Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Beachcombing and the rule of three

On my way to Brussels to chair the European Speechwriters Network conference, I stopped in England and had the chance to visit speaker coach Peter Botting at his home near the beach in Sussex. Peter was coaching me for my role as the chair of the conference, but first, we had to hit the beach. With bases in London as well as on the coast, Peter says he and his clients have the best of both worlds, saying "A lunchtime walk along the Bexhill seafront has cleared the head of many a client – and me." Suddenly, the lack of a beach seemed to be a strategic disadvantage in my own speaker coaching business in Washington, DC. 

I had my own head-clearing moment on the Bexhill beach when Peter picked out three rocks for me as souvenirs from the thousands that form the collar of the coast. I'd been admiring the tapestry of rock colors covering the beach, feeling overwhelmed at the idea of describing it, so vast a collection lies there. Just as the water stretches as far as the eye can see, so do the rocks on this beach. But suddenly, I had just three rocks in my hand, and they came into focus immediately: A squared-off white stone, with many shades of white, that reminds me of the granite in my home state of Connecticut. A mottled brown stone, smooth and kidney-shaped and soothing in the palm of my hand, with a few chunks of cream and a thick vein of blue that, when wet with the salt water, looks so much more like midnight. And a black stone, smaller and yet smoother, with hints of a yellow-cream vein underneath. 

Three rocks, and the rhetorical "rule of three" popped into my head. This isn't surprising when you have two speaker coaches in close proximity--at some point, we'd already discussed how we talk about the rule of three with our training clients and whether we consider it useful. We agreed it's an especially smart tool for remembering what you want to say, and I find it effective when working with clients who are subject-matter experts or scientists with details compiled over a lifetime of research. Many scientists and experts default to telling all they know in chronological order, starting at the beginning of time and proceeding forward, just to be sure the listener is fully educated in the subject at hand. It's the verbal equivalent of a beach covered in thousands of rocks as far as the eye can see, assembled because they're not sure the listener will understand the subject without all the background details, or because they dread someone saying, "But you didn't mention...."

Pulling just three things out of that swath of verbal stones--three arguments to make your case to the VC, three factors the CEO should use in making a decision, three events that led to your new invention, three findings that convinced you a new discovery was around the corner--helps you organize your thoughts. But more important is the way the rule of three helps your audience see and hear your points faster and remember them longer. In conversation or a media interview, sharing three options in your answer lets your listener or the reporter take a turn, saying, "That second piece of data you mentioned about college students--talk more about that," giving you a guide to what your audience cares about. You can create a rhythm around your three points if you wish, a rhetorical pattern that can help you make people listen and applaud. And best of all, instead of carrying an entire beach's worth of ideas in your head, you can more readily remember the three rocks you've plucked from the shore for us to examine together.

When I travel these days, I look for experiences, not souvenirs. But these were souvenirs that live up to the original meaning of the French word, which means "to remember." The three rocks from Bexhill-on-Sea are sitting on my desk as I write this, making it easy for me to remember that walk on the beach. This afternoon, I'm going to put them in my pocket and take them to a coaching session with a client who's preparing a TED-style talk, where they'll serve as a visual and tactile way to explain the rule of three memorably. Thanks, Peter, for sharing the beach and these rocky reminders of the rule of three with me!

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