Applying the “Five Second Rule” to your data and presentations

Remember the “Five Second Rule”? It was that magical bit of kids’ wisdom for redeeming a dropped treat. If you scooped it back up within five seconds, it was germ free and ok to eat.

Whether you agree with the rule or not, its underlying principle provides insight for working with data.

The longer something has to linger, the more likely unwanted contaminants will be introduced. In the case of data, those contaminants are conscious or, more dangerously, unconscious biases.

Many people underestimate (or are unware of) how much their unconscious plays a role in decision-making. We naively believe that we can filter out irrelevant information and laser focus on what’s relevant. But we can’t. A considerable amount of research demonstrates conclusively that we can’t. Despite this, we stick to this belief and favor complexity over simplicity.

Every extra step that someone takes to understand what you are presenting is an opportunity for bias to creep in.

Start adapting the Five Second Rule to the way that you use and communicate data and information.

Look at every slide in your presentation. Can your audience understand its point in five seconds or less? If not, simplify it.

Look at your reports. Do they answer your questions in five second or less? Or, do people have to hunt and gather to find their answers? If it takes more than five seconds, redesign the report.

Look at what you say. Is it simple and to the point? Do you convey just one idea at a time? Do you use a lot of technical jargon? If your ideas can’t be understood in under five seconds, they are too complicated.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts for improving simplicity:

Avoid Instead try
Charts, tables, graphs, list Stories, images, patterns
Reports with rows and columns of data Reports grouped (not just color coded) into categories according to your questions (e.g., what’s working, what’s at risk, what needs attention)
Big words or words that end in “ize” (utilize, operationalize, strategize) Clear, simple words


Finally, try these two ideas:

  • Always practice your presentation in front of someone who knows nothing about your business. Your argument should be simple enough for them to follow.
  • When writing, use the “Readability Statistics” in MS Word. Make sure that you keep your writing under a 9th grade level (like most publications). Readability statistics are primarily driven by sentence and word length. This article has a readability level of 7th grade.

Once you make it easier for people to understand you, you’ll make it easier for them to make decisions. And, the easier it is to make a decision, the more likely that decision is to get made.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, author, and speaker with Avail Advisors. Avail’s Rethinking Data workshop will teach you how to simplify data and turn it into action.

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  1. It took far longer than 5 seconds to read, but I get it.

    • Hey Tony

      Thanks for your comment. I was waiting for someone to point that out. I’m not suggesting that your conversations or presentations should take just five seconds. Remember I said each SLIDE should be understandable in five, not the entire deck. In the case of written communication, each pint should be clear. Hopefully you were able to make sense of each idea I provided within five seconds. My guess is that you didn’t have to re-read or ponder any of my statements to understand them. That’s the key.