Iceberg Theory


(January 6, 2020)



In 1923, Ernest Hemingway wrote the short story "Out of Season". After finishing the piece, he decided to omit the ending where the main character hangs himself.

Instead, he left the story open-ended, believing that leaving specific details out strengthened the story.

He coined the technique of omitting details Iceberg Theory because you're only detailing the top ten percent of the story. The rest is unseen. This gave Hemingway's stories a certain gravitas.

"A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened," Hemingway wrote.

The critical part in that statement is "you know about."


Hemingway knew the main character in "Out of Season" hung himself. Therefore, he could craft the narrative in a way that eluded to that ending. Eluding can be far more potent than explicitly telling. There is a quiet confidence that can come from playing with silences.

In marketing, we tend to overstate and overpromise. Often, we do this because we are over-compensating for lack. We focus on the top ten per cent without understanding or building the foundations of the ninety per cent that lies below.

We focus on the offering without understanding the underlying story that makes the offering more than a commodity. We create offerings that have no gravitas.

Hemingway continues, "If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless."

When we're not sure of our true value, our true narrative, we copy others and promise the world—all in the hope of gaining attention or another sale. We become desperate.

The lack of foundations below means the ice on top is not fixed. It floats meaninglessly around on top, subject to the vagaries of underwater currents.

Instead, we can pay attention to the ninety per cent below. We can focus on the story that determines everything on top. So when we do focus on the actual selling part, our offering has weight. It's imbued with meaning. What you say has gravitas.

Brew Copy, a storytelling studio that helps you build your brand—with words. Contact me at jayden@brewcopy.com. Stay in touch on Instagram. Or on Linkedin.