Feeling Constrained? Here's Why It's Good For You

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Right now, you might be feeling constrained because you can’t interact with colleagues at the office, socialise with family and friends in person or travel somewhere for a holiday.

While we can appreciate social distancing rules, it doesn’t mean we're happy about it. And how are we expected to be creative and productive when we're boxed in and restricted?

Well, it appears constraints are good for us.

A study conducted into award-winning work from 1.7 million people found this surprising data, “people who create new value on the job are often inspired by their constraints.”

Is it that surprising? I can bet you’ve read many cases where a leap in innovation occurred because an individual or a society faced many constraints and limitations.

All fascinating, but I’m here to talk about how we can be better communicators by applying the psychology of limitations.

Familiar constraints on business communications, especially the ones we face in the B2B tech world include:

  • A client imposes a strict word count, page count, font size on the Request for Proposal (RFP)

  • You’re told that you can’t write and submit an executive summary as part of a sales proposal

  • You’re given a strict deadline to deliver a project and it feels impossible to meet

  • You’re getting ready to present your offer as an oral pitch to the client, and your subject matter expert is an inexperienced public speaker

  • You’re told certain materials or data are not allowed when showcasing your offer

  • You’re asked to present at a company Town Hall, and you’re only given 10 minutes to speak about a sensitive issue. Your speech has to win over a disgruntled audience

  • You’re asked to deliver online training. You’re only given 45 minutes to cover a complex topic.

At times we’ve not respected limitations imposed on us and the result can be weak or wobbly communications. But what if we took the attitude of welcoming limitations and challenge our self to do great work, not despite them but because of them?

Now imagine that someone says, “PowerPoint, Prezi or any digital or print support tools are not allowed when you turn up to deliver your presentation about XYZ.”

What ideas will you come up with as an alternative that will impress your audience, and win them over?

Practise Writing And Speaking Using Constraints

If you want to hone your communication skills using constraints, here are some things you can do:

  • When trying to unravel a complex problem or come up with an elegant solution: Brainstorm ideas by limiting yourself to one word. Called Listing, it works like this: set your timer to 10 minutes. When thinking about the main topic (problem or solution), list as many single words as you can relating to it and do it as fast as possible (no over-thinking). Stop once the timer is off and review what’s on the list. Start grouping words that logically fit together. Then write a heading for each group.

  • Craft short headings and sub-headings: As an exercise, pick a writing project you’re working on; it could be for an internal presentation or a sales proposal, and limit yourself to writing short headlines, say no more than five words.

  • When you have to list features/benefits or a methodology: Limit yourself to three bullet points only, and no more than 15 words per bullet point.

  • Put a time limit on completing any writing project, for example, I put a time limit of 3 hours to write a full draft of this article, yet I finished it in one hour and 50 minutes. If I hadn’t, it would have taken longer than 3 hours. A self-imposed time limit helped sharpen my focus.

  • Cut any presentation in half: You’ve been given one hour to present your case, sales pitch or training session. Cut your presentation to 30 minutes. Work to do this without sacrificing depth or dumbing down your message. It will help you get rid of interesting stuff that isn’t essential and extra stuff not important to your audience.

The Benefits

Why are constraints in business communications good for us?

  • It forces us to think more critically. We question ourselves better and more often: “Is my premise thorough, logical and proven?” “What is my main idea?” “Is this really what I think?” “Is this clear?”

  • It challenges us to be precise (exact and accurate) and concise (brief but full of meaning)

  • It forces us to think more about the value of our message to our audience

Keeping our audience in mind is important because we don’t have a lot of time to capture and hold the attention of our time-poor, over-burdened listener or reader.

So, the next time someone gives you a word count or a time restriction, don’t get frustrated, get creative.

For More About Creativity And Constraints

  • The study I mentioned above which includes the brilliant Frank Gehry talking about constraints on architecture

  • For anyone that has to come up with innovative ideas or solutions, read this article

  • Watch, The Power of Creative Restraints by Brandon Rodriguez

  • And, if you need a respite from serious but dull work, why not write your memoir using only six words (Here's what I wrote, "I'm always curious about people's words.")

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