11/19/2012 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

About Leadership: Four Points

When John Browne starts to speak at a meeting, whether in a speech, or introducing a discussion, or summing up, he often says, "I want to make four points" and all the people who have worked with him for a while would smile, because he almost always has four points. I don't know how he discovered that four was just the right number, but it is one of those simple tricks that you can use.

How many speeches have we all listened to wondering what the point is that the speaker is trying to make? How many times have we seen a chairman unable to draw together the threads of the discussion in a meeting? All too many, I suspect. And many of us have been in this situation ourselves, sometimes giving a speech which seems more like a description of a walk around the garden to see lots of beautiful and interesting flora, than a clear statement of strategy or purpose. By the way, I have also heard a lot of religious leaders give sermons which suffer from the same deficiency.

So when I sit down to plan a speech, I simply ask myself, "What are the four points I want to make in this speech?" And it doesn't matter if the speech length is 10 minutes or 45 minutes. Four points can be absorbed by the audience, and taken away. They can be stated at the beginning and summarized at the end. The longer speech allows you to elaborate the points, to set out or argue the case, and to illustrate by examples. It is not to add more and more points.

When you have these four points clear in your own mind, the speech can practically write itself, or if you are using a speech writer, that person can be very clear about how to structure the remarks. And if, as on many occasions, you are speaking from a few notes, being clear about those four points is really all you need.

The same goes for the more dynamic situation of a meeting. Lots of things are being raised in discussion, and the trick is to tease out the four main points (see also and earlier column in this series on chairing) and summarize these at the conclusion. The value of the meeting, for the executive participants, presenters, and for those recording actions, will be greatly enhanced.

I also use this approach for radio and television interviews that I now do frequently. Often there is very little time to prepare, a call comes in, and before long you are in a car on the way to the studio. And in the car I take out a pen and a scrap of paper or a business card and think, no matter what questions the interviewer asks, what are the four points I would like to get across in this interview? Somehow it works. Sometimes I only get to two or three of the four, but that is fine.

Of course there are cultural differences. Several years ago, I was on the board of a company doing a lot of business in China, and they asked me to lead a delegation (somehow in China it is always about delegations!) to a meeting with the Chief Technology Officer of Sinopec, leading Chinese oil and chemicals company. Our guys were trying to get him to sign a license agreement for our technology. So the day before the meeting, I said to my young Chinese colleagues: "Think about this, what are the four points you would like me to make in my meeting with Dr. Tsao? Write them down."

The next morning they handed me a piece of paper with the four points: 1. Sign the license agreement. 2. Sign it right now. 3. Pay money up front. 4. A big amount of money.

Well, usually the four point method works, but not always.

And one other caution: do not try this technique in conversation with your spouse.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?