My six sentence rule: In Cabinet and in the boardroom

Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War. At just 272 words it lasted less than three minutes, even for a slow speaker like Lincoln. In just a handful of sentences Lincoln’s famous oration signalled the beginning of the end of the Civil War that had divided his nation

While the Gettysburg address was 154 years ago, the significance of its brevity has almost more relevance today. Attention spans are declining, our inboxes are overflowing and we don’t have the time or inclination to sit through long discussions or soliloquies. Back in my student politics days, we would spend hours deliberating endless deviations and perorations that were entirely meaningless (albeit highly entertaining). But in the modern boardroom or cabinet there’s simply no place for this.

That’s why I’ve always tried to adhere to a six-sentence rule. If you can’t say it in six sentences then don’t say it all. While there’s a time and a place for in-depth discussions and conversations it’s not in the cabinet or boardroom.

This realisation came to me during my time in cabinet. I noticed that the colleagues who tried to monopolise the leader’s time or take centre stage often found their clout or importance significantly diminished over time. Being verbose in those settings undermines the persuasiveness of your argument, stripping you of your credibility, and bears the added risk of sending your audience to sleep.

The ability to succinctly put your point across in just a few sentences is the best way to achieve maximum effect. The six-sentence rule also instils personal discipline, ensuring you have clarity about what matters to you and the core of your argument. It’s a powerful way to distil your thoughts and make sense of them in your own mind before inflicting them on others.

But when it comes to situations of collective decision-making, it’s not enough for the individual to monitor their own behaviour. The organisation needs to take some responsibility for enforcing these principles. Take the boardroom for example. The entire board, not just the chairman, has a collective responsibility to enforce the discipline of good communication.

Too often boards assume principles will filter down into the organisation by osmosis, but that’s not enough. We need to model the behaviour, pay attention to it, and ensure there’s accountability for it to actually happen. If an organisation values brevity and clarity of thought, then they need to ensure it’s encouraged and, where appropriate, even rewarded. This is the essence of cultural change, and that can only happen when the collective is aligned.

The Gettysburg Address is credited with setting in train events that changed the collective conscience of America and changing the course of its history. This was achieved through Lincoln’s brevity and eloquence, delivering a powerful message in a few sentences rather than launching into a forgettable ramble.

By limiting our contributions to just a few sentences, we can command the attention of our audience and ensure our contributions have the maximum impact.

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