An "expert," in the U.S., is someone who we blame for not having solutions to our impossible problems.
Think of the earnest nitwit who at the end of every communication conference presentation, stands and thanks the speaker for all the neat ideas. And then asks how the speaker would pull off such fancy tricks without any management support, without a budget and with an apathetic, multilingual workforce spread out over 58 countries and 14 time zones and without access to computers.
The other day that earnest nitwit was me.
I interrupted the E.B. White-like life of farming, reading and writing led by Jerry Tarver—retired rhetoric professor and teacher of thousands of speechwriters their craft—by forwarding him the e-mail of a communicator who wanted an authoritative "source" for the old rhetorical "rule of threes."
Don’t blame the e-mailer—she was preparing for a management presentation, and anticipating some lunkhead asking, "Well who wrote the rule of three, anyhoo?" She wanted an easy answer.
No: Blame me, for forwarding this to Jerry instead of answering it myself. And credit Jerry, who simultaneously slapped down the question and solved the questioner’s problem:
"As I understand it," he began, "___ wants to argue that a presentation should have only three points and is looking for a source to back up her position. Alas, if she were to find such a source why would she (or her audience) have any confidence in it? The answer to the question can come from (1) the authority of an expert’s opinion or (2) social science research producing data to show the limits of memory and retention.
"Neither of these could supply a definite answer because there are too many variables. If Aristotle recommended using only three points, how would he know any better than ___ what is best for a given business presentation? Social science studies testing such theories are done by junior professors seeking promotions and their test subjects are college students. The results are a load of scholarly crap."
Of course, the rule of three does have its roots, Jerry acknowledged. But they’re not in the number of points to make in a speech; instead, they’re in language and rhythym:
"Aristotle did say that speech should borrow the rhythm, but not the meter, of poetry because a smooth rhythm is satisfying to the ear. So, we get Shakespeare’s ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ and Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ … The power of rhythm created ‘wine, women and song,’ when in fact wine and women would be quite enough. Churchill, at his best, offered the British people, ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat,’ but the power of rhythm reduced it to the much less satisfactory ‘blood, sweat ‘n tears.’"
And then, after dismantling the premise, Jerry concluded by more or less writing a more reasonable presentation himself:
"There’s nothing wrong with using three points in a given case, and generally my subjective judgment is that two to four points is about right. If we could operate from a principle rather than a rule, we would want presenters not to overwhelm listeners with more ideas than they can digest (always remembering how smart are the listeners; how complicated are the ideas). If the subject demands ten points you either use ten points or you restrict the scope of the subject. You can search the Bible in vain for the story of
Moses and the three commandments. …
"Finally, I am not certain why an authority or a study is needed for ___ to argue for limiting the number of points. She can flatly state her own opinion, she can point to examples of presentations that failed because of two many points or to examples of the use of limited points that stick in the memory (Stop. Look. And Listen. No telling how many little kids’ lives have been saved with that one.)
"Communication is too complicated to be ruled in. (Just consider the rule against using parenthetical expressions, which I have always assumed was invented by someone with deep psychological problems.)"
This is how experts have to respond to questions—patiently, humorously and above all, expertly.
Allan Jenkins says
I blame Barbara Minto, who, in the Pyramid Principle, illustrates the principle of inductive arguments with three “supports” for the main message. For example, “Company should divest Division 1 because of Argument A, Argument B, Argument C.”
Minto, of course, never says it must be three supporting arguments, only that the arguments must be discrete and collectively exhaustive. You might have two, you might have five — as long as they are few enough for the listeners to remember them.
Unfortunately, when McKinsey adopted Minto’s thinking, many consultants somehow landed on “three” being the magic number. I cannot tell you how many times I watched McKinsey teams (and still watch former McK consultants) try to shoehorn presentations into three tidy boxes.
The McK presentation style seeped out into corporate America in the 1970s… and the “three point presentation” has never looked back.