Stick to the 18-Minute Rule

I’m both challenged and excited. My excitement is, I get to give something back. My challenge is, the shortest seminar I usually do is fifty hours.

THE UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO ECONOMICS professor Larry Smith gives three-hour lectures. In November 2011 he gave a 15-minute talk for a TEDx audience. He had no idea it would be viewed nearly 1.5 million times. “For me, it was a personal challenge to condense my content into 18 minutes,” Smith told me. “I think my students asked me to do it because they thought it would kill me!”1

Why do you think the 18-minute rule works so well?” I asked Smith.

“Thinking is hard work. In 18 minutes you can make a powerful argument and attract people’s attention.”

Yes, thinking is hard work, and that’s why the 18-minute rule is critical to the transfer of ideas. A TED presentation must not exceed 18 minutes in length. It’s a fundamental rule that applies to all TED speakers. It doesn’t matter if you’re Larry Smith, Bill Gates, or Tony Robbins—18 minutes is all you get.

Secret #7: Stick to the 18-Minute Rule

Eighteen minutes is the ideal length of time for a presentation. If you must create one that’s longer, build in soft breaks (stories, videos, demonstrations) every 10 minutes.

Why it works: Researchers have discovered that “cognitive backlog,” too much information, prevents the successful transmission of ideas. TED curator Chris Anderson explained it best:

It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.2


Dr. Paul King at Texas Christian University has been an influential scholar in the field of communication studies for 30 years. I spoke to King about his research into “state anxiety in listening performance.” Most of us believe that anxiety impacts only the person giving the speech or presentation. Dr. King has discovered that audience members feel anxiety, too.

“We studied research participants—college students—who listened to information knowing that they will be asked questions about it afterwards. As time went on, their state anxiety levels just went up and up and up until after they took the test. Then their anxiety level dropped off,”3 King said. According to King, the accumulation of information results in “cognitive backlog,” which, like piling on weights, makes the mental load heavier and heavier. “As more and more stuff you need to remember piles on, it creates greater and greater pressure and pretty soon you’re going to drop it all.”

King says that cognitive processing—thinking, speaking, and listening—are physically demanding activities. “I was on the debate team in high school. I also played basketball. I was able to run up and down the court all day long. I reached the finals of my first debate tournament and had a series of three debates. After I finished I could hardly move. I climbed into an old yellow school bus, fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until I reached home. That was strange for me. If you’re really concentrating, critical listening is a physically exhausting experience. Listening as an audience member is more draining than we give it credit for.”

King says that listening is an exhausting activity because the learner is continually adding material to be remembered—retrieved—later. This is what he means by “cognitive backlog.” Simply put, the longer the task or the more information that is delivered, the greater the cognitive load. Listening to a five-minute presentation produces a relatively small amount of cognitive backlog; an 18-minute presentation produces a little more, while a 60-minute presentation produces so much backlog that you risk seriously upsetting your audience unless you create a very engaging presentation with “soft breaks”—stories, videos, demonstrations, or other speakers.

The longer the presentation, the more the listener has to organize, comprehend, and remember. The burden increases along with a listener’s anxiety. They become increasingly frustrated, even angry. King says the bulk of current research into memory processing suggests that it’s better to study content on two or three occasions for a short period of time instead of spending an entire evening cramming. “What I’m suggesting is that once you make a point, if you just beat the point to death you’re not really helping people to process it better and to store the content away in long-term memory.”

King applies the results to his graduate class on research methods. If given a choice, most graduate students would rather attend a single three-hour class than three 50-minute classes. When King taught his class once a week, he found that the students returned for the next class having lost most of the information they had learned the prior week. King discovered the “better practice” was to schedule the same content on three separate occasions, such as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. King said that despite objections, when he made the class mandatory across three shorter segments his students scored better and exhibited a better retention of the complex material.


Both professors Smith and King allude to the amount of energy it takes to listen and learn. The brain gets tired easily. Remember how exhausted you felt after the first day in a new job or after hours of studying a complicated manual for the first time? High school students call the exhaustion they feel after taking college-entrance exams the “SAT hangover.” It takes energy to process new information.

Learning can be draining. The average adult human brain weighs only about three pounds, but it’s an energy hog, consuming an inordinate amount of glucose, oxygen, and blood flow. As the brain takes in new information, millions of neurons are firing at once, burning energy and leading to fatigue and exhaustion.

In Willpower, author Roy Baumeister explains that we have a finite amount of willpower each day, which becomes depleted as our brains consume more energy. He found that completely unrelated activities (resisting chocolate, working on math puzzles, listening to a presentation) drew on the same source of energy. This helps to explain why we’re so tired, especially later in the day, after we’ve been making decisions all morning or trying to suppress distractions (like the tempting piece of pie for lunch).

