The power of 5

“The trouble is if you don’t spend your life yourself, other people spend it for you.” Peter Shaffer, Five Finger Exercise: A Play

I was asked recently to try to help some graduates in my organisation prepare for a training course. The course was entitled “Personal Impact” and it concerned your own personal impact in business. As the course outline stipulated:

“….designed to help the Graduates be more self-aware and therefore, help them understand how they can capitalise on their personal strengths to make an impact in the business. During the module they will learn their individual Myers Briggs personality type, understand how to adapt their style to get the best out of different situations and influence others in the business.”

The grads asked me, as their mentor, for advice as to their current personal impact and style. As I prepared to share my perceptions with them, I realised that in order for them to be able to get the most from the feedback and also from the course, that they needed a short concise list of feedback items. I wanted to make sure that the feedback was positive and insightful. Not negative, or pointed. Helpful and honest.

There is a raft of publications and articles that talk to the optimum number of items or chunks of information that you should give. From Wikipedia, you can see:

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.It was published in 1956 by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University’s Department of Psychology in Psychological Review. It is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. This is frequently referred to as Miller’s Law.

I have spent many years in business, preparing and giving presentations and talks. I have also worked  with and managed a lot of people and had to give and receive feedback. I have learnt that the optimum number of topic items to talk to in a presentation and also the optimum number of feedback items to give is 5. Yes. 5. People tend to get lost if there are more than five topics or items of feedback. I have tried to give 7 or more and you can see people getting confused. So I would challenge Miller’s Law and state that the optimum is 5.

Anyway, back to the grads. Both of them have great skills and capabilities. Both are different. For example. One item we talked about was how they verbally communicated. One is quiet and thinks before speaking. This can give the impression of being a thoughtful person, but also can mean that the conversation has moved on before they have a chance to contribute. The other chatters away, vocalising their thoughts as they go. This can give the impression that they are always contributing to the conversation, However, they can also give the impression of being a “chatterbox” and not prepared to listen.

Neither approach is wrong. As I said to them, “you have used your individual skills to great success and have achieved much in your lives so far. But, perhaps we can work on some tips to help going forward.”

Both of them recognised and knew of their own abilities. However, rather than just recognising them, I wanted to give them a couple of tips to help them. I had prepared a list for each grad and made sure that there was only 5 items on the list for each of them. Alongside each of the item, I listed the positive, as well as the challenge. And then an alternative approach. Some very quick tips, but they really appreciated the feedback. A couple of examples are listed below:

 Observation: Talks too much.

    1. Positive: You can follow their thought process
    2. Challenge: Can mean they don’t listen
    3. Suggestion: Pause for a second and write down query


Observation: Too quiet in meetings

    1. Positive: When they contribute, the question is well thought out and insightful
    2. Challenge: Can mean they miss out as the conversation moves on. Can be overlooked as a contributor to the meeting
    3. Suggestion: Prepare before the meeting, based on the topics, suggestions and thoughts. In effect, pre-work


I checked in with them after they had attended the course. Their feedback was that the feedback was extremely helpful. They completed a Myers Briggs assessment on their preferred personality type [I guessed correctly their types!]. They also did assessments of the types of engagement to expect in business. I’ll follow up in a separate article on the tools & techniques to use in this space.

I really do believe in the power of 5. Whether it is used as the formation of the content of a presentation, or used as a feedback tool.


A great quote to finish today, enjoy…….

“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.” Ellen DeGeneres

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