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.
“Unless I’m wrong, and I’m never wrong, they are headed dead into the fire swamp.”
Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride
Which of these people would you rather pay attention to? The first is from an opening paragraph of a movement assessment book; the second from an introduction speech by a new MD of a business. Both are talking about rehabilitation of sorts.
“I can speak about poor logic because I’ve used it, and can discuss reductionism and isolated approaches because I’ve practiced them. I can identify with every mistake that can be made in exercise rehabilitation after owning them all. That is the perspective under which we’ll discuss some of the philosophical, practical and social mistakes surrounding movement.”
“Good morning everyone. My name is [...]. I have never failed, and I am not going to fail here.”
I’m guessing you preferred the first person, most people do; and I’ll explain why I think his introduction is so good. What disturbs me is how many people use the trust-me-I’m-perfect, approach of the second person when they write or speak. This, despite not liking that approach when they’re reading or listening.
If you liked the second person, then you may not think this article is for you; but if you give me ten minutes of your time to read it, then I hope to persuade you that there’s some merit in the approach you didn’t like.
Decent First Impressions
I think there’s truth in the claim that people give an author at most five minutes before deciding whether to continue reading. But people begin forming a mindset about an author as a person almost immediately, during his first few words. At the outset, their focus is just as much on characterising the author as it is on what he has to say. If the author is credible and likable, it’s somehow easier to take on board what he’s got to say. If the author comes across as flakey or has inadvertently got the reader’s back up, it’s really hard work to stay open minded, even to any decent insights.
Teachers of rhetoric understand this in readers and listeners, and look for speakers to have decent ethical appeal in their openings. I just look for someone who is competent, thoughtful and good company; and it’s a bonus if they’re funny. But more than anything else, I want them to be humble.
The first reason I like an author to be humble is that I think it leads to better content. They're inquisitive at the outset because they feel they know so little, or they're aware that their limited knowledge will be improved if they pay better attention. So they’re more likely to have thought things through. This works the other way too: if they’ve challenged themselves sufficiently, they’ll have made mistakes, learned from them, and be humbler as a result.
The second reason I like humility is that it can lead to better communication. A humble author will realise that what he’s got to say isn’t the last word on a subject; it will have limitations; it will inevitably be shown in future to be at least partly wrong; and parts of it in retrospect may even be stupid. Newton’s writings had all of these characteristics except maybe the last one; Joe Author is unlikely to be better. So rather than saying, “This is the truth, listen to me,” a humbler author will say, “this is the best I can think of right now, so I’m going to go with it.” They will be overt about their work’s limitations, which is much more helpful to the reader than grand claims that are inevitably seen through or disappointed.
Now I want to clarify what I mean when I propose being humble in opening a piece of work. I don’t mean being an obsequious Uriah Heep. That’s just creepy. Declaring your limitations up front enables you to be bold about what you do surmise. It’s a lot easier to be genuinely confident saying, ‘this is what I think is best, based on my current knowledge and previous failings,’ than to proclaim superior or faultless status and claim to know the truth.
And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be excited or committed. I’m just saying I’d rather listen to someone who’s also committed to learning, has reflected, made mistakes and is conscious of his present shortcomings, than to someone who’s a know-it-all or bedazzled devotee of someone’s dogma, which he’s never challenged. There's a place for arrogance, but not at the start of an article.
Finally, I’m not proposing that anyone affect humility, which is excruciatingly common in meetings of big wigs, and is as transparent as a badly made swim suit. But I’m confident than anyone who isn’t genuinely humble won’t have read this far anyway, which gets me onto my final subject.
When I started writing this, I thought it was about opening an article or speech. Now I realise it’s really about opening any investigation, of anything, for all the reasons I’ve described. And it’s relevant well before the conclusions are turned into an article or argument. If you’re humble about what you know, your assumptions, the limitations of your perspective, and the massive likelihood that even your best effort for now can be improved upon continuously, then I think there’s a decent chance that your investigation will yield some genuine insights, and that your argument will be fair and solid. Being humble in writing is then just a matter of saying it how you really, honestly believe it is, with no pretense or affectation. To misquote Quintilian, good writing is just a good person speaking naturally.
For completion, let me tell you something about the two people whose gambits I compared at the start. The humble first speaker is Gray Cook, probably the world’s authority on body movement, and consultant to top NFL teams. The bombasting second speaker was the MD of a business I worked in many years ago. The poor guy antagonised his staff with that opening salvo, and it went downhill from there. He was replaced after 6 months.
Prince Humperdink, our know-it-all character from the Princess Bride, didn’t fare any better. But he stuck to his omniscient way to the last. Here are his final words, having been bluffed into tying himself into a chair by an incapacitated Wesley:
“I knew it! I knew you were bluffing! I knew he was... bluffing.”