The culprit is glucose, or lack of it. Glucose is a simple sugar manufactured in the body from all kinds of foods. It enters the bloodstream and acts as fuel for the muscles, which include your heart, liver, and brain. Glucose enters your brain after being converted into neurotransmitters, chemicals your brain cells use to send signals to one another.

Baumeister talks about a series of experiments designed to measure glucose levels in people before and after doing simple tasks, such as watching a video while words were flashed at the bottom of the screen. “Some people were told to ignore the words; others were free to relax and watch however they wanted. Afterward, glucose levels were measured again, and there was a big difference. Levels remained constant in relaxed viewers but dropped significantly in the people who’d been trying to avoid the words. That seemingly small exercise in self-control was associated with a big drop in the brain’s fuel of glucose.”4

A long, confusing, meandering presentation forces your listener’s brain to work hard and to consume energy. Your brain cells need twice as much energy as other cells in your body. Mental activity rapidly depletes glucose. That’s why an 18-minute presentation works so well. It leaves your audience with some brainpower and glucose remaining to think about your presentation, share your ideas, and act on them. Talk for too long and your audience will find ways to distract themselves from your content. When is the last time you saw college students so inspired by a three-hour lecture that they raced back to their dorms to study the topic in more depth? It doesn’t happen. Instead they head to the nearest pizza joint or beer hall to commiserate about their shared misfortune and to change the subject. Eighteen minutes is thought-provoking. Three hours is mind-numbing.

I’ve spent considerable time in this chapter explaining the science behind the 18-minute rule. I feel as though I need to. Keeping presentations on the shorter side elicits the strongest reaction from many of the CEOs and business professionals whom I’ve worked with. I often hear the lament, “But, Carmine, we have too much information to deliver!” Once people understand the science and logic behind the 18-minute rule and the concept of soft breaks, they are much more willing to consider shortening their presentations. Once they do, they find that their creative juices are unleashed. You see, creativity thrives under constraints.


Constraints are key to a creative presentation. I’m often asked, “How long should my presentation be?” I believe the Goldilocks zone is a very TED-like 18 to 20 minutes. It’s not too short and not too long. It’s just the right amount of time in which to persuade your audience. If it’s shorter, some members of your audience (especially investors, clients, and customers) might not feel that they received enough information. Any longer, however, and you risk losing the attention of your audience.

I often use John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech as a guide to presentation length. Since Kennedy inspired the nation in a 15-minute inaugural speech, you should be able to pitch your product or idea in the same amount of time. Kennedy instructed speechwriter Ted Sorensen to keep it brief because “I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag.” The result was one of the shortest inaugural addresses up to that point in history—1,355 words. Kennedy realized that capturing the imagination of his audience required a strong delivery, carefully crafted sentences, and a reasonably short speech (the average length of presidential inaugural speeches is 2,300 words).

Kennedy’s inaugural speech is an excellent example of a short, inspiring message. A more instructive example is an influential though lesser-known speech that Kennedy gave at Rice University on September 12, 1962. It was there that Kennedy outlined his vision to explore the moon. When Kennedy challenged America to “go to the moon” by the end of the decade, he galvanized the collective imagination of millions of Americans as well as thousands of its top scientists to put their time and energy into the effort. It was one of the most important speeches in American history. At 17 minutes and 40 seconds, Kennedy’s speech would have made the ultimate TED talk.

Some people might argue, “I have too much to say. I can’t possibly deliver all the information in 20 minutes.” Try to do it anyway. Your presentation will be far more impactful and creative simply by going through the exercise.

In The Laws of Subtraction, Matthew May explains the science behind it. According to May, “Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints.”5 May persuasively argues that by establishing a boundary or limit to your presentation, you provide a focus and a framework for creativity to flourish. “Recent studies offer evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the main event of the imagination—creativity—does not require unrestrained freedom; rather, it relies on limits and obstacles.”

May believes that the law of subtraction positively impacts nearly every aspect of our lives, not just presentation design and public speaking. What isn’t there often trumps what is. “When you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens,” says May.

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work—unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms—haikus, sonatas, religious paintings—are fraught with constraints.”
—Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO

TED talks have been viewed more than one billion times, proving that a “constrained” presentation is often more inspiring, creative, and engaging than longer, meandering presentations that are boring, confusing, and convoluted.


A simple explanation of a complex topic gives the audience confidence in the speaker’s mastery of the subject. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Einstein would have been proud of David Christian, who, in March 2011, narrated the complete history of the universe for a TED audience and took all of 18 minutes to do it (17 minutes and 40 seconds, to be exact).

