A well-known concept in rhetoric is referred to as the five sentences technique. This essay explains the idea and illustrates it with a number of examples.
Whenever a person becomes a member of my team, I have to explain how papers, short texts or letters should be written. Incredibly, most people are never taught how to structure a text and in which logical order the elements of a text should be offered to the reader. It could save me a lot of time if somebody taught students the basic structure of a prose text. A written instruction with some examples would serve just such a purpose. Therefore, I decided to write such an instruction and make it freely available.
Actually, you just read the first instruction.
The key to writing a comprehensible text is a five sentences technique, which used to be taught in a classical rhetoric course. The five sentences follow our human logic, i.e. the way you and I think. Simply answering five questions, i.e. generating five well-phrased answers, allows us to systematically organize our thinking. Hence, by following the five sentences technique we guide ourselves in phrasing our thoughts and making it easier for others to understand our intentions and goals. In consequence, the five sentence technique allows us to communicate with less effort and improves the chances that other people actually know what we are talking about.
Interaction should be a two-way process, you understand me and I understand you. In the end, you and I should now how to proceed, i.e. which actions should follow our communications.
In the five sentences technique you essentially answer the following set of five questions.
|Incentive||Why do I speak? Why do I make myself heard? Why do I address you? What motivates me?|
|Present situation||What is the current situation? What do I face at this
moment? Which issue do I have to address?
|Anticipated situation||Where do I want to go? Which situation would I like to see? Which situation would help me?|
|Solution||What would help me to achieve the expected or anticipated situation? What would help you to solve the current issue?|
|Action||What am I actually going to do to? What changes the current situation? What takes advantage of the solution? Which decision should you take to induce the change?|
The following paragraphs provide a number of examples. Most of the texts have actually been used in letters, memos, discussions or seminars and proved to be the basis of a successful effort.
A typical flat-share problem
|Incentive||Whenever I enter the kitchen I struggle to find a clean dish.|
|Present situation||Everybody uses the cutlery and the dishes, but nobody bothers to clean up.|
|Anticipated situation||Whenever I use the kitchen I find a clean dish.|
|Solution||I should own and maintain a personal set of kitchen ware.|
|Action||I will purchase a locker, in which I keep my set of dishes and cutlery.|
Complaint about bad service
More than one sentence can be used to answer each of the five questions.
|Incentive||Yesterday, after I picked up my car, I realized two issues remain unresolved.|
|Present situation||The gear box continues to make funny noises and the clutch seems to be a bit loose.|
|Anticipated situation||Whenever, I ask a garage to repair my car, I expect the mechanics to record the problems I have and to take proper measures. If they cannot solve the problems they should give me a ring.|
|Solution||I would like to leave my car with you for another day and allow you to fulfill your duties towards me as your customer.|
|Action||Please address the two remaining problems and call me as soon as the repairs are concluded. Make sure the situation is resolved by tomorrow evening.|
Convincing your boss to spend a lot of money
Even texts that are several pages long can be structured with iPASA.
|Incentive||The microscopes in our laboratory produce huge amounts of data, which have to be stored until they can be processed and transformed into smaller data sets, lists of qualifiers or videos.|
|Present situation||Currently, no such centralized image storage facility is available and images are stored on separate hard disks, which have to be carried around and maintained by the users. The amount of data produced is well beyond the capacity of any back up device.|
|Anticipated situation||An optimal solution is an image server that stores the images for a reasonable period of time, i.e. a period that allows the users to perform the required data processing. The users will delete their images from the image server and only back up the considerably smaller amount of necessary data.|
|Solution||An image server with a capacity in the 100s Terabyte range is set up by the Central Computer Group. Access to the image server is unrestricted but data that is unprocessed for a reasonable period of time (e.g. two weeks) is simply deleted.|
|Action||We will set up a 300 Terabyte server based on S-ATA II disks. In a RAID 10 arrangement 200 disks are required. A RAID 5 or 6 would require ~120 disks. Since progress in disk storage technology is expected and prices dwindle quickly such an Image Server could be upgraded by 50-100% every year. The Central Computer Group requests offers from at least three vendors (URLs attached) and the committee evaluates the situation in one week.|
The main mistake is to leave out the fifth step, i.e. the action. Consider, it may not be obvious to the person or group of people you are addressing, which conclusion they should draw. Help them by suggesting an action. All they have to do now is to decide on Yes or No. They either follow your suggestion or they defy it. In the very least, you are making it easy for everyone to decide and to leave this matter behind them. After all one of the secrets of excellent management and quick decision making is to pick up an issue once and only once and to make rather than leave a matter un-decided for too long.
I always use the iPASA key questions to structure my texts. I start by typing the five keywords as headings. Particularly when working on texts such as a one page abstract or the introduction to a complicated issue I tend to shuffle the sentences or even whole abstracts around until they seem to fall into the iPASA structure. However, I usually removethe five iPASA related keywords or replace them by context-related headings before I submit the text.
The basic iPASA idea is not mine. I was taught the concepts during a course on rhetoric, which I attended in the late 1980s in Heidelberg (Germany). In German, the concept is called MISLA, which abbreviates: “Motivation, Istzustand, Sollzustand, Lösung & Aktion bzw. Appell.” The teacher herself drew on more modern sources that are unknown to me, but could be Wittsack (1935) and Geißner. A similar concept known as AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action) is actually intended for sales purposes rather than rational decision making.
This text, however, is my text. Although I wrote it myself from scratch, I, of course, took advantage of the fact that I had the chance to discuss the concept well over a dozen times and to test it well over a hundred times. Since no text is perfect, I look forward to your comments, further examples and improvements on the text. I would be happy to include and acknowledge all contributions in future versions.