There’s a piece of presentation advice that I’d like to see die a very fiery death: the one where people tell you that “all you need” for a great talk or presentation is:
- An attention-getting opening
- 3 main concepts or themes (usually attached to a story each)
- A memorable close
I have no issue with the opening. You do, in fact, need something that allows the audience to know they should listen.
You also need a good close to make sure they (a) know when you’re done and (b) remember your message, and you.
No, my problem is with the “three main concepts or themes” part, particularly as a way to build a “powerful” presentation. Why do I hate it? Let me count the ways:
- Sometimes, as a selling point for the three-point structure, people say, “Hey! If you run out of time, or need to cut your presentation down, just drop out a point or two!” Oh my good lord. If you can drop a point out of your presentation, WHY IS IT THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE?GAH. I hate that. Your audience’s time, even if it’s just a weekly update meeting, is precious. Don’t waste it with information that doesn’t need to be there.
- Also, if each of your three points has its own set of three things to support it so, you know, it still feels “complete” even if you cut points 2 and 3 for time, then you’ve just set up at least NINE things you’re asking people to remember (and, dear reader, I’m sorry to say I see this a LOT). Even on a good day, people can only remember seven things on average (like the seven core digits of a phone number). More often we can only remember 3 or 4, which I know is part of the reason why people proselytize the 3-point structure. But when it comes to making a big shift, people can really only remember one big idea. ONE.
- But too often those three main points aren’t supporting an overarching message (which is totally fine, by the way), they ARE the overarching message. But “three points” aren’t a message. They’re just three points. Think of them as sideways bullet points: three, independent ideas, connected only by the fact that you’re talking about them. That’s a problem, not only because of what I was talking about above, but because our brains (and thus your audiences’ brains) don’t remember individual free-floating pieces of information. To remember things, they must be connected to each other, even better if they’re connected to things we already know, understand, and/or believe. So just saying, “now let’s talk about [Point #2],” doesn’t work, because it doesn’t connect the points by an actual, contextual reason those points make sense together. Even if you choose never to give up your three-point structure, please, please, connect your points contextually. For example, “So make sure your message starts with something people want [Point #1]. But people need more than desire to make a purchase decision. They have to believe your product will do what you tell them it will do [Point #2], so let’s talk about that….” Your bullets need to be connected by more than your topic. I mean, you hate vertical bullet points on a slide, right? (Please, please tell me you do). So why is it okay to have a presentation that basically does that same thing?
- Continuing on that rant (you knew I couldn’t stop at three points, right?) a three-point structure is VERY likely to be emotionally flat. You just can’t create sustained emotional engagement with three, separate, equally important points. Sure, you can create emotional highs and lows within each of those points, but the presentation as a whole is going to feel more like an EKG — flat, with occasional bumps of emotion and engagement. That’s not great. After all, there’s a reason stories have an arc, and not a set of bulleted points. They have an arc because we humans love to have an experience build and build and build… and then have it relieved and resolved. If your three points aren’t connected on an arc, you’re denying your audiences that satisfaction, and, as we talked about in my “three points aren’t a message” point, above, you’re denying yourself a truly great, cohesive presentation that makes a case for an idea.
- …and three points do not a case make, at least not all by themselves. More often than not, to try to make the Opening/Three Points/Closing structure make sense, people put their Big Idea right up there in the opening (“Want to live a life you love? Then do what you love!”). They then use three points to be the reasons why people should agree and act on their message (“You’ll be healthier! You’ll be happier! You’ll make more money!”). But a structure that is essentially “Do this thing, because: reasons, so do this thing!” wouldn’t get a passing grade from even the most basic logic or persuasion course. And while it’s very possible to get people motivated and inspired with a structure and logic like that, people are very unlikely to actually DO anything afterward. Why? Because you haven’t built their case for that change, you’ve built yours (which, hey!, you can cut down at will!). You haven’t figured out where they’re starting mentally, how ready they are to act, and all the other things they need to hear to overcome their incredibly strong desire not to do anything, no matter how good you make acting sound.
Now, before you send me a torrent of emails that defend all the times when that structure has worked for you, or how it’s kept you a high-paying speaker for years now, or that you’re a busy person and that structure simplifies what can be hard and scary task — filling a blank page or slide deck — I get it. Yes, there are times when that structure works and is appropriate.
First, as friend and colleague Dr. Nick Morgan often notes, it’s a superb way to organize your thoughts when someone asks you to give spontaneous remarks (“Hey, Jane! Say a few words, will you?”) or a spontaneous response (“Hey, Joe! What do you think we should do here?”). Headline/Three points/Headline is a good way of explaining your position or perspective, especially when you have 5 minutes or less.
That “explaining” part is the second instance where the three-point structure can be useful. Thesis/Support/Conclusion is a classic academic or “essay” form. It’s good when your goal is to tell people about an idea. To inform them of your perspective.
But if you want them to share that perspective when they don’t already? If you want them to act, not just understand? Then you need to go beyond informing people about an idea, you need to implant it. And, since people only act on their ideas, the ones they’ve justified to themselves are the right ones for them, that means you need to build that idea in their heads… not just bullet it.
And, by the way, none of this means that you can’t have three points in your talk. After using your opening to introduce the audience Goal your presentation will help achieve, you can make your three big points:
- The Problem of Perspective that they don’t know that have, but need to solve
- The Truth that makes that Problem impossible to ignore
- The Change to make to solve the Problem and achieve their Goal
And then close with a summary of that whole case. But those three points need to support your ONE big idea.
If it’s a “how” type talk, you can set up your Goal, Problem, Truth, and Change early, and then use your three points as the three steps or criteria to put that Change in place.
If it’s a “why” type of talk, you could also use your three points to set up your Problem…and then sum up with the rest of the Red Thread®.
Here’s what all this means: the power of your presentation doesn’t just come from the points you make, it comes from the case you create. And the power of that case comes from the combination of a rational case married to an emotional arc — and those already have a powerful structure. Even better, they have the SAME structure. The structure of a story. The Red Thread®.
Goal. Problem. Truth. Change. Action. Goal achieved.
So to build a powerful presentation every time, figure out the story of your idea first. Then you can figure out what points you need to support it. That way you’ll know:
- The points your audience needs, the Red Thread®, are always there. If you need to make your presentation shorter, just remove the lesser, supporting points, stories, and interactions as needed. If you need or want to make it longer, start adding those details back in. By the way, thinking quickly through the Red Thread® is a great way to make your spontaneous remarks even more powerful. Headline = Goal. Three points = Problem, Truth, Change. Closing headline = Goal + Change. It also works in the academic structure. Put the Red Thread® in your abstract/thesis paragraph and then defend as usual.
- All of the critical points of your Red Thread are now operating in service of one big idea (how the Change achieves the Goal)
- Each point builds on the one before, so they’re logically connected and thus more memorable.
- Because they’re following the ups and downs of story structure, there’s also an emotional arc, one that builds throughout the presentation.
- You’ve moved them through a series of points that starts with where they are and leads them to your conclusion. You’ve built their case for your idea.
And you know? That’s really the only point you need.The power of your presentation doesn’t just come from the points you make, it comes from the case you create. Click To Tweet
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