Christian told me that he teaches a world-history course that examines the entire history of the universe—from the Big Bang 13 billion years ago to today. The Big History course is offered by The Teaching Company in a series of 48 half-hour lectures. Christian’s deep understanding of the subject helped him condense the content into just the right amount of time to grab the audience’s attention and inspire them to take better care of our fragile planet. “I’ve been teaching Big History now for over 20 years, so I have a pretty good feel for the story and that means I can tell it in many different versions,”6 Christian told me.

E. F. Schumacher, economist and author of Small Is Beautiful, once said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Courage is the key word. It takes courage to keep things simple. It takes courage to put one picture on a PowerPoint slide instead of filling it with tiny text that most people in the audience won’t even be able to read. It takes courage to reduce the number of the slides in a presentation. It takes courage to speak for 18 minutes instead of rambling on for much longer. Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Be sophisticated. Keep your presentations and pitches short and simple.

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”
—Henry David Thoreau


All the science behind the importance of conciseness is interesting, but it doesn’t mean much unless you can apply it to improve the impact of your pitch or presentation. How can you condense your knowledge into an 18-minute presentation? Understanding the rule of three will help. The rule of three simply means that people can remember three pieces of information really well; add more items and retention falls off considerably. It’s one of the most powerful concepts in writing and communication. I’ve used the rule of three very successfully with communicators in nearly every industry. It works for me every time, and it works for some of the most popular TED talks.

Neil Pasricha’s blog covers a lot of ground. It’s dedicated to “1,000 awesome things” such as snow falling on Christmas, your birthday landing on a weekend, someone naming their kid after you, etc. The simple blog idea landed Pasricha a book deal, 25,000 Twitter followers, and a TEDx talk in Toronto that has attracted more than one million views. In this presentation Pasricha did not attempt to cover all 1,000 small things that make life worth living. Instead he focused on three secrets—all starting with the letter A—to leading a life that’s truly rewarding. He titled the presentation, “The 3 A’s of Awesome.”

The Three A’s of Awesome

In an intensely personal talk Pasricha told a story about his life in 2008. It wasn’t going well. His wife sat him down one day and said, “I don’t love you anymore.”7 It was the most heartbreaking thing he had ever heard, until a month later, when he got more bad news. “My friend Chris had been battling mental illness for some time … he took his own life.”

As the “dark clouds” were circling him, Pasricha logged on to a computer and started a tiny Web site to force himself to think about positive things. The exercise put him in a better mood, but he didn’t think anything of it because 50,000 blogs are started each day. The blog, 1000awesomethings.com, quickly became popular, however, and one day Pasricha received a call from someone who said, “You’ve just received the best blog in the world award.” “That sounds totally fake,” Pasricha said as the audience laughed. It wasn’t fake. He accepted a Webby Award for best blog. When he returned to Toronto, ten literary agents were eager to represent him. The book he eventually wrote, The Book of Awesome, hit the bestseller list for 20 straight weeks.

The Three A’s of Awesome that Pasricha shared with the TEDx audience that day were: attitude, awareness, authenticity. He spoke briefly about each one. On attitude, Pasricha said we are all going to have bumps in the road, but we have two choices on how to face them. “One, you can swirl and twirl and gloom and doom forever, or two, you can grieve and then face the future with newly sober eyes. Having a great attitude is about choosing option number two, and choosing, no matter how difficult it is, no matter what pain hits you, choosing to move forward and move on and take baby steps into the future.”

On awareness, Pasricha encouraged his listeners to embrace their inner three-year-old. “That three-year-old boy is still part of you. That three-year-old girl is still part of you. They’re in there. And being aware is just about remembering that you saw everything you’ve seen for the first time once, too.”

On authenticity: “It’s just about being you and being cool with that. And I think when you’re authentic, you end up following your heart, and you put yourself in places and situations and in conversations that you love and that you enjoy. You meet people that you like talking to. You go places you’ve dreamt about. And you end up following your heart and feeling very fulfilled.”

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two

Pasricha intuitively understood and leveraged this powerful communication technique: The rule of three. Simply put, the human mind can consume only about three “chunks” of information in short-term, or working, memory. As more and more items are added to a list, the average person retains less and less. Four items are a bit harder to remember than three. Five items are even harder. Once the number of items on a list hits eight, most people have little chance of remembering the entire sequence.

