It’s boring. It’s restrictive. It’s dated. And it’s the best way for a child to learn how to effectively communicate throughout their lives and into the business world. When I went to school, it was called the “five-paragraph theme”. Now known as the five-paragraph essay, it has come under assault in recent years for limiting creativity and thus development of our young writers. On the contrary, I cite this tool as one of the most fundamental lessons for business that I ever took out of my grade school years, and I am going to show you why: It’s the power of three, the role of reinforcement and the reliance on outline that makes this communication form fundamental.
The five-paragraph essay invokes the brilliant rule of three. If you are going to try to prove a statement, you should ideally have at least three discernible reasons or supports for it. Three is not ironclad, but it is the goal. If you have one or two, it may sound light. If you have four or five, it may get boring or redundant. But if you can generate three compelling support statements for a major contention, you will have a good chance of proving your point. I advise my staff, peers and clients to follow rule of three in all corporate communications as they draft – to make sure they have the right amount of content.
This tool also provides a framework that makes the author stick to the main point – and refer back to it. If you’ve read an essay from a middle school student, you have likely seen a meandering string of words that is legible but doesn’t seem to have common theme throughout. And if you’ve sat through a PowerPoint or read through some memos or emails at work, you’ve probably noticed the exact same thing! Many communications in business are really a stream of consciousness packaged into a file. And they are awful. When it’s based on the five-paragraph essay framework, those communications are clear, well-organized and easily digestible.
The underlying brilliance of this tool is that it is based on a simple outline form. Five Roman numerals – three letters each under paragraphs II, II and IV. Excellent business communication follows outline form, regardless of whether it uses the rule of three. Many of the advanced activities in school, from participating and “flowing” a debate, to doing a book report – are predicated on being able to derive an outline to understand all the elements being presented. If an author starts with an outline – the reader can follow along much easier.
While you may criticize the five-paragraph essay for a variety of reasons, it is hard to deny that it can be the foundation for effective business communications. As long as it’s understood that the tool is meant as a guideline and not a template for a final communication, it can be powerful at enhancing your organization’s communication abilities. It’s another simple tool from school days that should be in your toolkit in the business world. And paragraph five is complete.