The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 83

Sean D'Souza

13 Box System

Can you give a speech that actually inspires action? According to expert communicator Sean D’Souza, that’s exactly what every speech should do. Sean teaches us how to use the 13 Box System for constructing informative, engaging presentations that get people to take specific actions. Discover the best way to organize your speech, how to grab (and keep) your audience’s attention, and what to say in your conclusion to really ensure follow-through.


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Link to system: 13 Box System



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Sean D’Souza. Sean was introduced to me by my friend Howie Jacobson. Howie has introduced me to a few really interesting people. Sean is among them. And I don’t exactly know how to describe Sean. I will say that I learn a lot from him. He’s a tremendous communicator.

When I was just talking with him recently before the show, and we were sort of talking about how to describe him … He’s a dancer, he’s a chef, he’s a cartoonist, he’s a writer, and all of those things are true, and what I think we have to learn from him today on the podcast is is in his role as communicator because everything I’ve read from him I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ve learned from. And specifically years ago I read something that he wrote on the 13 boxes method of writing speeches, and I think he has a lot to say on the topic that could be useful to you as listeners.

So Sean, welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Sean: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard you say that on the podcast, but it’s a pleasure to be there. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Peter: I’m glad I say it with your name this time.

Sean: Well thank you.

Peter: So you and I both have a very very strong belief in communicating effectively and I want to start with the content in the 13 boxes method of organizing a speech because I think it’s really useful and I also know that you have some views on why create a speech in the first place. So why don’t we start there and we’ll go into some detail, and we’ll see where the conversation takes us?

Sean: Sure. So why do you create a speech in the first place? The reason why I think anyone should create a speech in the first place is to get one action. So you start off with the end of the speech. You go, “What is that end point?” And there’ll be many books on this topic about the end point, but so many speeches that I hear, I listen to, I know that the presenter hasn’t done their homework because they don’t have a specific end point. What they have are a bunch of slides. What they have is fancy graphics. But what am I going to do at the end of it? What is the audience going to do at the end of it? That should be absolutely clear. And that can only be clear if the presentation itself is very clear.

When I say the presentation is very clear, it means that technically speaking, the audience should be able to recall everything you said which means you can’t say a lot, and you’re going into a lot of depth into one, two, or three things that you’ve covered. So to put it down, now I just said two things. See how confusing it is already. So people see 25 things on a presentation and if you were to nail it down to one thing, it is what is the audience going to do when the presentation is done?
Peter: So in terms of a presentation to just share knowledge, or to be interesting, or to give someone a wider perspective, all of those things don’t necessarily demand action.

Sean: Correct.

Peter: Some of them are perspective. But you’re saying that mostly when you’re giving a speech you want to drive some kind of action. And if that’s true, then the question is that you have to start with before even thinking about what you want to say is, what is the action that you’re trying to drive?

Sean: Yeah. You think of yourself as a parent. Right? Every time you give a lecture to your kids. It’s not like you want to give them a lecture. It’s not like you just want to give them information. You have to be back … You want to be very precise. You’re saying, “I want you to be back home by 10 PM,” right? And then all the preview to that is leading to 10 PM and all the dangers of not getting home by 10 PM, or whatever. Now you can give information. That’s not difficult. But if I give you information on clouds, say “These are cirrus clouds, and cumulonimbus clouds,” and all these clouds. And then, what do I want you to do at the end of it? I want to go out there and look at a cloud and go, “I know that cloud. I know what that cloud does.”

So essentially everything does lead to one action when you think about it. If you don’t think about it then you put a whole bunch of slides together. You put a whole bunch of information together. And by and large information causes confusion in people’s heads. That’s why their scribbling so many notes. If you have ten speakers you should have ten points. That’s the end of the story. But instead you get three, four, five pages of notes and then no one acts on them and that’s the whole point. You have to act on it.

Peter: So we could do a whole podcast on how to listen to speeches too because I think what … Because so few people give good speeches and so few people are that focused. There’s a whole conversation that says, “When you’re listening to someone’s circuitous, filled with complexity speech, how do you find that one nugget that you can pull out of it that would help you act in a way that would bring you closer to your objectives?”

Sean: Yes.

Peter: So I think there’s a whole conversation in that and maybe even just saying it is useful, because maybe we’ll start listening to speeches slightly differently.

Sean: Well the short short version of that is very simple. I’m going to speak in Sweden in two days, but there’ll be other speakers as well. And I keep all my points down to a single page. If I have to go to the second page, I don’t need it. I mean, just one page. That’s it. All the points down to a single page.