In 1956, Bell Labs reached out to Harvard professor George Miller, who published a classic paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Miller found that most people have a hard time remembering more than seven pieces of new information. Now you know why phone numbers are seven digits. Contemporary scientists, however, have put the number of items we can easily recall in short-term closer to three or four chunks of information. Think about it. When someone leaves a phone number on a voice message, you’re likely to recall the number by “chunking” the number into two parts—one section made up of three digits, the other comprising the remaining four digits.

The Rule of Three Pervades Our Daily Lives

Every July fourth America celebrates the three inalienable rights voiced in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life, liberty, and happiness might very well be the three most important words in American history. The words are so eloquent, so impactful, that they warrant their own Wikipedia page. According to Wikipedia, some consider the phrase one of “the most well-crafted, influential sentences in the history of the English language.” Those three words inspired other countries, most notably France, to seek its own freedoms from oppression and to delineate the rights of its citizens into groups of three. The French motto “liberty, equality, and fraternity” traces its origin to the French Revolution. The list of countries that were directly inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence is so large, I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that those three words might very well be the most important three words in human history.

Why did Jefferson choose three rights instead of, say, twelve? Jefferson was a skilled writer and his famous phrase reflects a rhetorical technique that can be traced to ancient Greece—a figure of speech using three words to express one idea.

The rule of three pervades every aspect of our business and social lives. In literature you’ll find three little pigs, three musketeers, and three wishes granted to an ambitious Aladdin. Painters are familiar with the three primary colors; they know their three secondary colors, too. In science, Newton discovered three laws and scientists discovered three elements that make up the atom. At the dinner table, you’ll find three pieces of cutlery: spoon, knife, fork. The flag of the United States of America has three colors, as do the flags of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Argentina, the Russian Federation, Nepal, and many others. There are three medals in the Olympics. Three wise men appeared with three gifts for baby Jesus. Jesus himself is part of the holy trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The rule of three helped get U.S. president Barack Obama elected; “Yes we can,” voters chanted. Some of the world’s most famous brands are ING, UPS, IBM, SAP, CNN, and the BBC. Three is everywhere.

In writing and speaking, three is more satisfying than any other number. It’s no accident that threes are all around us. It worked for Jefferson, it worked for the world’s greatest writers, and it works for many TED speakers. Dr. Jill, who delivered the second-most-popular presentation in TED history, divided her talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” into three parts, each lasting six minutes. By doing so, the presentation was easier for her to remember and deliver, and it made the presentation easier for the audience to follow. Here are some other examples of the rule of three in TED presentations.

TED Talkers Who Talk in Threes

You’ll recall Kevin Allocca from chapter 6, the YouTube trends manager who gets paid to watch videos. Actually he studies the viral nature of popular videos. Allocca says 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute and only a tiny percentage go viral, generating millions of views in a short period of time.

“So how does it happen? Three things: tastemakers, communities of participation and unexpectedness,”8 Alloca began. In his 10-minute presentation, Allocca offered marketers valuable information and, by dividing his presentation into three areas, made the material easy to remember.

Allocca isn’t the only TED speaker who divides content into three. Don Norman explained three ways design makes you happy. Tom Wujec talked about the three ways the brain creates meaning. V. S. Ramachandran revealed the three clues to understanding your brain. Tim Leberecht discussed the three ways brands lose control of their identity. Ric Elias talked about the three things he learned when his plane crashed. Mikko Hypponen revealed the three types of ways crooks can steal your digital data. Dan Ariely offered three irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal. There’s even a three-minute TED talk—“TED in 3 Minutes”—featuring snack-size nuggets of inspiration from Arianna Huffington, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue, and Terry Moore, who gave the first-ever three-minute TED talk and showed the audience a better way to tie their shoes. The “shoe talk” has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. People want to be taught something new and they don’t want to wait too long to learn it!


In the spirit of the rule of three, many effective TED presenters and TED-worthy presenters use three stories as the outline for their presentations. Here is one example followed by a detailed explanation of how to create an outline of your own.

Three Stories of Eco-Entrepreneurship

Majora Carter says she likes to create an environment where all dreams can thrive. Carter has built a reputation as an expert in green infrastructure and how it can revitalize inner cities like the South Bronx, South Chicago, or New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Carter’s 2006 TED talk titled “Greening the Ghetto” was one of the first TED talks to be posted online. Four years later, Carter was invited to give a TEDx Midwest presentation on the topic of eco-entrepreneurship. Since she had only 18 minutes, she decided to tell three stories; stories of three people who didn’t know one another but who “had an awful lot in common.”9

Carter first told the story of Brenda Palms-Farber, who created a business that makes skin-care products from honey. She hired “seemingly unemployable” men and women, many of whom had prison records, to do the beekeeping and harvesting. Her products are sold at Whole Foods. Best of all, less than 4 percent of the people she hires go back to jail.

