The ten-pushup rule improves communication

Fit woman doing a pushup
During my presentation training programs, I almost always introduce a slightly tongue-in-cheek training tool I call “the ten-pushup rule.” The rule immediately underscores how succinct answers improve communication and enhance presentation engagement.

The rule is simple. The person answering a question gets a maximum of ten words for the answer. Any question; ten words. Since question-and-answer sessions are recorded during training sessions, it’s easy to keep track.

This is an amazing tool; I’ve witnessed its positive impact thousands of times during training sessions.

(Only one person has ever actually done the pushups—a particularly fit CEO who was training for a marathon and took a little break with fifty self-imposed pushups after a fifteen word answer that could have been answered with “yes” or “no.”)

When there is a word limit on answers, the person’s behaviour immediately changes. He or she listens more carefully, which never ceases to amaze me. Think about it. When there’s a limit on the length of the answer, people focus more attention on what’s being asked. Their listening skills improve.

The person answering the question communicates more effectively. There is no choice but to exactly and precisely meet the needs of the person asking. This creates a two-way, receiver-driven exchange that adheres to the principle of less is more—all of which are important to communicating effectively.

The person answering the question doesn’t have time to anticipate where questions are going. He or she deals with one question at a time. This prevents anticipating where the questions are ultimately going (which I often tell clients really only works if you are capable of reading minds).

I have used the ten-pushup rule as a training tool thousands of times. It has never failed to improve someone’s communication skills.

Limiting the length of answers will feel unnatural, certainly, but short answers can be significantly more effective in helping people grasp an idea, sort through technical information, or just generally better understand what you're trying to say.

Try it. During your next work-related conversation in which it seems the other person doesn’t understand, self-evoke the ten-pushup rule whenever they ask a question. Pause, and find a succinct answer to what the person is asking. Match the answer precisely to what’s being asked. (Of course, if you’re unsure of what someone is asking, seek clarification.) Answer the question asked, and only the question asked. Stop talking.

In the vast majority of cases, there is an inverse relationship between understanding and pushups. Whether you’re answering questions from a colleague trying to understand or many people during an important presentation, the fewer the pushups you’re required to do, the better the individual or members of the group will understand what it is you're trying to say.

All about the stories and discussion
Cover of the book One Bucket at a Time.
“I have to thank Eric Bergman for his book on rethinking how one does presentations.

“He has great examples and studies of how people process presentations. It is all about the stories and having a discussion, no matter how big the audience.

“I appreciated digging more into the why and how to do a better job onstage.

“Thanks, Eric.”

David Edelman
Former Fortune 50 CMO

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