The 5 Ands?

A technique for getting to the point.

Alex Gantman
8 min readJan 4, 2021

TL;DR When communicating information, tell people explicitly what conclusion you want them to draw. Your message should lead with the answer to an iterative series of “And [what is the implication of this]?” questions.

In my job I frequently receive and produce status updates. Over the years, I have noticed a common anti-pattern, both in my own updates and those of others: the implication of what’s presented is left as an exercise to the reader. That’s rarely a good approach. Especially not when communicating up or outward to an audience less steeped in technical details of the subject matter. Most of the time it’s best to tell people directly what conclusion you want them to draw.

With status updates, the audience is looking to presenter’s input to help them make a decision. The easier it is for the audience to reach a conclusion, the greater the value of the presentation. Typically, it is the presenter who is in the best position to interpret the details and make a recommendation.

A message honing technique¹ I find useful for bringing out the core point is what I call the “5 Ands”. Consider your message and ask “And?” from the audience’s point of view. Or, more fully, “And what is the implication of this?”² Then recursively ask the same question about the previous answer. After a few iterations you will arrive at the ultimate conclusion you intend your audience to reach. Make sure to state it explicitly in your message, ideally up front. For bonus points, the final question asked (and answered) should be “And what should I do about it?”, again from the audience’s point of view. This process helps to uncover the high-level meaning out of low-level details and make the message more meaningful to laypeople and more likely to be acted on.

One way to think about the 5 Ands is as an inverse of, or complement to, the 5 Whys — a root cause analysis method popularized by Toyota in the 1980’s. The latter consists of iteratively asking “Why [did this happen]?” starting from the observed symptom (the effect). At each iteration, the answer (the cause) from the previous step is taken as the next-level symptom to analyze. Conventional wisdom is that the root cause of the issue is reached within five iterations.

The 5 Ands navigates causality in the other direction and iteratively asks, and answers, “And [what is the implication of this]?” Whereas repeatedly asking “Why?” follows the cause-effect chain from the high-level effect down to the root cause, repeatedly asking “And?” walks that path in reverse from the low-level detail to the intended effect — the ultimate conclusion that is to be drawn from it.

The technique is also helpful in organizing presentation of technical analysis, de-cluttering it of extraneous details and staying focused on core issues. A more accurate diagrammatic representation of the 5 Ands process would look like an upside-down tree, as multiple low level details contribute to a shared implication, all ultimately leading to the final conclusion.

Incidentally, this tree provides a natural structure for the message itself — starting from the conclusion at the root and then providing one or two levels of supporting information, as necessary. Only information that will help the audience understand and evaluate the core point(s) of the message should be included³. Deeper levels of detail should be reserved for back-up, only for the rare case the audience wishes to dive deeper into analysis.

The top-down structure does not always come naturally. It can be easy for a presenter to get overly attached to a lot of technical details that had to be resolved during analysis. This leads to a presentation that is a step-by-step re-telling of the work effort — starting with all available low-level details and gradually working up to the conclusion. Complete with false starts, dead ends, and side quests. I am personally guilty of this more often than I would like to admit.

The bottom-up approach makes it more likely that the message becomes more of a retrospective on the process than a presentation of results. But the audience’s main interest is almost always in the conclusion. They are not looking for suspense or a complex story arc⁴.

Although the bottom-up flow reflects the presenter’s own path of discovery, and may therefore feel more natural and chronologically accurate to the presenter, it can be much harder for the audience to follow. It puts too much onus on the audience to absorb a rich volume of technical detail without a mental framework for organizing it, without knowing which parts will turn out to be relevant or how they will factor into the conclusion. The reality is that not every detail that was important in the course of work is equally important in the presentation of results. Building the message top-down helps remove distracting details and provides a framework for the audience to quickly consume and interpret the supplied information.

Technique alone may not be enough. People, including myself, are sometimes hesitant to state conclusions even when asked to. Below, I outline some of the common reasons for this and offer respective counterarguments.

1. The implications seem obvious.

People can be reluctant to state what appears obvious to them, either out of aversion of redundancy or fear of sounding condescending.

First, it is almost certainly a mistake to assume that the conclusion that is obvious to the presenter will be just as obvious to the audience. It can be easy for a subject matter expert to fall into this trap, especially when explaining a complex issue. The causality they spent days, weeks, or months analyzing may now seem self-evident. But the audience is coming in cold, lacking that same frame of reference, and disoriented by the sudden context switch from the preceding email/meeting/presentation. How often does a solution to a problem that has stymied us appear obvious in retrospect? More likely than not, even the seemingly most obvious conclusions will not be immediately apparent to the audience and are worth spelling out.

