Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three

May 09, 2019    |    Brad Holst

What makes a presentation memorable?
If you’re listening to a dynamic speaker, you might quickly point to their ease of manner, to their tone of voice, or even to their warmth and authenticity. You’d be right, all of these things are essential to a successful presentation.

But what about the content? If you take away all of the behavioral elements, how can a presenter make you remember the core of what they have to say?

The best leaders and presenters understand how to overtly use the rule of three to deliver information efficiently and with focus, while projecting a credible executive presence. Let’s take a look at how you can use this powerful organizational tool in your own presentation content.

Listening Is Hard Work
Even under the best of circumstances, listening is a more complex activity than we think. In his studies, Ralph Nichols, an early pioneer in communications at the University of Minnesota, determined that immediately after the average person has listened to someone talk, they remember only about half of what they have heard—no matter how carefully they felt they were listening. More modern studies have shown that most of us listen at or below a 25% efficiency rate. What’s more is that we may only remember about half of what's said during a 10-minute conversation, and still forget half of that within 48 hours.

Now imagine our ultra-modern meeting spaces with the distractions of laptops, smartphones, and virtual conference rooms. Look at what your content has to compete with!

Everyone’s Working Memory Is Limited
Often, one of the biggest challenges in business presentations is the fact that multiple stakeholders want to keep adding to the content. Before you know it, your small list of “must know” items has become a long list of items that includes the “nice to knows” and some additional tedious details that no one in the room will actually need to know.

This kind of presentation can quickly become an unorganized, unintuitive mess. There’s a good reason why no one will remember all that information at once.

You’re overloading your listener’s working memory.

The classic psychology study on memory by Harvard Professor George Miller and subsequent work by researchers Simon and Chase have demonstrated that people can repeat back a list of no more than about seven randomly ordered, meaningful items or “chunks” (which could be letters, digits, or words). This work became the basis for best practices like chunking digits like telephone numbers into three parts, making it much easier to remember and act on than a single block of 10 random numbers.

More modern memory studies have refined Miller’s determinations and have redefined working memory capacities. Nelson Cowan describes his findings that, on average, our central memory stores are limited to three to five meaningful items. Cognitive load theory also suggests that when you begin to overload these basic limitations, learning and retention just doesn’t happen.

Understanding the Rule of Three
The rule of three is ubiquitous.

Humans are both neurologically and culturally adapted to the number three and its combination of brevity and rhythm. We know from studies in neuroscience that our brains seek out patterns and finds the structure of three to be a complete set; it feels whole.

Three is the least number of items in a series that make a pattern, and once you start looking for this pattern, you’ll see that it’s everywhere.

In mathematics it’s a rule that allows you to solve problems based on proportions. In science there are three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The Latin maxim omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfection) echoes Aristotle and his Ars Rhetorica. There Aristotle posits that the most persuasive rhetorical appeals must rely on ethos, pathos, and logos.

Extrapolate from that, and even simple storytelling and narratives have a simple structure of a beginning, a middle and an end.

Using the Rule of Three to Your Advantage
The good news is that you can easily incorporate the rule of three into your presentation planning right away and see a remarkable difference in your content’s clarity and impact. For example, the rule of three can be used to great advantage when opening a presentation:

  • First raise a problem or opportunity to grab the audience’s attention
  • Then suggest how that problem can be resolved with a motivating call to action
  • Follow that by a sharing a tightly focused agenda

If you’ve used The Mandel Blueprint® content planning tool, you’ve already experienced the rule of three in action to structure these three steps. It contains Mandel's thinking and messaging framework, SCI-PAB® (Situation/Complication/Implication – Position/Action/Benefit®), a two-step intuitive problem/resolution framework, with each of step divided into three parts:

  • SCI will ensure you raise a problem or opportunity that the audience understands and cares about.
  • PAB motivates the audience to action by creating clarity on the path forward and the value of the outcomes.
  • And when you share an agenda with something as simple as “Today I’d like to focus on these three things…” you project an efficient, powerful, and engaging executive presence.

Never forget that there are dozens of other things competing for your listener’s mindshare. You need to quickly inspire confidence in others regarding your leadership ability and set them up for active listening and participation.

Structuring an Agenda
With or without a SCI-PAB to guide your content, as a general rule, you should create a tightly focused agenda of three main points that support your primary idea.

Ask yourself, if the audience is only going to remember three things, what should they be?

Focus on delivering the “must know” information for the audience, but prepare your answers to any questions regarding what would be “nice to know.” If they’re interested, rest assured that the audience will ask you about it.

Resist the temptation to add additional agenda points unless absolutely necessary. Any more than three items dilutes the focus of your presentation and can creep into that realm of high cognitive load for your audience. Overloading their working memory during your presentation means people simply won’t remember what you have to say.

The Power of Three
Our modern meeting spaces and technology distractions can tax even the most conscientious listener. Your goal is to cut through this competition for mindshare and deliver your content in a focused, easy-to-process, and intuitive manner.

Using the rule of three taps into something deeply human in all of us. Its roots in storytelling, critical thinking, and neuroscience make it a powerful tool that anyone can use with great success.

Try using it the next couple of times you need to present. Don’t be discouraged if you need to practice more than once or twice.

Third time’s a charm. 

Works Cited (alphabetical order)

Chase, W.G. and Simon, H.A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology 4(1): 55–81. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0010028573900042

Cowan, Nelson. (2010). The magical mystery four: How is working memory capacity limited, and why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19 (1): 51-57. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864034/

Grabmeier, Jeff. (2018). This is your brain detecting patterns. Sciencedaily.com. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180531114642.htm

Miller, George. A. (1955) The magical number seven, plus or minus two. Psychological Review, Vol. 101, No. 2, 343-352. Retrieved from http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/psy430s2001/Miller%20GA%20Magical%20Seven%20Psych%20Review%201955.pdf

Nichols, Ralph G. and Stevens, L. (1957). Listening to people. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1957/09/listening-to-people

Soloman, Howard. (n.d.). Cognitive Load Theory (John Sweller). Instructionaldesgin.org. Retrieved from https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/cognitive-load/

Thill, John and Bovee, C.L. (2004). Excellence in Business Communication. Prentice Hall

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