Peter: And you’re making one main point. What’s your one main point that you’re making in Sweden?

Sean: You can increase your prices 15 minutes after you leave the room.

Peter: You can increase prices 15 minutes after you leave the room.

Sean: Yes, and not lose any customers.

Peter: Meaning when you’re selling to somebody.

Sean: When you’re selling to someone. So if you’re selling … Say you’re selling a product or service, you can leave the room. In 15 minutes … 15 minutes later, you can increase your prices on your website, on your documentation, and clients will pay the higher price and you don’t lose customers.

Peter: Okay. So you’ve intrigued us and maybe we’ll ask you … Maybe I’ll ask you a little bit at the end of the conversation how you do that. But let’s go to the 13 boxes method because it’s a method that puts some structure on what you’re saying. How do you give a speech that leads people to take an action at the end of the speech predictably?

Sean: So the first thing you’ve got to realize is that you can’t cover many points. You have to cover a maximum of three points. And the way I look at it is you have topics and you have subtopics. So say your topic is, I don’t know, photography. Right? Now that’s Now that’s too broad a topic. And so you go down to a subtopic. And we’re not going into the 13 boxes yet. We’re just on the topic level. How do you choose a topic? And you say, “Okay I’m going to talk about photography.” And then you go, “Okay I have all these nine points to cover in photography.” Now this becomes very hard for the audience to follow. This is why they start scribbling notes. But if you say, “Well we’re only going to talk about aperture, and then we’re going to cover these three points in aperture.” Now you have this clarity because at the end of it you want people to go, “Here’s my camera. I’m going to turn the aperture to, I don’t know, F2.6, or F16, or whatever, and this is the result I’m going to get.”

Peter: Now wouldn’t you want to take one step back from that and say, “The real topic of the speech is going to be how to make a subject pop in your photography, and in order to do that the one piece of the puzzle that I’m going to focus on is aperture.” Don’t you have to take that step back to say “What is the larger picture that we’re trying to achieve?”

Sean: Yes. You have to do that. But your end point is going to be, “Okay this is how …” When they step out of the room, what is that superpower that you’ve given them? What is that action plan that you’ve given them? And from there on you’re going to go, “Okay. Here are the three points that you have to cover.” So the 13 boxes really start off with an opening. And the opening is almost like a documentary. Sometimes when you’re driving home and you listen to the radio and they give you these points, when they’re doing documentaries, they go these very titillating points about what’s going to show up. And so what you’re starting out is with a story. I often start off with a story. And the reason why you start off with a story is because the audience is distracted.

They are always thinking about something else. They’re always checking their Facebook. They’re always doing something else, and you go on stage and say, “Did you know how Will Smith created blockbuster, after blockbuster, after blockbuster in a row? You would think that he was a great actor, but he science.” And immediately no one is looking at their phones because you’ve started to tell a story. So you’re first job is to tell a story or create a case study, or something that snaps the audience out. Because as long as they’re still locked in their world, they’re not in your world.

Peter: So you have to do something that grabs their attention. Can you do something other than tell a story? Are there other ways of grabbing attention?

Sean: You can do a lot of things. You can disagree with the point you just said. For instance you say, “How to make your audience faces stand out,” whatever, and then you go the opposite way. You go, “Here’s how you take a really rad photograph.” And that contrast creates drama. So essentially what you’re doing is you’re always creating drama. The story and the case study are easier ways than just … Say this pricing seminar I go, “Here’s what I’m going to talk to you about. I’m going to tell you to reduce your prices by 50%, and then I’m going to tell you to reduce it by another 25%. What’s going to happen to your business?” And immediately they go, “No no no. We don’t want to reduce our prices. We’re here to increase our prices.” So now they’re focused. And that’s the first box in that 13 box thing which is, you’re trying to get them to focus.

So you start off with the drama. You go on to the points that you’re going to cover. You go into a bit of an agenda. The audience actually needs to know, “Hi, I’m Sean D’Souza. I’m speaking to you today and I’m going to cover three topics. These topics are …” And how long is it going to take. Just very little stuff that gets them to know “I don’t have to sit for an hour and a half. He’s going to be 35 minutes.”

Peter: Right. So the first thing you do is you grab their attention in a way that says “I’m going to put down my phone, and I actually kind of want to listen to this guy, or this woman.”

Sean: Correct.

Peter: And then the second thing is you give them a map of what you’re about to do so they know they’re not going to be stuck in their seats lost.

