Science teacher write scientific formulas and calculations in physics and mathematics on blackboard
In its simplest definition, quantum physics studies the smallest things in the universe and seeks to explain how everything works—how the particles of nature interact. It gets much more complicated from there.
That’s why I was intrigued by a recent article on the TED Talks blog about a physicist who explains how to communicate complex ideas to the average listener. The post is based on Dominic Walliman’s TEDx talk titled, “Quantum Physics for 7 Year Olds.”
Among Walliman’s tips: Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole.
“It’s better to explain, say, three things that someone will understand … rather than barrage them with a whole load of information,” says Walliman.
Walliman’s right and, not surprisingly, his tip is backed by science.
Regular readers of my column know that I’m a fan of using the rule of three in communication. Photographers and artists follow the rule of thirds, a guideline to compose images that make them visually appealing. The rule applies to effective communication, too. Simply put, in short-term memory we have the capacity to remember only three or four things.
The rule of three is prevalent in fairy tales (three little pigs, three bears), influential documents (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), works of literature and contemporary marketing. For example, this morning I poured almond milk on my cereal. The carton read: 3 Simple Reasons to Love Silk Almond milk (nutrition, taste, added calcium). Effective marketers know better than to bombard consumers with too much information. Three is a simple guideline.
The TED post uses the following example to show readers how saying less is more effective.
“Let’s say you and a friend are in an art museum. You see a painting you love — and one that you studied in college — but you can see that your friend doesn’t quite know what to make of it. You may feel tempted to explain every single thing you know about this particular work, telling her about the artist’s life and career, the materials and techniques used, the movement that the artist is part of, and so on…”
The article recommends that you focus on one, two or—at most—three interesting facts about the artist or the painting. Your friend will appreciate the insight without getting bored. Above all, resist the temptation to tell your listener everything you know. You might think it makes you sound smart, but it’ll put your listener to sleep.
In your next presentation, give your audience three reasons to listen to your pitch. Reveal three features of your new product. Explain three reasons why they should invest in your startup. Once you start adding too much information, you risk losing them completely.
“Most of us love to learn — but we can absorb only so much at a time. Avoid bombarding people with too much knowledge at once,” says Walliman. When it comes to communication, don’t feel as though you have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve known the rules of persuasion for thousands of years—and the rule of three is fundamental.