Say What You Suppose in a Single Sentence
I’ve enthused before on the virtues of thinking by hypothesis: starting with a supposition that we hold lightly and challenge hard. This approach prompts us to be open-minded, and helps make our thinking clear and just. It helps us to be Columbo, not the rigid, narrow minded local cop.
A golden rule helps us check we’re clear in this hypothesising. The rule also gives others a chance of understanding, and even remembering, our supposition. Here’s the rule: state the hypothesis in one sentence. That’s right, one sentence, starting with a capital letter and ending in a full stop. “We should buy the company.” “It was the butler whodunnit.” “The team with the most money always wins the championship.”
One reason for using this single sentence rule is circular, but it’s important if you’ve never thought about what a sentence is. A sentence is the smallest unit we can use, in speaking or writing, to convey a complete thought. A hypothesis is a complete thought. So a good check that I’m conveying one complete thought is whether I can state it in one sentence and capture the entire thing. If I can’t summarise my hypothesis in a sentence, chances are it’s a part thought or more than one thought. This is circular reasoning, but a proper useful check.
Clear and complete isn’t enough for us, however. We also want our hypothesis to be elegant and memorable. The distillation of our thoughts down into that one clear, crisp encapsulating statement is a thing of beauty. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.” “(We accept) No taxation without representation.” One sentence captures the complete thought in a nutshell. We can convey one sentence to others, and they can describe it to their own hordes of acolytes. By using a single sentence, we minimise the confusion that comes with added information.
There does come a point in our distillation when we sacrifice some completeness to have a useful sentence. It takes judgement here to capture enough of the main idea, while being concrete and not reverting to generic drivel. “We should only invest in education software, in segments where there’s more than 100 large customers,” might not capture every feasible scenario that we could consider, but it’s much more useful than “we should prioritise resources to maximise shareholder value.” 90% accurate whilst still saying something is better than 100% motherhood.
And I wasn’t kidding when I said the sentence needs to be a complete one. Part sentences leave you hanging; and those multiple part sentences we all employ when holding forth are exhausting. Here’s Flora Finching, the beauty from Little Dorrit pictured above:
“Indeed I have little doubt,” said Flora, running on with astonishing speed, and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, “that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I am sure than that the Chinese lady should accept you and think herself very well off too, I only hope she's not a Pagodian dissenter.”
Confused? Exhausted? That’s exactly what you’re doing to your listener as you pile on the phrases when describing your big idea.
I’m not saying that one sentence is always enough to describe everything you need to describe. If it were, then we’d only need Twitter for all our communication, Haiku poems could double as text books, and this article would consist of eight words. But I am saying that one complete sentence, our hypothesis, should sit at the top of the hierarchy of our thinking on a matter. Everything else either supports, challenges or illustrates that one complete thought, such as “Here’s more precisely what I mean by compulsory cat ownership,” “here are five reasons I think it’s a good idea,” or “here’s an example of it in action.” If an extra sentence doesn’t support or illustrate or challenge the hypothesis, “dogs are good too,” then it’s extraneous. The extraneous sentence may be brilliant in its own right, but it’s a different thought for a different day.
Stating our supposition in one sentence doesn’t only help our own musings. We can use the same approach to check we understand someone else’s point, and to clarify their main thesis. When we do this, just as when we do it on ourselves, it’s amazing how much chaff there is amongst the wheat of the argument; how what seems like one argument is actually five different ones. This one sentence summary is possible with the longest, most meandering, tomes.
War & Peace: “Life is complicated.”
The Old Testament: “Do what God says or you’re in deep trouble.”
The New Testament: "Love God and each other, and you'll be fine."
Atlas Shrugged: “Big government is a bad thing.”
The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich: “Hitler’s military strategy was daring, but doomed from the start.”
The UK Tax Guide: “We’ve got a thousand ways to get our 50%, so stop wriggling and cough up.”
It’s much easier to do this with someone else’s thoughts than our own, but it’s good practice for the bigger, humbling challenge of distilling our complex brilliance into a few little words.
I wonder if you could summarise the hypothesis of this article? The clue’s in the title.
I Suppose: This Can Bring Our Thinking to Life
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Aristotle (clever Greek)
"Perhaps, I suppose."
