The Rule of Three for Presentations

The Rule of Three is a classic writing principle that may also be slightly imbued with magic. It states that ideas or stories presented in threes are more memorable to the listener. Think of things in our culture that utilize this: “stop, drop, and roll,” “9-1-1,” and even “beginning, middle, and end” in storytelling. So, where can you use the Rule of Three in your presentation?

1. Takeaway

Divide your message into three chunks. What are the benefits of your service? What are the main things you want the audience to walk away remembering? Most people don’t have the memory (or attention) to remember five or six main points; however, three is a number we are uniquely attuned to recall.

Steve Jobs was famous for using the Rule of Three in his presentations. In 2011, he described the iPad 2 as “thinner, lighter, and faster” than the first. These three adjectives were massively effective; they said everything the audience needed to know. It was much more successful than if he had announced “20 ways the iPad 2 is different from its predecessor.”

2. Instruction

If you aim to instruct, divide your teaching into three main steps. The TSA, for example, has a three-step process for security: “show ID and boarding pass, take out liquids, and take off shoes and jackets.” This sequential set is extremely easy to remember, and the technique can (and should) be used in an instructional presentation.

Another instructional technique that uses the Rule of Three is as follows: tell your audience what you are going to say. Say it. Then, tell them what you just said.

Presentation Tips

3. Narrative

Many great stories and even some not-so-great jokes have been structured in the classic Rule of Three. Think of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Three Blind Mice.” This also includes the sequential order of a beginning, middle, and end. You can use this structure in a presentation to introduce your subject, describe an obstacle, and then reveal what is required to overcome it.

But why use a narrative? “Neurologists say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered far longer than any slide crammed with analytics.” – John Kotter, author of “A Sense of Urgency.”

Consider the Latin phrase “Omne trium perfectum,which means “everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.” No matter the content, the Rule of Three should be used in your presentation. It will boost the memory of your audience, and can even help you remember your main points while you speak.

Question: How can you use the Rule of Three in your next presentation?

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