Meaning Guide

Tony Blair, numbers and the taste of orange peel: Practical applications of embodied cognition

Something I’ve noticed from interviewing leaders is the number of times they use numbers in their answers.  “There are four things you need to understand about that.”  “I’ll give you two – no wait – three, examples.”  “Two things to mention here …”  And so on.  It sounds planned, but it’s usually impromptu.  It’s like they have an intuitive sense that numbers somehow sound better.

This may remind you of the “rule of three” in rhetoric – have three main points for your talk, three examples for each point, three clauses for each statement and so on.  “Veni, vidi, vici”, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, “education, education, education”.

No one’s really explained why this works, but I suspect it’s rooted pretty deeply in our cognitive machinery:  Your mental models are constructed statistically from your sensory experience, so if someone claims to have spotted a pattern, one supporting example sounds like an isolated incident, two examples is interesting but could be a co-incidence, whereas three starts to look like a trend.

And so you’ll constantly see politicians and senior business leaders straining to reach the magic number three – backing up their point with three examples, one of which is clear, the second of which is tenuous, and the third of which is an incoherent mumble overtaken by the next statement, or using three adjectives to make a point, all of which mean the same thing (“The right honourable gentleman is lazy, feckless, and has never done a day’s work in his life”).

The feeling of solidity

The rule of three is an example of a more general principle, which is that dividing your content into subsections and stating how many subsections there are instinctively adds a sense of solidity to it.  “Principles of our Success” sounds a bit woolly.  “Our 7 Success Principles” sounds coherent and definite – it’s now a “thing” with “parts”.

Why is this?  Well, in saying upfront how many things you have, you’re activating the same cognitive structures as you use to differentiate between tangible objects.  Imagine someone starting a presentation on successful transformation, and putting the following graphic up on the screen:

Forget what any of those words mean.  If I scanned your brain as you look at this, you’d find the same bits lighting up as when you see any other four objects, these for example:

Looking at both of these graphics therefore activates the same expectations.  If I listen to your four elements and find that three of them are about transformational success but the fourth is basically unrelated, it will be like biting into one of the oranges and finding that it tastes of apple.  The trouble with a lot of pet theories and models is, of course, that they don’t really taste of much at all, so the lack of rigour goes by unnoticed (more on this next week).

All of which underlines for me the astonishing ability of numbers to create the illusion that a body of content is more stable and solid than it really is.  People often say that “to name something is to own it”, but perhaps it’s also true that “to number something is to own it”.  Listen to any internet guru who makes money from dispensing advice on any subject, and at some point they’ll bring up a model they’ve invented that takes the form of a numbered list – “the seven factors of customer satisfaction”, “the four elements of leadership”, “the five seeds of happiness”, “the ten commandments of lean” etc. etc.

(As an aside, I always think it takes a certain amount of arrogance to use the definite article with a number in this way.  It’s not just “four elements of customer satisfaction”, which sounds like a list of transient thoughts I’ve just noted down; it’s the four elements of customer satisfaction, as solid and certain as the number of wheels on the bus, or the number of seasons in the year, or the number of legs on a healthy guinea pig.)

Avoiding transience

Now this is obviously only giving a negative slant.  The positive, of course, is that if your content is well defined, stable and significant, then chunking it into a fixed number of entities like this will emphasise those qualities.

Which leads me onto my final point.  If the central model that you’re communicating has a demarcated number of things – five pillars, seven elements or whatever – then for goodness sake don’t keep changing the number and don’t keep changing the names!  If something has fundamentally changed, then you need to clearly signpost it.  Otherwise the tacit message is that leadership is just making stuff up, and that it’s only loosely connected to an underlying reality.

Practical example:  If your programme has eight workstreams, and you decide to merge and rename two of them, make it really obvious that that’s what’s happened:

If eight has become seven, don’t create a new diagram.  Think of the entities as physical things, and see what the change looks like.  Otherwise you’re implicitly telling people “these eight oranges have morphed into seven apples, but we’re not going to tell you how or why”.

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