Second, even if the conclusion is obvious, it is neither wasteful nor insulting to make it easy for the audience to consume the message. Consider a simplistic example of a table of numerical values. On the one hand, adding a row of totals for each column (assuming it makes sense for the data), would not convey any additional information not already in the table. At the same time, few would argue that it would be somehow wasteful or insulting of the audience’s basic arithmetic skills.

The reason to state the implication explicitly, even when it may seem obvious, is to spare the unnecessary cognitive load on your audience and to keep the conversation focused on the right level of detail.

2. There are no implications, it’s just data.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is a common misconception, especially among the more junior professionals, that the data itself is the message. It’s a belief that the data either carries no implication or, at best, the implications are not for the presenter to figure out. I will leave that second part to a dedicated discussion further below. For now let’s focus on the first part.

If the data is worth presenting, then there is absolutely a conclusion to be drawn from it. Conversely, if there’s no inference to be made, no conclusion to be drawn, then why is this content worth presenting⁵?

Unless the presentation is primarily for entertainment purposes, it feeds into some outcome. Somebody in the audience expects the content to influence a decision. The update could lead to a “null” decision to stay the course, or it could lead to shifting of priorities, reallocation of resources, process refinement, etc.

Effective presenters understand which decisions could be influenced based on the content and make specific recommendations for how those decisions should be made.

3. Uneasy telling others what to think.

Alternatively, presenters may feel uncomfortable telling others what interpretation to make. This could be due to a variety of reasons, like modesty, impostor syndrome, or perceived corporate hierarchy etiquette. These concerns are almost certainly unwarranted.

By offering a conclusion, the presenter is not precluding the audience from forming their own opinions and disagreeing. And yet the presenter is in the best position to derive the conclusion. They have the expertise and the time to do it that the audience does not (at least not in the moment).

Moreover, the audience is often actually looking to the presenter, counting on them even, for guidance — to have a point and to state it. Being coy about it is not constructive.

That does lead to a related concern, though. Stating the conclusion exposes it to criticism. That is true. It is the price of having the audience’s trust. Having one’s opinion counted requires exposing it to judgement.

To be fair, there are times when it is desirable to have the audience believe that their realizations were their own — to have them embrace a conclusion without having it attributed it to the presenter. But, that’s not something to attempt unless you are an expert at indirect influence and a master navigator of corporate politics.

4. Too much nuance to draw a conclusion.

A related concern is reluctance to oversimplify a complex topic. Summarizing a lot of complicated details into a terse conclusion can be difficult. It can feel like crucial information is being lost in the process. This leads to a worry that the picture the audience will get is not as rich, not as complete, not as nuanced as what the presenter sees.

That may be true. But if the presenter does not reckon with nuance, then the job fall on the audience. For someone must still convert the information into a decision. And the presenter is arguably in the best position to do that.

Consider how a doctor provides diagnosis and advice. They are going through a very similar process. They have to distill a lot of complicated, nuanced, ambiguous information into something fairly simple that a layperson patient can understand, reason about, and act on. The same goes for pretty much any other professional advisor (with the possible exception of lawyers, who always say “it depends”).

This type of simplification is unavoidable unless communicating to an audience that is expected to be as versed in the subject matter as the presenter. The presenter has to own the responsibility that comes with it. Pushing it on people who are less familiar with the subject matter is a sub-optimal approach.

All of this was a long-winded way to convince you that when presenting status updates:

  • The audience is looking to presenter’s input to help them make a decision.
  • The easier it is for the audience to reach a conclusion, the greater the value of the presentation.
  • The presenter is in the best position to interpret the details and make a recommendation. And the audience expects it from the presenter.
  • Using a process like the 5 Ands can help distill the core point of the message.

[1] Although I frame this discussion in the context of status updates, the technique applies to a broader range of professional communication.

[2] An alternative formulation of the question is “And why is it important for me to know this?”

[3] This is not meant to suggest that contradictory data should be hidden. It’s just as relevant in honestly evaluating the implications.

[4] Of course, the “how” of discovery can also be a legitimate topic in its own right. If the focus of the presentation is on the process or methodology of analysis, then the answers to 5 Ands should reflect that and the technique and still applies.

[5] See [2].

Cross-posted on LinkedIn.

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Alex Gantman

Security defense. No wires. Disclaimers: Work at $QCOM. Opinions are mine. https://twitter.com/againsthimself