How To Present A Clear Message To Any Audience: The Rule of Three
by Andrea Pacini —
Have you ever had this experience: it becomes increasingly obvious to you during a presentation that the structure isn’t clear enough? You’re losing the audience (which might be clients, colleagues, the board, partners or investors).
If so, you are not alone. Most business leaders and professionals struggle with this.
Fortunately, there is one simple yet powerful communication technique that will help you: the Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three
Three is the most powerful number in communication. An audience is far more likely to remember information if it’s presented in groups of threes.
If you give your audience one piece of information, they will feel it’s not enough. If you offer more than three they may find that overwhelming.
Harvard Professor George Miller published a paper in 1956 called The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. He argued at the time that we struggle to retain more than seven or nine digits.
More recent scientific research brings that figure down to three or four pieces of information.
The advert which launched the original BBC Three channel featured a song by Bob Durough in which he sings: “Three is a magic number”. There is something so right about things that come in threes. They are effective and satisfying.
Three in Everyday Life
Threes are deeply embedded in our culture as easy ways to remember things. Once you realise it you’ll notice threes everywhere.
Good stories have a beginning, middle and end
Most plays have three acts
Films and books come in trilogies
Some of the best marketing slogans use just three words
Just Do It (Nike)
I’m loving it (McDonald’s)
Every little helps (Tesco)
Taste the difference (Sainsbury’s)
The UK government used the power of three for their Covid slogans
Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives
Hands, Face, Space
Some of the most powerful political statements use three
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (the national motto of France)
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (the well-known phrase from the United States’ Declaration of Independence)
Government of the people, by the people, for the people (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
Our priorities are Education, Education, Education (Tony Blair)
Fairy tales often use three for maximum impact
The Three Musketeers
The Three Little Pigs
Many businesses use a three-tier pricing structure. You often come across bronze, silver and gold price points or service levels. It’s no coincidence that we use the same system for first, second and third in sporting events. No one cares who came fourth.
The rule of three is often used to great effect in comedy. Comedies often have three characters (like the old Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman routines). The first two examples are sensible and the third is ridiculous.
Using three words or three phrases for maximum impact appears in all sorts of other areas of life. Here are some other famous examples:
Ready, steady, go
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
Sex, drugs & rock n’ roll
See it, say it, sorted (British Transport Police)
Applying the Rule of Three to Presentations
Next time you prepare a presentation, try applying the Rule of Three. Break down your structure into three parts.
At Ideas on Stage we’ve worked with thousands of clients since 2010 and I’ve never seen a presentation that can’t be divided into three parts.
If you aren’t doing this, and paying attention to the way you structure your presentations, you’re making it unnecessarily difficult for your audience to follow you, remember what you say, and take action.
To help you understand how you can apply the magic number three to your presentations, here are some examples I’ve come across in a business context. Feel free to adapt these for your own use.
- The three priorities we’ll use to achieve the sales target for the next quarter
- Three reasons to buy your product or service
- Problem, Solution, Call to action
- Three benefits to your solution
- Three reasons why the board should approve the budget for your project
- Three reasons to hire you
- Context, Actions, Results
- Three reasons to invest in your startup
Sticking to Three
People often push back about the Rule of Three and tell me they have more than three points to share during a presentation. How can they possibly stick to three points?
If you’re thinking the same, ask yourself the following:
- Do you really need to include everything? Are those nine points of equal importance? Of course not. Often, it’s better to explain three things that someone will comprehend rather than overwhelming them with too much information. Remember, if everything is important, nothing is important.
- If there really are nine important points, can they be grouped into three sections? Perhaps there are patterns and points of connection? Try combining certain elements so you can still stick to the Rule of Three.
Putting it into Practice
Alan Furley is the Co-Founder and CEO of ISL Talent, an award-winning UK Recruitment Consultancy. They work as a talent partner to startups and scaleups to help them build strong teams.
We worked with Alan to help him create a presentation for prospects on the following topic: How To Get Your First 10 Hires Right.
Alan broke the one-hour presentation down into three key messages which had some supporting points (also broken down into threes).
Key message 1: If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail
- Spend time planning before jumping into hiring
- A clear process for your next hire
- The power of an Org Chart
Key message 2: Treat your employees like you treat customers
- Stand out to people who aren’t looking for a job
- Think about them not you
- Purpose, team and values in hiring
Key message 3: Think retention first, recruitment second
- Hire potential vs credentials
- Capturing your values
- Have a retention plan
The beauty of this technique is that it works all the time. Regardless of how long your presentation is — 5 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour — you can always structure your content into three parts.
I use the Rule of Three myself when I’m running group workshops for our clients. The course comprises five online sessions of three hours each. I like to structure the whole workshop into three parts across those 15 hours like this:
- How to craft a captivating message
- How to reinforce your message with powerful visuals
- How to deliver your message with confidence
The Rule of Three in Real Life
In 2007 an academic paper titled The rule of three: How the third event signals the emergence of a streak examined people’s perception of ‘streaks’ in stock market movement and sports victories.
When something repeats three times we are most likely to see that as a ‘streak’. If it happens more often we don’t place any more importance on it.
The study asked students how much (theoretical) inheritance money they would invest in a stock. The students were prepared to put the most money into shares when they had risen in value over the three previous days. If the stock continued to rise it didn’t make them any more likely to invest.
Similarly, bookies and gamblers place greater weight on teams that have won three games in a row.
The study concluded that punters would be well advised to bet against teams that have won three games in a row and back teams that have lost three games in a row (in order to beat the market).
If you try to deliver too many points to your audience you will lose them along the way.
Our brains are wired to find the Rule of Three particularly satisfying and we retain three pieces of information more easily than any other quantity.
The Rule of Three is widely deployed in literature, comedy and politics. It finds its way into all sorts of catchphrases and slogans.
Using the Rule of Three in your presentations is highly effective. Any presentation can be restructured to conform to three sections.
Even if you have more points to make, still try to structure your presentation in three parts.
If you enjoyed this article, I would love to hear from you. Please get in touch or share the article with any colleagues or friends who might benefit from the ideas.
If you want to become a more confident presenter, take the Confident Presenter Scorecard. Answer simple Yes/No questions, get an instant score plus suggestions for improvement. It takes less than 3 minutes. Once you complete the scorecard, you’ll receive a free pdf copy of my best-selling book Confident Presenter.