Answering questions

The ten-pushup rule improves communication

Two people working as a team to do pushups together.
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.

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New book encourages less presentation, more conversation

One Bucket at a Time shares secrets to informing, educating, influencing and persuading any audience


“The central theme of this book that a presentation should be a conversation is ingenious. Humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to communicate by conversation. We are mentally structured to do so.

"For anyone seeking to set themselves and their ideas apart, this book is well worth the read. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

One Bucket Cover vF

John Sweller, PhD,
Emeritus Professor of Education,
University of New South Wales,
Sydney, Australia

Whether a presentation is delivered in the room or via Zoom, a new book is encouraging those conveying their ideas to embrace more conversation and less presentation. In this, the science is clear. It’s the best way to have those ideas received, understood, retained and acted upon by the audience.

One Bucket at a Time is based on the assumption that the only reason for bringing people together is to listen to someone share something of value.

“You can have a presentation without slides,” author Eric Bergman writes. “But you cannot have a presentation without a presenter. At its core, therefore, the effectiveness of any presentation can be measured by what makes it from the speaker’s vocal cords to the long-term memory of those in attendance.

“Once you understand that thought, it becomes evident that feeding into how people listen is the most critical presentation skill to develop.”

Using an analogy of a tank, bucket and trough, the book provides guidance into understanding and developing that critical skill. The tank is the information the presenter plans to get across to the audience. The trough is the collective long-term memory of those in attendance. The goal of any presentation should be to get as much sustenance as possible from tank to trough.

The only way that happens, however, is if the audience engages working memory to transfer those ideas into long-term memory one small bucket at a time.

“The challenge is that the bucket of working memory is incredibly small, more like a child’s sand bucket than a milk pail,” Bergman writes. “And it’s easily overloaded. When that occurs, information spills out, never to be remembered.”

Using a combination of cognitive science and common sense, One Bucket at a Time makes the case that the best way to get meaningful information from tank to trough is through a relaxed, conversational delivery. The audience needs silence, and lots of it, in order to empty working memory into long-term memory before being ready to fill the bucket again.

While most presentations focus solely on attempting to teach others, Bergman’s approach is different. He advocates helping the audience teach themselves. The audience should have plenty of opportunity to ask questions to fill in understanding, which are best answered clearly and concisely.

For Bergman, tapping the potential of presentations boils down to engagement, which he defines along a spectrum. Engagement begins when working memory passes ideas to long-term memory, one bucket at a time. At the other end of the spectrum are presentations after which the audience can effectively convey the presenter’s ideas to others.

Most presentations are not engaging. In the vast majority of cases, a mountain of auditory and visual information is sent, but little is retained as soon as the presentation concludes.

“Most presentations today are like playing tennis with someone who has a large basket of balls and isn’t going to stop serving until the basket is empty, regardless of whether you show any interest in hitting one back,” Bergman explains. “In such situations, if you came to practice service returns, you might be interested in playing along for a while. But if you came to play a game of tennis, it won’t take long before you find something else to do. And this is how most audiences react.

“If the audience is reading, writing, texting, scanning their social media feed, sending an e-mail or reading a document, they cannot be listening. And, ultimately, if they’re not listening, what on earth is the point?”

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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