Cook, G. (2010) Movement. Santa Cruz, California. On Target Publications
Quintilianus, Marcus Fabius. Institutio Oratoria
The Princess Bride: from a novel by William Goldman. (1987) Film. Directed by Rob Reiner. USA: 20th Century Fox
Rhetoric is a Very Fine Thing Indeed
Wed, Aug 8 2012 01:15 | rhetoric
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
I believe that learning and applying the skills of rhetoric is one of the finest, most useful things a human being can do. With these skills we are humble, fair and clear thinkers, able to see through muddle or deception, and capable of stirring ourselves and others into worthwhile action. Without them, we remain muddled, biased, complacent, open to deception and self-deception, and unable move ourselves or others beyond acceptance of, often flawed, received wisdom. It’s a skill we can apply to business decisions, sports performance, political choices, and most of the day-to-day decisions we make. It’s hard to think of many skills that are more fundamentally important.
Before I inadvertently get anyone’s back up, let me explain what I mean by rhetoric: basing an argument on sound reasoning, with a fair appeal to the emotions, and a solid ethical stance. It is the opposite of the commonly misused “politician’s rhetoric” of clever, false arguments intended to deceive, which is more accurately called sophistry.
In my mind, rhetoric has three stages: a generous but challenging consideration of others’ appeals to you; a rigorous and even more challenging appeal to the self; and, an elegant and fair appeal to others. Each stage has three parts: an appeal to reason, an appeal to emotions, and an appeal to ethics. Three stages, three parts in each.
Generous but Challenging Consideration of Others’ Appeals to You
We are bombarded by others’ appeals to us: newspaper leading articles, advertising, sales pitches, business cases to invest in some initiative or plan, magazines describing steps to success, and friends persuading us to agree with their points of view. Each of these appeals contains some rational, emotional or ethical plea to believe or do something. People making these appeals are human like us, and we all have biases and agendas. So our challenge in considering the case the other person is making is to be generous in our listening but rigorous in our assessment.
Appeals to our reason are flimsier than they first appear. They inevitably contain fallacies of logic: selective information, unsubstantiated assumptions, unrepresentative examples and convenient metaphors. We need to be on our toes to recognise these when making our own decisions; but we also need to have the open-mindedness to accept, despite these inevitable flaws, that the other person may still have a good point.
Appeals to our emotions can be life- and even world-changing, and because of this are where we need to be most awake. Emotion is ever present in our greatest moments and is the fuel that drives us to do great things. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was fueled by emotion, not the self-evident logic. On a personal level, all the great teams and companies I have worked with have an emotional stirring behind their actions; without it, we’re just tidying and marking time. But of course there is a flip-side. I’ve seen scores of companies and people crash and burn because of emotionally sticking to an unsubstantiated dogma; and some of the most damaging rabble rousers and dictators of all time had a gift for attracting people’s emotions to their causes.
The ethical appeal is perhaps the most difficult of all to hear in a balanced way. We need to know that the person making a case for something has good intentions, and has values we trust. But we are biased, lumping people into bad or good, reliable or unreliable. Millions of people don’t trust Tories because they think they’re nasty; but didn’t the Tory William Wilberforce campaign for 20 years to abolish the slave trade? Carter is commonly considered an ineffectual US President; but didn’t he head negotiations in the Camp David peace between Egypt and Israel? People mistrust John Major and Tony Blair for different reasons; but didn’t they instigate and complete the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland? The demonised, phone-tapping Rupert Murdoch revolutionised UK sports coverage and ultimately backed our first Tour de France winner. No-one is all good or all bad, so why should we blindly follow or oppose anyone?
A Rigorous and Even More Challenging Appeal to the Self
The appeal to one’s own reason is no mean feat. We need to be prepared for the discomfort of challenging our own, often convenient, assumptions and reasoning; and for testing how complete or confined our thinking has been. It’s especially hard if we want or don’t want to believe something for whatever reason. This inability to challenge our own reasoning is the biggest flaw I see in my students’ rhetoric and my own.
The appeal to our own emotions is possibly even more difficult than challenging our reasoning. This emotional appeal is critical: we need to care about something to give it the time of day, and to be fired up to take action. At the same time, our emotions can blind us. We find it hard to accept a sound view from someone we don’t like or that leads to a conclusion we find distasteful; and we let our feelings guide us to seek evidence to support a course of action that we do like.
The ethical appeal to the self is difficult because it’s so intangible and multi-faceted. We’re trying to answer a tricky question here: “Is this a good thing to do?” The phrase ethical dilemma is a common one for good reason. When we explore an ethical choice, we find ourselves changing stance with each level of consideration. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds worthy until we think about freeloading incentives, centralised power, and consequent lost generations; but if we flip sides and adopt the commonly misrepresented self-serving capitalist stance, we lose something benevolent at the heart of human nature. Giving important things open-minded and fair consideration, and thinking two steps beyond our initial dogma, gets us a long way. A good sign that we’ve given things some reasonable consideration is the very finding of an ethical dilemma.
An Elegant and Fair Appeal to Others
Other people are bound by the same 3 chains that bind us: flawed logic, overpowering emotional prompts and unchallenged ethical assumptions. So making an effective appeal to someone else, even one based on sound reasoning, good character, and well-stocked emotional fuel, is just as difficult as being open and balanced in considering others’ appeals to us. People need a strong incentive to untangle their own webs of belief, which may have been reinforced by years of selective confirmatory observation and social groups that share the same webs. But with clear reasoning, trustworthiness, and elegant and fair communication, we give ourselves a chance of hitting that tipping point some of the time, and we may even become worth listening to.