Sean: Correct. And this is all the first box. So you have to see this visually, and unfortunately we can’t see visually but visualize a box and all of this information goes in this box. And what you then need to do, is you’re now going into a phase where you’re introducing the topics. So you’re saying “What we’re going to do today is going to make these faces look really grand on your camera. What we’re going to do is cover point one, point two, and point three.” And it’s very important that you first announce the three things that you’re going to cover. “You have to come to Auckland. In Auckland you get wine, food, and sightseeing.” Now I know this is my map. This is my clarity. You’re not talking about wine, or food, or sightseeing, you’re just saying, “This is the overview.”

Peter: Are you at risk of losing people because you’re giving them a table of contents and they might look at it and say, “I don’t really need to know about food and drink in Auckland,” but really you’re … I mean that’s the focus of your speech, but you’re going to do it a more interesting way than the table of contents seems to convey.

Sean: Yes. And again what you’re doing is you’re always enticing. You’re going … So if you were to say, “What we’re going to cover is food. Where do you find the cheapest food,” or “Where do you find the most expensive food? Where do you find the most exotic food? The second thing we’re going to cover is,” say, “Drink. There are some wines in Auckland that you get nowhere else in the world.” Right? So, again what you’re doing is you’re creating this … Always the audiences, they want to be entertained and informed. They don’t just want to be informed.

Peter: Interesting. And so every move you make at the beginning of the speech opens a mystery.

Sean: Correct.

Peter: So you’re going to say … You’re going to tantalize the audience in effect. You’re going to grab their attention, and you’re going to share the pieces that you’re about to share with them with a question. So it might be, if this was a corporate presentation and you’re talking about budgets … I’m trying to take something that listeners might find potentially a little boring.

Then you might say, you might frame it in terms of, “We’ve got a big challenge here in terms of closing the gap, in terms of being profitable.” Right? “Closing the gap between our …” Or, “Creating more of a gap between our income and expenses where a gap doesn’t necessarily exist.” This is a situation where you actually want a gap. You want much higher income than you have expenses. “And we’re going to see in the next 20 minutes of this conversation, we’re going to see why the money we’re spending on toilets might be the …” So you’re trying to pitch it in a way that you’re engaging their interest and you’re showing some gap of sorts, or some opening where they might want to know where you’re going with it. And you want do that in the very first box in the very beginning of the speech.

Sean: So the first box is about introducing what you’re going to say. But the next three boxes they’re your table of contents. How you make them interesting is totally up to you but you have to be careful that the audience doesn’t get lost in that chatter. So often you may sound really boring to just have a table of contents, but if you’ve done a really good opening your audience will give you that chance. Like you’ve entertained them with a story about Will Smith when you were going to talk about budgeting. You’ve entertained them with how Japan was closed for 200 years and now you’re going to talk about budgets. So when you start off with something that’s very interesting in a case study or a story, they will give you that extra time and you can just stick to the three … The next three boxes you can just go, “Okay what we’re going to talk about is one, two, three.” Right? “And let’s start off with the first one.”

You can go very quickly over those first three boxes. I’m sorry. The next … These boxes are crazy when you talk about them but you give the introduction. You go, “I’m going to cover one, two, three. Let’s start off with the first box.” You can go very quickly over to that next box. That’s when all the good stuff happens.

Peter: Why three?

Sean: Because I can’t remember more stuff. So you need to actually test your presentation if you have the chance to do so by getting the audience. So what I do is at the end of my speech I will get the audience to repeat what I just said. And I’ll go, “Okay, here’s the summary. And what did we cover the first thing?” And they go, “Yeah, this and then that.” And that’s when you know it’s not installed. It’s not installed in their books, it’s installed in their brain. And if you cover more than three, then … So even when you’re covering these three, you’re not really covering three topics. You’re covering three subtopics. “We’re going to talk about the budget, increasing the budget, lowering the budget, driving the budget crazy.”

Peter: And if you had only two, would that be okay? Or is there some magic to three?

Sean: Of course there is a magic to three. That imbalance is good. I mean we’ve always known there is this magic to three. It’s like “We’re going to fight them on the beaches. We’re going to fight them on the land. We’re going to fight them …” Whatever. There is this sort of imbalance about three that two seems to land with a thud. It’s like “I’m going to talk about this and this.”

Peter: And one is too simple so you really want three.

Sean: Yeah. One is your main topic anyway. The three subtopics. So three is –

Peter: Is there a rule of thumb in terms of how to choose the three subtopics?

