Leadership and influencing skills: Three tips for Patricia Hewitt

March 14, 2007

patriciahewitt99.jpgHealth Secretary Patricia Hewitt has a tough job. Her presentation style makes her job even tougher. A simple rule-of-three structure would substantially improve her style, and possibly her credibility as a leader.

It is a well-kept secret that the spontaneity of successful speakers often conceals careful preparation, and application of a centuries old rhetorical device known as the rule-of-three. It’s my starting point to discussions with young business leaders who have watched re-runs of their performances and who are looking for improvements in their communication skills.

Before introducing the rule-of-three

Patricia Hewitt gave a radio interview this morning. The Health Secretary has generally been rated as a poor communicator in political debates and in media discussions. I wondered whether this would be supported in the interview, and whether the approach recommended for business people could apply to political leaders.

The Health Secretary had been invited by Radio Five Live to comment on criticisms of the treatment received by patients in National Health surgeries. She would have expected a courteous but robust questioning, which was what she got.

What Patricia did next

First impressions count. The first question is often the opportunity for the interviewee to indicate the journey she would like to take the listeners on, and the map she will be using. The Health Secretary was asked whether she agreed that there was a lot of increased dissatisfaction with their experiences in their Heath Service surgeries.

What Patricia Hewitt did next was to begin a very long sentence indeed. I can’t remember much about it, and my account may well be distorted. If this was a description of a journey, it was a very long and convoluted description. Somewhere in the middle, there was a digression (still within the opening sentence) introduced by ‘what you have got to understand is’ . The same sort of digression, prefaced with the same ‘what you have got to understand is’ presented itself in a subsequent answer. Within the extended opening sentence there was a shift to episodic description of how Doctors really behaved (caringly). There was also some statistical stuff about customer satisfaction.

The interview continued as it had began. A rather short but direct question was followed by a very long and convoluted answer. And so on

What’s not working here, and what can be done about it?

As an academic lifer, I have a touching belief that everyone has potential to develop social skills such as communicating, and even in influencing others. This is why I start from the premise that even senior politicians can improve their performance. OK, some people believe they do not need any advice, as they’ve done pretty well anyway. That’s something else. I address the following to those who are interested, and who suspect they might benefit from a tried and trusted approach.

So, briefly, Patricia Hewitt’s communication style is too convoluted. That can be fixed by the rule-of-three (promise). She has been criticised for other aspects of her style, but a good starting point is the old slogan about keeping communications simple.

The rule of three (at last)

You will find it possible to structure an argument, however complex, by splitting it into three key points. [Note, Patricia, you do not have a stronger argument if you have not three but five, or six or seven points to make.] A slightly more complicated version is to split each of the three points into (up to) three sub-facets. Your first answer might outline three headlines. Your next answers would connect with questions asked, and deal with one point per answer.

Simple, but there’s great scope for creativity

The basis structure is simple, but open to great creativity to bend it and adapt in to your own stylistic preferences. In a speech you have more freedom, but an interview requires another layer of communication to link question and introduce the one point you choose to make.

Churchill tended to stick to the rule of three, but threw in components in his speeches with four or two key elements from time to time. But you’d know about all that, Patricia.

If I were Health Secretary …

Interviewer: People are describing the results of your changes as shambolic. What do you say to that?
HS: Thank you for giving me this chance to explain what’s really happening. Your listeners will have heard a lot already about the extra money we put into improving services [but I’m going to make that by first point anyway]. I’d like to concentrate on how that money has made things better [my second point], and say what will happen to make things even better [my third point, but I given a chance I have a sub-set of three points about why it’s not a shambles, but work in progress].

You’d be ripped to pieces by Jeremy Paxman for that

I’d be ripped to pieces by Roger Federer in Tennis; by Gary Kasparov at Chess, by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. So would Patricia Hewitt if she didn’t change her style. I just happen to think I have done a bit better at interviews when I fall back on the rule of three, often scribbled down on a visiting card, and mentally rehearsed before going live. I might have just used it again here, in the answer to my own question And I have seen improvements in performance of students and adults, from Bangalore to Brazil to Buffalo. Why not try it yourself, until practice makes permanent?


Here’s another posting today with a very different treatment, but the same basic message.

Some rare folks are pushy and opportunistic in their self-promotion. It’s as if they don’t know when they’re spouting off that the other person is a person at all ..