From the Lab: More Isn’t Always Better

Previously, I’ve noted that it’s important to “remember the iceberg” and present only the most relevant 10% of what you know about your topic to your audience. As it turns out, this is not only practical (you only have time to present 10%)—it can actually be even better for your audience (and your cause).

In Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, Benn Parr cites a 2008 study in which “researchers at Yale University and the University of Innsbruck found that stock traders with more financial and market information did not perform better than their counterparts. Instead, the quality of information mattered more. In their research, they learned that well-informed traders—specifically insiders—clearly had the best financial performance, not because they had the most amount of information but because they had the best information.”

While it’s tempting to think that if you give your audience more information, they’ll automatically make better decisions, this isn’t necessarily the case. Not being experts on your topic, the audience needs your help to know what’s important. Seen through this lens, your job as a speaker is not to share everything you’ve learned about your topic, but rather to pre-digest your topic for your audience, sharing only the information that’s really important to them, the information that will help them make better decisions (and in doing so, hopefully support your cause).

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.