This is one in a series from my earlier post, 10 Tips To Help Your Audience Listen Better.
In 1956, psychologist George Miller at Princeton University concluded from research that individuals normally only retain seven serial-order items of information (give or take two items) in their short-term memory. The theory became known as “Miller’s Law,” or also “Miller’s Magic Number.”
Since that time, additional research has shown that the idea of 7+2 is less exact than suggestive. Some claimed the “real number” was 5. Others – probably highly caffeinated, can’t-wait, A+ type people – strongly believed that they (the audience) will only remember one thing in their short-term memory. More so, if you follow the Ides of Twitter, you might also believe this singular statement would be no longer than 140 characters.
I have no research to prove this, except for years of experience. I think the magic number is 3, primarily because so many items in our lives are organized in threes that we’ve nearly come to except it. Primary colours. Three pigs. The Holy Trinity, The circus. Blind mice. Feet in a yard. Three sheets in the wind. Celebrity deaths in 3s. ‘On your mark, get set, go.’ BLTs.
The Rule of 3s might sound arbitrary, but the underlying concept is not. Many speakers and presenters simply open their mouths and speak, without considering meaning, order or priority. They overwhelm their audiences with too much new information and with ideas they aren’t familiar. Their presentation style is Say what you know.
The considered and articulate speaker understands that for the audience to hear, grasp and remember (see, three things) what ideas they’re selling, the messages must be both organized and prioritized. Their presentation style is the opposite: Know what you say.
Good presentations and conversation systems are built on this principle of ordered messages. I’ve gathered some 20 different systems in my career, but I still fall-back to the easiest one, simply titled the message house because the icon or tool (shown to the right) is shaped as a house. At its most simple, your thoughts, messages or ideas should be broken into – you guessed it – three groups or “chunks.”
The first part is called the Umbrella Message (or Main Message). This message should be one sentence, one complete thought. 140 characters is a good rule of thumb, but not essential. You should be able to say it in one breath. (It’s a good way to ensure it’s concise.) If the audience remembered just one thing about your conversation, this single statement should capture it explicitly.
The Umbrella Message is often an assertion, a hypothesis, a recommendation, or a theory. It’s a call to action, a reason for capital, the 30-second trailer that Hollywood would make of your idea.
You should rehearse this statement long enough (without memorizing it) so that it comes cleanly out of your mouth as if you thought of it on the spot. The moment it doesn’t sound convincing and directive, your audience is no longer listening.
The Core Messages are the second part, the second strata of the tool. Here,three messages support the Umbrella Message. Each of the three Core Messages is one sentence, one complete thought, one breath. Each of the Core Messages adds depth to the Umbrella Message, but rarely do they add detail. (“Depth” means elaborates with more explanation. “Detail” means adds minutiae. Details – which are often highly important – are the third part, below.)
These four sentences (1 Umbrella Message statement + 3 Core Message statements) comprise the basic skeleton to structure your presentation or conversation. Of course, audiences often have questions. Conversations mean the other party might ask or debate your messages. Eventually you will need to justify your statements. This leads to the third part.
The third area is Evidence, Proof and Support. You justify your proof in two ways: rational or emotional evidence. Rational evidence is facts, statistics, qualified research, thorough analysis, best practices, case studies and considered reasoning. Emotional evidence is stories, testimonials, personal experience, and situational anecdotes. If your audience prefers rational evidence, don’t serve only emotional points, and vice versa. The best mixture is both rational and emotional. As the saying goes, rational persuades, but emotion motivates.
Isn’t This an Elevator Speech?
Many people see the message house and think elevator speech or elevator pitch.
A figure of speech since at least the elevator was invented in 1857, the elevator speech is well-known as a metaphor for a concise description of what you’re trying to sell. Or rather, the first part of the metaphor is known, but rarely the latter part. Here are both parts.
Part one: Imagine if you and your target audience got into the elevator of a 100-story building. To get to the top floor, this would take about 60 seconds, right? In that time, what would you say to convince your target audience to change their mind, opinions or behavior? How would you sell your idea to capture their imagination? How would you position your story? Could you grab their attention in this small window of time?
There’s plenty of good posts about this on the web. Here are two with excellent tips and hints.
The Art of the Elevator Pitch: 10 Great Tips by Audrey Watters
Part two: What happens if your audience looks at you and says, “Oops, sorry! I meant to get out on the 25th floor!” You had one-fourth the time you thought. Did you say your messages in the right order? Did you get your important messages out first? This is why you need to be wary of stories: often the punch-line or key learning comes at the end. Get your point out fast: make it easy for your audience to listen.
Make sure you have the absolute true message house. Re-check the entire message house against all of the perceived issues. Address the audience’s concerns, and play to their interests. Be provocative and opinionated. Have something to say! Be relevant: talk to them, not about you.
And finally …
Remember this one important statement to ensure you help your audience listen to you. You are always the least important person in every conversation.