Early in my professional career someone, I can’t remember who, gave me a small piece of advice that I have carried around with me and use quite often. It’s a simple little tool that makes you look incredibly smart even when you are caught off guard by a question.
But before I bestow this little pearl of wisdom (for which I am sure you’ll thank your lucky stars you happened upon this blog) just a little background. Early in my career I seemed to be doing the usual job hopping thing and going on a lot of interviews. Like most people I was terrified of screwing up the interview and not getting the job. Being in IT, the field is usually quite competitive, so to land a good job you need to look sharp. The “Rule of Three” (as I call it) does just that. I attribute it with landing at least my last two jobs. But it is useful in many day-to-day situations as well. I guess to be honest, I’ve used it more outside the job interviewing process that within, but I think you’ll see it’s value shortly.
So let’s imagine you are in an interview and you are asked one of those questions that are just out of left field and you have no idea how to answer. For example, say they person says something like “who are your favorite sports heroes and why?” In your head, you are probably saying “what the hell is this guy talking about?” But instead of getting flustered and babbling like a loon, just look at them and simply say “I have three sports heroes….” and then list them off.
The trick is to say “I have three (fill in the blank here).” The blank is whatever question or topic the person asked about. It can be three of whatever they asks…favorite vegetables, personal achievements, disliked colors, grammatical errors, etc. It really doesn’t matter. The key is to state that you have three of whatever and to gesture the number three with your hand. Then explain the three items one at a time, calmly, and with enough detail to allow you time to think of the next one but keeping it concise as possible.
For example, it the question above, I would respond (and mind you, I am not a big sports fan) with something like this:
“I have three sports heroes. The first is Wayne Gretzky because of his skill as a player and his determination to be the best. The second is Walter Payton because of the love he gave to the game, his tenacity, and the way he treated others. And the third is, well, a team…the 1980’s U.S. Olympic Hockey team, because of their spirit and the way they never gave up even when faced with much tougher opponents.”
Now honestly, I just wrote that stream of conciseness style. I had no idea what I was going to write just now. I didn’t think about it and, except for editing the spelling and grammar, it is just as it came out.
I’m not sure how it works but it does. I have often put “on the spot” and used the “Rule of Three” successfully dozens of times and each time i develop more and more faith in the process. The key to it, I believe, is that the exercise focuses your mind on the subject and hand, breaks down the question into “chunks” that are easy to handle, allows you time to think about the points (while you are discussing the others), and makes it appear as though you are quite decisive, knowledgeable, and thoughtful about whatever subject you happened to be asked about.
The hand gesture indicating the number of items you have is useful because it helps you focus and not stray from the topic at hand. Additionally it helps you remember what the first two were when you get to the third in case you want to recap or they ask you about a particular point.
Of course, you can make it two or four or however many points you want, and I would encourage doing so (espicially if using the rule several times in succession, lest they think you’re some deranged person fixated on the number three like Jim Carey in “23”.) And practice youring the rule in non-critical situations. It’s kind of amazing how well it works and how easy it is to use.
Give it a try. What have you got to lose?
(I’ve got three things to lose…first, I have…)