Sean: What I tend to do is go deeper. So when I choose a topic I go, “Okay how can I go one level down? And then another level down?” So I’m not just trying to go … The broadest topic is, “Okay we’re going to talk about,” I don’t know, “Lamps,” or, “We’re going to talk about real estate,” or, “We’re going to talk over budgeting.” And that becomes very hard for the audience to go, “Oh this is a really interesting topic.” So you go down from budgeting to hard nosed budgeting. And then hard nosed budgeting in difficult times. And now you’ve got a focus.

Peter: So as you’re describing this I’m realizing for listeners it would probably be useful to have specific example that you’re talking through. Can you think of a speech that, either the speech that you’re giving or that you have to give, or that you had to give that fits this model so that they have a concrete example as you’re discussing it?

Sean: Yeah. So for instance this pricing thing, I will start off with the first section. And now I’m going to talk about the three topics. So what are the three topics? “What I’m going to talk about today is first of all why you need to increase your prices. Secondly, how to go about a systematic way to increase your prices. And the third is, pricing sequencing. How people tend to choose products and services based on a dinner sequence. Just how they go out to dinner. So let’s start off with why you have to increase your prices.” And that’s when I go into the next box. So now I’ve covered four boxes. I’m now into my fifth box where I’m talking about the first topic which is why you have to increase prices.

Peter: Or the first subtopic.

Sean: Correct.

Peter: So you wake them up, you grab their attention, you tell them the main area that you’re talking about which is increasing prices, and now you’re going to go into three subtopics of that that you’ve told them to expect which is … The first one of which is why to do it. So now what? Now what we do in … So now we’re in that first subtopic.

Sean: Correct. So no you have to really make your point. And what I tend to do is I use three here as well. I’m going, “Why do you have to increase your prices?” And then I will cover three points there. It’s not very clear so I don’t announce those points, but I cover three points. So I will say, “First of all, why you should increase prices is one, it helps in your … You attract customers because higher prices actually attract better customers.” Then I will cover the second point, and the third point. In that first subtopic I will cover three specific points, but not make it over that “Okay I’m covering three points again here.” Because that will confuse the audience. It’s like, “Three at the top, three in the middle.” No. But I know in my own brain that this is what I’m covering. Three points.

Peter: It’s a way also for you as a speaker to have grounded authority in a way too because it’s very simple. I mean I’m not giving the speech, but I get the structure which is I’m going to grab their attention. I want to focus on raising prices, now I’ve got three pieces and I can go deep. It’s a way of organizing in my mind that allows me to not get lost in my own talk-

Sean: Correct.

Peter: Which I will sees sometimes people do.

Sean: Yeah. And you get depth as well. So you’re not just making a point. But because you have to cover three points in that point, that subtopic … If we were to take it a subtopic A, B, C, now under A you have one, two, three. Under B you have one, two, three. Under C you have one, two, three.

Peter: And I imagine that in those subtopics, why you need to raise prices, you’re going to be telling stories, you’re going to give examples, you might give references, you might show times when it didn’t work and still paid off. You’re going to … That’s where you do a little bit of a dance-

Sean: Correct.

Peter: In exploring and painting a picture of this particular topic. And then you tell them you’ve done that topic and you’re going to the next topic.

Sean: Correct. So what you’re doing now is now you’re a full blown entertainer. Right? It’s not just information. The examples, the stories in between, what they create is this entertainment factor. And people … Why you have to … You got to recognize why people’s attention goes down. Now we can talk for a while and if I switch over to a story, immediately your attention goes up again. I switch away from the story, it stabilizes again. Again the story comes up … So what I tend to do is I tend to put in examples and stories at intervals within those sections. The one, two, three.

So I’m going, “Okay this point is about blah blah blah,” and then I will have either a story a demonstration. Now in this pricing I have to show them that a T-shirt costs $150. And I go, ‘Who’s going to pay $150 for a T-shirt?” And I show them a T-shirt. Well that gets the attention up again.

Peter: Right.

Sean: And here, and so –

Peter: So you’re asking them questions, you’re showing them surprising evidence, you’re again kind of them giving them the unexpected in a way that supports the story you’re trying to tell them.

Sean: Yeah. I mean it’s unexpected but you can also have something that they already know. For instance, the basic objection of increasing prices is that clients will go away. And what I show them is a Coke bottle. I show them the big Coke bottle, and I show them the can. And I say, “You know the can costs more than the big bottle. How much sense does that make to you?”