Carter’s second story was about a man in Los Angeles, Andy Lipkis, who convinced the city to replace millions of dollars’ worth of asphalt with grass and trees for inner-city schools. Lipkis “linked trees, people, and technology to create a more livable city.”

The protagonist in Carter’s final story was a coal miner’s daughter—not Loretta Lynn, but Judy Bonds—who introduced wind energy as a power source for her hometown in West Virginia. After Carter explained Bonds’s plan, she paused and delivered the bad news: “A few months ago, Judy was diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer. And it has since moved to her bones and her brain. And I just find it so bizarre that she’s suffering from the same thing that she tried so hard to protect people from. But her dream of Coal River Mountain Wind is her legacy. And she might not get to see that mountaintop. But rather than writing some kind of manifesto or something, she’s leaving behind a business plan to make it happen.”

Carter tied the three stories together with a central theme: “They all understand how to productively channel dollars through our local economies to meet existing market demands, reduce the social problems that we have now, and prevent new problems in the future.”

Three stories. Three examples. Three lessons that reinforce Carter’s theme.

Build a Message Map in Three Easy Steps.

I wrote the popular Forbes column “How to Pitch Anything in 15 Seconds.”10 I introduced readers to an effective tool called a message map—perfect for a pitch or presentation. The technique helps to keep your content clear and concise, but it doesn’t work unless you understand the rule of three.

A message map is the visual display of your idea on one page. It is a powerful tool that should be a part of your communication arsenal. Building a message map can help you pitch anything (a product, service, company, or idea) in as little as 15 seconds or to shape the framework for a longer, 18-minute presentation. Here is the three-step process for using a message map to build a winning pitch. For this exercise you will need a notepad, Word document, PowerPoint slide, or whiteboard.

Step One: Create a Twitter-Friendly Headline

As you’ll recall from chapter 4, the headline is the one single overarching message that you want your customers to know at the end of your presentation. Ask yourself, “What is the single most important thing I want my listener to know about my [product, service, brand, idea]?” Draw a circle at the top of the message map (or page) and insert the answer to this question—this is your headline. Remember to make sure your headline fits in a Twitter post (no more than 140 characters). If you cannot explain your product or idea in 140 characters or less, go back to the drawing board.

Step Two: Support the Headline with Three Key Messages

As we discussed earlier in this chapter, the human mind can process only about three pieces of information in short-term memory. When you’re designing a presentation outline, include the three supporting messages that support the overall theme. You’ll recall that Dr. Jill divided her popular TED talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” into three sections that lasted six minutes each: the circuitry of the brain, the day of the stroke, and the insight the experience offered about life, the world, and her place in it.

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7.1: Message Map Example: Steve Jobs’s Stanford Commencement Speech 2005. Created by Gallo Communications Group, www.carminegallo.com.

Step Three: Reinforce the Three Messages with Stories, Statistics, and Examples

Add bullet points to each of the three supporting messages. You don’t have to write out the entire story. Instead, write a few words that will prompt you to deliver the story. Remember, the entire message map must fit on one page.

*   *   *

TO ILLUSTRATE THE PROCESS, FIGURE 7.1 is what a message map would look like for Steve Jobs’s famous commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. The speech comes in a very TED-friendly 15 minutes. It has one theme, the Twitter-friendly headline: DO WHAT YOU LOVE. It’s divided into three parts (connect the dots, love and loss, and death) with three supporting points for each part. The result is a clear view of what the listener needs to know in one glance. Creating a message map for your presentation content is an efficient and effective way to ensure your presentation isn’t too long or unorganized.

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7.2: Message Map Template. Created by Gallo Communications Group, www.carminegallo.com.


BUILD YOUR OWN MESSAGE MAP. Using the blank template in figure 7.2, insert in the bubble at the top the headline I asked you to create in chapter 4. Now, what’s your rule of three? Take the product, service, brand, or idea you built your headline around and create three points to support it. If you have more than three key messages, divide the content into three categories. Insert your points in the three bubbles below the headline bubble. Finally, can you create sub-points of three within each category? Supporting points can include stories, examples, anecdotes, or meaningful statistics, as we’ve discussed in earlier chapters. You can use the message map to pitch any idea, product, service, or company. It’s one of the most effective and valuable communication tools you’ll ever use.

Secret #7: Stick to the 18-Minute Rule

Long, convoluted, and meandering presentations are dull; a surefire way to lose your audience. The 18-minute rule isn’t simply a good exercise to learn discipline. It’s critical to avoid overloading your audience. Remember, constrained presentations require more creativity. In other words, what isn’t there makes what is there even stronger!

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