Presentations

The Power of Three

Three guys walk into a bar…

So many jokes start off this way, but have you ever wondered why it’s three, and not two or four?

There is a well-known rule in presentations that good things come in threes. It doesn’t appear to be strongly supported by scientific evidence, but it has been so well woven into the fabric of literature, communication and rhetoric that it’s a good idea to pay attention to it. It’s the curious fact that our minds like ideas in threes. Stories tend to have a situation, conflict and resolution structure. The Declaration of Independence could have listed a lot of unalienable rights, but limited itself to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We never watched a program called the Four Stooges.

Speech expert Max Atkinson tells us that, “One of the attractions of three-part lists is that they create an impression of completeness.” In fact, his analysis of political speeches showed that three-part lists regularly trigger applause during political presentations. (By the way, where do you think the term claptrap came from?)

Three somehow seems right to our minds. Maybe it’s because of our working memory limitations: there’s only so much we can process in our conscious awareness at one time. Or maybe it’s because three is the perfect number for arriving at a happy medium; like Goldilocks, one bowl of porridge may be too cold, another too hot, but the third is just right. You can use this when presenting alternatives. Henry Kissinger said he always presented Nixon with three alternatives; his favored one was always in the middle and was invariably the one selected.

You may have five reasons why someone should buy your product. Should you tell them all five? Although research shows that it depends on the situation, the short answer is no. When the audience is not that intellectually involved with the situation, then more reasons tend to be better. However, when the audience members are involved and are engaging their central processing, you run the risk that the weaker reasons will dilute the stronger. If they are going to forget some of what you told them, there’s a chance that they will remember the weaker and forget one of the stronger reasons. For example, one of Churchill’s most stirring speeches promised the British people nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, yet most people remember it as “blood, sweat and tears”.

Sometimes, people tend to overstuff their presentations through lack of confidence. They worry that they might leave out one of the reasons that is important to someone in the audience. I have two answers to that. First, you should know your audience well enough to make sure that does not happen. Second, you can always have those reasons in your backup material in case they come up during the conversation, or in case the top three you chose need reinforcement. (I wish I had a third answer, but I don’t. It just goes to show, you don’t have to take this rule to extremes.)

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