How To Generate Ideas By Talking Out Loud


in Research

Have you ever said something out loud, and as soon as the last syllable left your lips, desperately began backtracking?

“No..what I meant was. Ok. Listen. What I meant to say was…”

It really sucks. Especially when it means sleeping on the couch for the next 3 nights.

Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything.


“You shut your mouth when you’re talking to me!”

But this does raise an interesting question: Do we really know what’s about to come out of our mouth before we say it?

The traditional model of speech is thought to be pretty straightforward:

  • The brain comes up with an idea and arranges it into a logical structure
  • A “filter” checks the proposed idea to make sure it’s appropriate to communicate
  • The brain passes it to your mouth
  • You blurt it out

But, if you’ve ever said something, then immediately wanted to take it back, you know that it isn’t always that simple.

In fact, some researchers are beginning to believe that only part of our speech is actually planned, and that much of the meaning behind our speech only becomes clear to us once we say it out loud.

In other words, even WE can be surprised by the things that we end up saying. And in some cases, we are only able to decode our thoughts after saying them out loud first.


A May 2014 study for Nature detailed how one scientist used a Stroop test to determine whether people are actually aware of what they were saying while they are saying it:

…cognitive scientist Andreas Lind and his colleagues at Lund University in Sweden wanted to see what would happen if someone said one word, but heard themselves saying another. “If we use auditory feedback to compare what we say with a well-specified intention, then any mismatch should be quickly detected,” he says. “But if the feedback is instead a powerful factor in a dynamic, interpretative process, then the manipulation could go undetected.

In Lind’s experiment, participants took a Stroop test — in which a person is shown, for example, the word ‘red’ printed in blue and is asked to name the colour of the type (in this case, blue). During the test, participants heard their responses through headphones. The responses were recorded so that Lind could occasionally play back the wrong word, giving participants auditory feedback of their own voice saying something different from what they had just said. Lind chose the words ‘grey’ and ‘green’ (grå and grön in Swedish) to switch, as they sound similar but have different meanings.

After participants heard a manipulated word, a question popped up on the screen asking what they had just said, and they were also quizzed after the test to see whether they had detected the switch. When the voice-activated software got the timing just right — so that the wrong word began within 5–20 milliseconds of the participant starting to speak — the change went undetected more than two-thirds of the time.

Essentially, the study found that when quizzed on their performance, subjects weren’t even aware of their actual responses to questions — and could be easily tricked into believing that they’d said something entirely different.

Only when they reviewed the tapes again were they able to correctly recall and assess their answers.

I find this fascinating — not because of the implications it has for trickery in a laboratory — but because of what it could mean for learning and idea formulation.

Maybe we need to hear ourselves speak out loud before we can generate our best ideas.

I know that for myself and many other ENTPs, our best ideas are created out loud, in real time, often pacing around a room (more on Myers Briggs personality types here).

Even better — having to explain our idea to someone else out loud is probably the fastest way to find errors in our own logic.  That’s why many developers use the “rubber duckie test” in order to debug their code by forcing themselves, line-by-line, to explain the code to…you guessed it…a rubber duckie.


In college, I did the same thing, but with a teddy bear

The “rubber duckie test” sounds a little cheesy — but it really works. And after reading research that finds a connection between speaking out loud and increased understanding, it makes sense.

How do you generate ideas?

Do you like to speak out loud in order to refine your idea?

Do you prefer writing it down instead?

Maybe you just like “mulling it over” in your head?

Leave a comment below telling me how you generate your best ideas. 


Naomi July 24, 2014 at 10:52 am

This is really on-point for me right now. I have been trying to explain to my partner why it is important to talk through things even though we might not be experts on a subject. I think that even if I don’t have all the facts on a subject, it is still important, useful, and possible to think things through outloud and see if they make sense. He finds that it is pointless to discuss a subject unless we have numbers and data with which to back-up our discussion. I study social problems which are often a combination of factors. It is difficult to understand completely all the various factors in a situation, but through discussion I find that I develop a more complex understanding of a problem and generate more nuanced understandings.


Belinda July 23, 2014 at 8:33 am

I love mulling ideas over in my mind because am a pretty big dreamer. But av found that writing them down helps get them accomplished eventually. Have never tried the rubber dukie though but have tried speaking to another person. Wonderful post though.


Tom July 21, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Yes definitely. I first started doing this while learning Spanish. I found I was happiest to speak it to myself without the pressures of a real time conversation. I kept this habit up even after fluency and now it has spread to speaking to myself in English whenever I have new ideas that I want to figure out.


Andre July 21, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Interesting post. Yes, the (virtual) rubber duck has solved many a coding problem for me 😀 More often than not it is a colleague, since I don’t have an actual ducky on my desk. Sometimes all you need to do is *start* explaining your problem or botched solution and BAM… you answer your own question. Other times just thinking about it when doing something else (in my case, not coding… e.g. walking outside or taking a shower) and the result occurs. Distance from problem/work place + describing problem verbally or in your thoughts == win 😀


EJ July 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm

My best ideas come when I am talking out load in the shower . It makes things clearer, also identifies missing pieces . My wife always asks me , who was I taking to?? LOL


Jonathan July 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm

I’m an ENTP also and I write songs. My best material happens when I’m improvising lyrics, usually for friends. I only have a vague idea of what the next verse will be. If I try to think of my lyrics ahead of time they work but just aren’t as inspired.


Kane Hadley July 21, 2014 at 11:59 am

I’ve discovered that there is one way that I get into the best state of mind and have an endless supply of ideas form.

I need to be pacing back and forth while having the same song playing on loop and having a conversation with myself. One side of the conversation is just said silently in my mind. The other side of the conversation comes out of my mouth. In the end the two sides find solutions and make connections that many others don’t see.

All that remains after finding the elusive idea is to refine, refine, and refine. Then begins the fun of presenting it to someone for their feedback. and repeating the process!

Wonderful post. =)


David J. Bradley July 21, 2014 at 11:11 am

My best ideas are from:

1) When I stop thinking about it. I’ll have epiphanies when driving or in the shower or when shaving. This usually causes dangerous excitement.

2) When talking with others. I shoot out every bad idea I can because I think even those can trigger great ideas in myself or others listening to me.


Primoz Bozic July 21, 2014 at 10:58 am

What I’ve noticed is that I generate the best ideas in two ways:

1) By talking to other people. I talk with a few of my peers, mentors and advisors each week, and I often get the best ideas during, or after our conversations. I could also see that sometimes by running my existing ideas by them, I would be able to crystallise them and make them even better.

2) Another time when I tend to generate ideas is when I’m walking or commuting, and optimally either listening to an audiobook, or talking to another person.

I’ve also found the idea of “saying things out-loud” super useful in university when trying to learn for exams or crack some programming language. I’ve seen much better results this way than by keeping everything inside of me.

Great post!


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