The Rule of Threes

There  is an unspoken and almost magical rule in communication that says that you should organize your thoughts and presentations in threes. Many Hollywood plays  have three acts. Most jokes are told in threes …Did you hear about the rabbi, the priest and the lawyer.?

It started with Aristotle’s Poetic with its beginning, middle and the end. Note that we have the three stooges, three little pigs, three musketeers, the holy trinity, etc. The porridge was too hot, too cold and just right with papa bear, mama bear and baby bear. The Garden of Eden had three players – Adam, Eve and the snake.

The Rule of Three is an excellent rule. I wish more presenters would make use of it. Many of them feel that they need to tell the entire history of the western civilization in 40 minutes or less. Engineers and scientists are notorious for that because they fear that the audience will fault them for “leaving something out”. So instead of conveying three main points in a presentation, they jam everything they know onto a few slides with those dreadful bullet points and expect the audience to digest it all.

So focus on three main points in your presentation.

Here is a little experiment. We are trying to fit several large pebbles and a whole bunch of smaller pebbles inside a glass jar.

The first picture shows what happens when you put the small pebbles in first. The larger pebbles cannot get inside the jar.

Now if you were to put the large pebbles in first and then fill the void with the smaller pebbles, you can fit them ALL inside the jar as shown in the second photo!

The moral of this story is simple: Start with your big ideas first before you run out of time (space).

2 responses to “The Rule of Threes

  1. Well said, Norm. Nearly all presenters in effect put a whole report into their deck, instead of just the equivalent of an exec. summary. (I love this related quote by author Rhonda Abrams: “Decide what’s important so your audience doesn’t have to!”)

    I really like this use of the old pebbles-in-jar analogy, too, which is so apt.

    This is my own take on the rule of 3s: “Stick to just the top 3 points, where you can.” (For an explanation of the “where you can” part, see )

  2. Good Post!

    Ina addition to the structure, the Rule of Three also applies to making points in your presentation.

    I teach Presentation Skills and show people how to:
    Develop, Practice and Deliver. . .

    I talk about the:
    Components, Parts, and Elements. . .

    If we want people to GET IT! our presentation needs to:
    Educate, Entertain and Explain.

    Thanks for the reminder. Your readers should
    Read your Post.
    Understand it
    Use it!.

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