Peter: Right.

Sean: Right? And they go, “Oh. Never thought of that before but I’ve seen it a million times.” I say, “You know, you’re saying that everything has a fixed price, should have a fixed price based on the marketplace. Well you bought a house, right? So the real estate person says that the house is worth 200,000. You want 250,000. The buyer wants to pay 180,00. The council says it’s 120,000. This is a documented historical perspective of the house, and you have four prices there.”

Peter: Right.

Sean: So-

Peter: So you’re using examples that illustrate the point that you’re trying to make.

Sean: Right. But then as you’re going through you also have to make sure that you bring up … You have to consider their objections.

Peter: And you raise their objections for them.

Sean: Yes. You always do that. Yes. Because if you don’t raise the objections and kind of demolish them, then they’re stuck on that. You’ve gone to the next point and they’re still stuck on the old one.

Peter: Great. So now we’ve done the three … You’ve woken them up, you’ve given them the major topic, you’ve broken it into three subtopics, you’ve now gone into depth in each one of those three one at a time using story and entertainment and sort of surprising facts, now are we coming in for a landing?

Sean: Yes. You’re coming in for landing. Essentially you’re doing exactly. So every speaker that goes to any speaking place they tell them, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them what you are telling them. And them tell them you what you just told them.” And the summary is extremely crucial. It’s the opposite of the contents. So we started off with, “We’re going to cover three topics. One, two, three.” Then you cover those three topics in detail. And then you tell them, “What we just covered was this. Under A, we covered one, two, three points. Under B we covered, one, two, three points. Under C we covered one, two, three points.” And-

Peter: And any way to wrap it up beyond that?

Sean: Yeah. And then there’s the last box which is now what do you want them to do? How do you want them to do it? So it depends on what you’re presentation is. It depends on, “Okay, now here’s what you need to do. The next thing you need to do is break up into groups and find out the uniqueness of this company based on what I’ve just told you.” Right? Or, “You say, okay go to the ground floor and pick up a Coke can and look out it.” What do you want them to do so that they’re going to take a next step? If you’re in a … All presentations are not from the stage. Some presentations you’re in the room. You’re selling to investors, you’re selling to people. You want them to do something. You don’t want them clap here.

Peter: So be explicit. You’re saying be explicit about what it is exactly that you want them to do and tell them. Be upfront and straightforward about it.

Sean: Yeah. I tell the audience, “You know 95% of this audience is going to raise their prices within the next few minutes or within 24 hours.” And they go, “Why 95%?” I go, “Because 5% will listen to everything and do nothing.”

Peter: Right. And obviously that incites the 95% to want to be part of the 95%.

Sean: Exactly.

Peter: Or it incites the 100% to want to be part of the 95%.

Sean: Yep.

Peter: Sean if we, on our site, could we create a link to a 13 boxes form something that people … Because they’ve heard us talk about it, now is there a template or something that they could use to think about this?

Sean: Yes we can do that. For sure.

Peter: Okay. That’d be great so that people will-

Sean: Now I just want to make sure that this is not my invention. Okay. This is the work of my friend Eugene Moreau, and he came up with the 13 box system. We were sitting at a café and I came up with the name for it but that’s my whole contribution to it other than other stuff that I’ve added to it along the way.

Peter: Right. And it’s … Thank you for that, and it’s a great framework. And it’s a framework that I use that, again Howie who introduced me to you sent me a book on it maybe … Probably around the time that I came out with 18 Minutes and I structured my 18 Minutes, my book 18 Minutes I structured the speech that I’d given that and it’s such a simple, clear approach to organizing my thoughts. It also takes an hour speech and it cuts the timing so I know what I’m doing in these first five minutes. And each section takes about ten minutes, and it makes something that otherwise might feel unmanageable into something very manageable.

So thank you for sharing with the guests, with our listeners today. And thank you for sharing it with me years and years ago. And I’m glad that it’s spreading, and thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Sean: It’s a pleasure. It’s always a pleasure speaking to you.

Peter: I’ve been speaking with Sean D’Souza who was kind enough to, he’s in Australia-

Sean: New Zealand.

Peter: New Zealand. Sorry. That’s a terrible mistake to make. He’s in New Zealand. When we’re recording this it’s 5 AM, so Sean I appreciate you waking up early in order to to do the podcast, and thank you always for how generous you are with everything that you create because a lot of it is out there for people to just read, and I appreciate it.

Sean: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership podcast. If you did it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness. A lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.

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