Rufio (Californian Pop Punksters)
The idea of thinking by hypothesis can sound overbearing, theoretical and highfalutin. But it’s a lot simpler and earthier than it appears. If we do it well, it can make us clearer and more open minded thinkers, save us time, and help us communicate our thoughts succinctly and concretely. It’s at the heart of rhetoric and the scientific method, and has been used by great thinkers since before our boy Aristotle. In my own small experience, whenever I’ve trained its application, I’ve seen some beautiful transformations in people's thinking. I hope you think it’s worthy of your attention.
When we have a hypothesis about something, all we are saying is: “This is what I suppose (about the matter).” That’s all. Nothing more intellectual or sophisticated than that. It is our first venture at an answer, our starting point in getting to a solution that we're happy with. We can apply it wherever we have a question or a problem or are ignorant, and where we care enough to want to get to an answer. We could be supposing anything, “This person will be the best future leader for the company,” “ this how evolution works,” or,” this is the best way to reform errant fraudulent MPs.”
Our supposition, or hypothesis, is a working answer that we hold gently and challenge hard. By giving ourselves a working answer, and making it as tangible as we can, we are giving ourselves something concrete to test with thinking and evidence: “Does it cover things completely? Is it consistent with observations? Does it make sense logically? Is it unequivocal with no vagueness or room for misunderstanding? Is it simple enough that it’s obvious when I explain it? Can I think of any exceptions that hole my beautiful hypothesis below the water line?” As we challenge our working answer with evidence and clear thinking, we expect it to change, just like the detective’s naive first guess in an episode of CSI. If we’re really hungry investigators or expansive thinkers, we're rarely happy until our first guess has been challenged and changed at least a couple of times.
As we go through this process, our hypothesis solidifies into a thesis; our supposition turns into our position on the matter. In some cases, we might even get to the verifiable truth: “This is whodunit,” “This business will be profitable,” “I can get to the South Pole by January.” In many situations, we’ll never know the truth and just have to run with our best thesis: “John will be the best Governor,” “This is the right incentive scheme,” “I should spend more time developing the next product rather than doing bespoke work the whole time.”
This approach, starting by stating what I suppose, has a host of advantages over just asking questions or musing distractedly. It forces me to be clear and concrete about what I think, which by itself highlights gaps and weaknesses, and so makes my thinking better. It turns my perspective into one of a humble investigator who welcomes challenge, as opposed to a blustering know-it-all or a vague wonderer. It gives me a focus for my investigation efforts or philosophical musings, where I can direct my challenges and grow my perspective. It enables me at any stage to know my current position on the matter, and how confident I am, being overt about where I’m ignorant or unsure. And if I work with others, which everyone does, I can communicate my position at any time, so that people can understand, challenge and contribute.
Using a hypothesis also has plenty of drawbacks but these are typically because of using it badly. First, people often get attached to their hypotheses and slip into trying to defend and prove them. This is very easy to do and very common. We’re all guilty of it, though it’s even easier to do if we don’t think by hypothesis, and so don't enjoy the self-challenging and welcoming of new insight that ensues. Second, once we’ve formed our hypothesis, we can get stuck in the process of challenging and reviewing, moving slowly and deliberately from our current position, and which can restrict us from taking a fresh look at the world, from a radically different perspective. This is why it’s always good to take a bit of time to explore and ponder before coming up with our first hypothesis, and to welcome the reality that there will always be other interesting and useful ways of looking at the world. A third drawback is that we can end up with something very unwieldy as we challenge every angle and grow our investigation. This is why we only roll out the full hypothesis testing approach when it really counts, such as working out why sales are tanking or whether we should open up in France. The rest of the time we can still benefit from the open, “I suppose” mindset. A fourth drawback is that there isn’t really a scientific or formulaic approach to coming up with a hypothesis in the first place. They just come to us, like thoughts do, as a return on musing. Einstein accepted this when he said, “The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws ... There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.” That's the daddy of science talking about intuition and musing. I find that kind of heartening.
I’m as strong a fan and advocate of using hypotheses as I am about using the scientific method that guided Newton, and as I am about the principles of analytical rhetoric that guided Madison and Martin Luther King. They go together because hypotheses are essential to analytical rhetoric, and to the scientific method that lies underneath it. I use one in every piece of work with every client that I have. I think I’ve got exalted company in Aristotle, Cicero, every mechanic or plumber who actually fixes your problem, every great fictional detective and, I suppose, some real ones too.