Ten Word Answers Can Kill You

Ten word answers can kill you in political campaigns, they’re the tip of the sword. But what are the next ten words of your answer? Give me the next ten words about how we’re going to do it and I’ll drop out of the race right now…”. President Bartlett (The West Wing)





Sales trainer Dale Carnegie once hosted a series of leadership seminars in New York for business professionals, teachers and service men, where he taught them the art of public speaking. He covered the science of storytelling, the correct use of rhetoric, how to turn a speech into a performance and the importance of body language, tone and sentiment.


But the most important part of his seminar covered attention spans. He asked the delegates “How do you speak not just so that others will listen, but so that they will remember?”. Attention spans are everything. And so at the end of each seminar, before anyone could leave with their course certificate and a copy of his book, they had to perform an exercise.


At the end of the day, people are not persuaded by what you say but by what they understand”. Dale Carnegie


In 75 seconds of less, they had to give a speech that was compelling and memorable. “You need to educate and entertain as well as inspire and inform” he told his audience. And so they did, each taking to the stage after carefully crafting their short story.


Dale was passionate about this because he believed that the average attention span most people was 75 seconds or less.


The year was 1919.




Funny isn’t it, how the more things change, the more they stay the same?


One hundred years ago we were talking about the need to communicate big ideas in small words and short sentences. Political speechwriters today call this device the “ten word answer”.


I was at a conference interviewing the Chief Strategy Officer of Google recently and she told me how they were working on some research commissioned by YouTube around the “value of a view”. The core of the research focused on B2B content where the average attention span on an executive was around 75 seconds.


I’m not talking about advertising messages here, before anyone throws around the “6 second attention span of a human is shorter than a goldfish” line. Firstly, that’s a dumb statistic (and it’s probably far less than 6 seconds anyway). But I’m talking here about how you talk to someone when they’ve asked you a question or when they are searching to understand more about a topic.


Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Einstein


Simplifying complexity is hard.


Talking for just a couple of minutes is really hard. (It’s no coincidence that the greatest speech of all time according to many speech writers is President Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address – because it is 272 words and less than 3 minutes long).


Not too long ago I worked with a West Wing speech writer on a 3 minute talk about AI. It took us over 8 hours to write my speech. 470 words. We spent a couple of hours on the first 2 sentences. 120 minutes to write 18 seconds of content. To this day, it’s probably the best speech I’ve ever given.


Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 13.02.55

(More about how I write keynotes here if you’re interested in the “shape” of this talk).


Ask an expert to explain the ethics of artificial intelligence, the basics of climate science or how blockchain works and most of them provide you with a lengthy answer full of facts and figures. It will be accurate. It will be important. It will certainly be relevant. But it will probably be really dull and you will have forgotten most of almost immediately.


But ask a good communicator to do the same, and they will give you a 75 second answer. TV presenters, magazine writers and good tabloid journalists are brilliant at this. They can tell you everything you need to know in 75 seconds or less. Or more precisely, based upon the speed that the average person talks, they can give you a 180 word answer that will consist of 3 x 60 word segments. That’s not just a beginning, a middle and an end but a short story told in three “acts” of 25 seconds each.




The three act structure is the concept behind all great storytelling and is even older than Dale Carnegie’s seminar. It is the model that Aaron Sorkin uses to write all his plays, movies and TV shows and is structure which all good stage plays employ (not to mention TV ads, TED talks and the best movies) was created by Aristotle in 335BC in a superb document called “Poetics“. Aristotle was the Greek god of storytelling and can tell you everything you ever need to know about the art of communicating big ideas in small words and short sentences.


“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”.


If you spend as much time obsessed with this concept as I do, you’ll discover that the most powerful short stories (told in 75 seconds or less) consist of 2 or 3 ten word statements and a few sentences of content and explanation.


Having a few ten word quotes up your sleeve to use at just the proper occasion is a wonderful thing.


Because ten word quotes are memorable.


They look good on t-shirts, bumper stickers and Instagram.


But the problem with most ten word quotes is that they have little meaning on their own.



Roger Hallam (co-founder of Extinction Rebellion) fell foul of this on BBC’s Hard Talk recently when he used a ‘ten word device’ to discuss the climate crisis.


I am talking about the slaughter, death, and starvation of 6 billion people this century—that’s what the science predicts.” Roger Hallam (BBC News, 17th August 2019)


The problem with that statement, even though it DID make all the headlines the next day as he intended, was that it just wasn’t true. It was a ten word device used to manipulate the media. It was not followed by another ten words of sources. Or ten words after that to explain the credibility of those sources. A real shame since Extinction Rebellion are an outstanding social movement, but it only takes a few bad notes from people to dismiss everything else that they say. (Note: Ten word devices is a phrase as much as it is an accurate word count for speech writers!)


In business today, we also like to focus on pithy quotes and punchy headlines. In politics too just look at the circus surrounding President Trump or Brexit. “Ten word quotes (or tweets) can kill you in political campaigns”. But we must remember that it’s not the ten word quotes that inspire people to act. Dale Carnegie would have said, “They may entertain you, but they don’t educate you“. It’s the next ten words that explain why you do what you do. And the ten words after that which explain how you’re going to do it.


I love this idea so much that I created a podcast called “Ten Words” where I look behind the scenes at famous people and the ten word quotes that inspired them. The podcast was inspired by that clip from the West Wing and Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (the greatest business book of all time in my opinion).


I think we all need to improve how we talk about big ideas using small words and short sentences. And the better we become at doing it, the more people we will educate, entertain, inform and inspire along the way.


Ten Words.


  • You can change the world just by sharing your story”. President Barack Obama
  • A good human plus a machine is the best combination”. Garry Kasparov
  • The road less traveled is less traveled for a reason”. Jerry Seinfeld
  • Happiness and confidence are the prettiest things you can wear”. Taylor Swift
  • You can’t save the world by playing by the rules”. Greta Thunberg
  • It’s really important to remind ourselves that impossible things happen”. Commander Chris Hadfield
  • Nothing stays the same and it can’t remain the same”. Sir David Attenborough
  • The story doesn’t really begin until you’ve introduced the intention”. Aaron Sorkin