Monday, 26 November 2012

Say What You Suppose in a Single Sentence

I’ve enthused before on the virtues of thinking by hypothesis: starting with a supposition that we hold lightly and challenge hard.  This approach prompts us to be open-minded, and helps make our thinking clear and just.  It helps us to be Columbo, not the rigid, narrow minded local cop.
A golden rule helps us check we’re clear in this hypothesising.  The rule also gives others a chance of understanding, and even remembering, our supposition.  Here’s the rule: state the hypothesis in one sentence.  That’s right, one sentence, starting with a capital letter and ending in a full stop.  “We should buy the company.” “It was the butler whodunnit.” “The team with the most money always wins the championship.”
One reason for using this single sentence rule is circular, but it’s important if you’ve never thought about what a sentence is.  A sentence is the smallest unit we can use, in speaking or writing, to convey a complete thought.  A hypothesis is a complete thought.  So a good check that I’m conveying one complete thought is whether I can state it in one sentence and capture the entire thing.  If I can’t summarise my hypothesis in a sentence, chances are it’s a part thought or more than one thought.  This is circular reasoning, but a proper useful check.
Clear and complete isn’t enough for us, however.  We also want our hypothesis to be elegant and memorable.  The distillation of our thoughts down into that one clear, crisp encapsulating statement is a thing of beauty.  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.” “(We accept) No taxation without representation.”  One sentence captures the complete thought in a nutshell.  We can convey one sentence to others, and they can describe it to their own hordes of acolytes.  By using a single sentence, we minimise the confusion that comes with added information.
There does come a point in our distillation when we sacrifice some completeness to have a useful sentence. It takes judgement here to capture enough of the main idea, while being concrete and not reverting to generic drivel.  “We should only invest in education software, in segments where there’s more than 100 large customers,” might not capture every feasible scenario that we could consider, but it’s much more useful than “we should prioritise resources to maximise shareholder value.” 90% accurate whilst still saying something is better than 100% motherhood.
And I wasn’t kidding when I said the sentence needs to be a complete one.  Part sentences leave you hanging; and those multiple part sentences we all employ when holding forth are exhausting.  Here’s Flora Finching, the beauty from Little Dorrit pictured above:
“Indeed I have little doubt,” said Flora, running on with astonishing speed, and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, “that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I am sure than that the Chinese lady should accept you and think herself very well off too, I only hope she's not a Pagodian dissenter.”
Confused?  Exhausted?  That’s exactly what you’re doing to your listener as you pile on the phrases when describing your big idea.
I’m not saying that one sentence is always enough to describe everything you need to describe.  If it were, then we’d only need Twitter for all our communication, Haiku poems could double as text books, and this article would consist of eight words.  But I am saying that one complete sentence, our hypothesis, should sit at the top of the hierarchy of our thinking on a matter.  Everything else either supports, challenges or illustrates that one complete thought, such as “Here’s more precisely what I mean by compulsory cat ownership,” “here are five reasons I think it’s a good idea,” or “here’s an example of it in action.”  If an extra sentence doesn’t support or illustrate or challenge the hypothesis, “dogs are good too,” then it’s extraneous.  The extraneous sentence may be brilliant in its own right, but it’s a different thought for a different day.
Stating our supposition in one sentence doesn’t only help our own musings.  We can use the same approach to check we understand someone else’s point, and to clarify their main thesis.  When we do this, just as when we do it on ourselves, it’s amazing how much chaff there is amongst the wheat of the argument; how what seems like one argument is actually five different ones.  This one sentence summary is possible with the longest, most meandering, tomes.  
War & Peace: “Life is complicated.”
The Old Testament: “Do what God says or you’re in deep trouble.”
The New Testament: "Love God and each other, and you'll be fine."
Atlas Shrugged: “Big government is a bad thing.”
The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich: “Hitler’s military strategy was daring, but doomed from the start.”
The UK Tax Guide: “We’ve got a thousand ways to get our 50%, so stop wriggling and cough up.”
It’s much easier to do this with someone else’s thoughts than our own, but it’s good practice for the bigger, humbling challenge of distilling our complex brilliance into a few little words.
I wonder if you could summarise the hypothesis of this article?  The clue’s in the title.

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