This guest post is by Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science and a member of the editorial board of Cognitive Psychology. Follow him on Twitter at @abmarkman.

I have spent much of the past 10 years splitting my time between doing basic research on reasoning, decision making, and motivation and trying to spread the word to the business community about how understanding the science of the mind can make them more effective thinkers.

One of the most powerful principles that can help everyone work more efficiently is also one of the simplest: It’s called the Role of 3, and it reflects the fact that people remember roughly three distinct things from any event, lecture, meeting, book or article. This limitation arises because your memory wants to focus on interconnected facts, rather than distinct and independent pieces of information. There isn’t really a good way around this principle — it is one of those rules that needs to be respected rather than corrected.

Happily, respecting this rule is easy. Just focus your meetings and presentations on about three things. It’s OK if you occasionally go all the way up to four, but don’t push it.

What that looks like in practice:

  • Start every meeting and presentation with a brief description of the three things you are going to cover. This advance organizer gets everyone ready for what is going to happen. It prepares people to attach new information to what they already know, which is crucial for memory.
  • Focus the meeting on just those three items. Resist the urge to add new topics or to go off on tangents. If something new gets raised in a meeting, or if a new thought occurs to you while giving a presentation, decide whether it is urgent enough to add it immediately. If it isn’t, push it off until later.
  • Review the three key points. Make sure that you remind everyone what it is you wanted them to remember.

I know that your first reaction is going to be to look at this advice and say it’s common sense, that you already believe it to be true, and that you have heard it before.

But the real question is: Do you do it? I have lost count of the number of meetings I have attended in which the agenda is crammed until it is ready to burst. I frequently go to lectures — some of them by researchers who spend their lives studying human memory — in which the speaker makes eight different points in an hour and every person leaves the room with a different impression of what the talk was about.

Just respecting the power of the number 3 can make you and everyone around you smarter and more effective. Make sure that you seize control of what people remember about their encounters with you. Don’t leave the collective memory of your organization up to chance.

Image credit, scibak, via iStockPhoto

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13 Responses to “To run a good meeting, respect your 3s”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SBWorkforce, Art Markman. Art Markman said: RT @SBWorkforce: To run a good meeting, respect your 3s, by @abmarkman: http://ow.ly/2X4iP [...]

  2. Scott Asai says:

    Personally this has worked for me. I'd even say up the ante and go for two or better yet one. Someone told me if you have to talk about more than 3 things, split it up into multiple talks. It's not about how much the speaker knows, it's about how much the audience can retain.

  3. This makes a lot of sense. I try to keep things succinct when presenting information. People tend to respond better than with information overload.

  4. Erin Lynn Young says:

    I think these are great guideposts for presentations in which one or more people are sharing information that the audience needs to remember. In a discussion-style meeting where minutes are taken about the decisions made, it may be less important for all to recall everything that took place.

  5. Beth Cady says:

    I've been advocating for single topic presentations, too. I think it becomes increasingly difficult for people to focus because multitasking has just made us all more distractable. Use the time that could be devoted to 3 and make the 1 all the more compelling.

  6. Deepak says:

    Excellent , 3 is the most powerful of nos and if you read a thing three times you sure are to understand it better and in full almost

  7. Gan says:

    Time is a precious commodity. Normally it is very difficult to get people to meet at the same time and when we are able to do so, we will try to cover many items within a short time. So… how can we achieve that?

    • Art Markman says:

      Not everything that you cover in a meeting necessarily needs to happen in a meeting. Often, there are a few agenda items that are announcements and other heads-up items that can be given out as a handout or sent by other channels.

      To my mind, if it is hard to get people together, that is all the more reason to make sure that people leave the meeting with the best possible chance to remember the key points.

  8. Carolyn Davis says:

    What are you talking about? How does it impact me today? How will it impact me tomorrow?

  9. [...] It is because our minds cannot concentrate and process more than three things at once, writes Art Markman a professor of psychology and marketing at the university of Texas in Austin in a guest blog in SmartBlog on workforce. [...]

  10. I am not sure about the number of points to be addressed in one meeting, but i do agree that lesser is better. And another point to keep in mind is to keep things clear and direct. Rambling on about one point without clearly defining it serves no purpose.

    Great post. Let's hope more people incorporate this in their work.

    - Sindoora (http://www.beyondhorizons.in)

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