasks, I’ve also found that a bit of background noise can be quite helpful for other tasks. As always, it’s about seeing what works best for you—try out both options, and see what you prefer.


Off the Shelf: Vuja De

Reading Adam Grant’s Originals yesterday, I came across the phrase “vuja de.” As Grant writes, “Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse—we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.”

In the endnotes, Grant cites Bob Sutton’s Weird Ideas That Work, in which Sutton defines “the vuja de mentality” as “the ability to keep shifting opinion and perception. It means shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background. … It means thinking of things that are usually assumed to be negative as positive, and vice versa. It can means reversing assumptions about cause and effect, or what matters most versus least. It means not traveling through life on automatic pilot.”

This is all quite relevant to speaking. As I note several times in The Science of Speaking, it’s often the case that your audience has never considered your topic before. In this case, it’s your job to both interest and inform them. But it’s also true that the reverse is often the case—that your audience has considered your topic many times before. In this case, it’s still your job to interest and inform them. And you can do so by creating a sense of vuja de.

Rather than approaching the same old topic in the same old way, see how you can approach it in a new and innovative way. When you find a new angle from which to present an old topic, your audience will be much more likely to be interested (and informed).

But how can you find a new way to present it? For a comprehensive list of suggestions, I recommend that you read Originals, which presents many great ways for seeing things creatively. But for one easy way, try using an analogy. By mashing up an old topic and a new context, you can often unlock innovative insights and unleash the power of vuja de.

Note: Over the years, many other definitions have been proposed for this phrase. For example, comedian George Carlin defined vuja de as “the distinct sense that, somehow, something that just happened has never happened before.” And in The Vujà Dè Moment, Simon T. Bailey defines it by saying “you’ve never seen it, but you intend to flip the status quo and create it.”

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.

In the News: Constraints Increase Creativity

Today in Fast Company’s “Science of Work,” Scott Sonenshein talks about hows constraints can actually lead to greater creativity, writing:

Our problems, challenges, and opportunities may become more manageable with constraints that direct us to make the best out of what we have.

For example, when designing new products, cooking, and repairing things, being constrained by a budget makes people significantly more creative, producing better results.

Even just thinking about constraints can help. In another study, participants were asked to write an essay about either growing up having scarce resources or growing up having abundant resources. Afterwards, they were asked to come up with creative uses for bubble wrap. As a result, the scarcity group produced significantly more creative ideas than the abundance group.

This is also consistent with what we have found in our public speaking classes when students use the “iceberg model” (see The Science of Speaking, Chapter 10). Asked to dramatically cut down their content to fit it into a short speech, our students end up using their creativity to craft much better speeches than they would’ve otherwise.