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Structure your Public Speaking Presentations in Three Parts

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 0

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” – Rudyard Kipling.

In this article, we’ll cover what some of you may be doing instinctively already. And if you haven’t been doing this, you should. That’s to capitalize on the rule of threes. Whatever speech you are delivering, or toast you’re giving, or board room presentation you’re planning (notice the previous phrase?) – try to break it up so that you end up having three parts to it. Biologists, clergymen, storytellers, lawyers, and others have for centuries and even longer tried to figure out why it is that human beings gravitate to this structure. So much of our culture rests on the notion of threes, from the Holy Trinity to the story about the three little pigs, but what matters is that you use it. Are humans hardwired to think in threes? Let the cognitive psychologists figure that one out. For you, the public speaker, structure around this, or create phrases that take advantage of this rule.


Organize Your Public Speaking Presentation into Three Parts

Virtually every speech or presentation can be broken up into three parts. As a trial lawyer, what I do in opening statements before the jury is I tell the story in three ways. First, I talk about what happened in the case and what happened to my client (tell them, let’s say, about the insurance company that messed around with my client when after he had been paying premiums, got into an accident and tried to make a claim for coverage). Next, I’ll talk about the witnesses that will appear to testify – the client, his wife, a bystander, or whoever the witnesses are. Finally, I’ll tell them about what we are asking for.

You can do the same with any graduation speech, wedding toast, sales pitch, or university lecture. For example:

  • A graduation speech to a high school class can be broken down by who they were as entering freshmen, who they are today, and what will be expected of them tomorrow.
  • A wedding toast could cover how you know the bride who is your daughter: As a cheerful baby, as a bratty teenager, and as a wonderful woman.
  • A sales pitch could describe your product, competing products, and the reasons why your product should be preferred.
  • A university lecture about photosynthesis can discuss the chemical process, the actual reactions, and then the physical organs in which the reactions take place.

You may be saying to yourself or thinking to yourself that there are some lectures or some presentations that do not lend themselves to this tri-partite structure. And I leave it up to you to decide. But I would argue that most speeches can be broken down into three parts, even if the final part is a bit contrived. So for example, you may be giving a presentation about the market for coffee in a certain city. How to break it into three parts? There are multiple ways of doing so, for example:

  • I’ll talk about the coffee market in Los Angeles. First, I’ll talk about the current beverage market in Los Angeles. Next, I’ll describe the current coffee drinks in Los Angeles. Last, I’ll talk about how our drink will fit into that market. Or:
  • Today’s goal is to figure out how we sell our coffee in Los Angeles. Here are the three questions we need to answer. First, how do we ship our coffee to L.A.? Next, how do we get it to the locations at the individual retail stores? Last, what is our strategy for marketing our coffee? Or:
  • In determining whether to expand into the Los Angeles coffee market, I’ll address three decision points for our company. First, what do our company numbers show? Next, what do customer preferences in L.A. show? Last, what are the costs and benefits of entering?

You’ll notice from the above that the three-part structure does not always make absolute perfect sense. But – and this goes to the power of threes – to the ear, it still sounds great, and it helps the listener structure your presentation. And breaking it into threes helps you guide the listener through your argument a lot better. You’ll be able to remember, and so will they.

Sprinkle Sentences so that they Contain Three Parts

Not only can (and should) you structure your speeches into three parts; the same can be true of sentences. In usual parlance, you have phrases such as “lights, camera, action” or “ready, aim, fire” or before any witness takes the stand, they are to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” So here, we’re talking about individual sentences and how having three parts to them sometimes can be wonderfully pretty.

I was in court the other day and a prosecutor was talking about a bank robber. And the story wasn’t just about how the bank robber had taken money. No, the prosecutor said that the defendant had stolen cash from the vault of the bank – “money that he hadn’t earned; money that he didn’t work for; money that was other people’s college savings and retirement funds.” That phrase wasn’t just about the money – it was about what the money actually symbolized – other people’s hard work – and because he had broken it into three parts, the phrase was especially powerful. I could see the jurors sort of sitting up at that one and listening very carefully. And the defendant, for what it’s worth, was later convicted.

From the beginning of time, human beings have always been intrigued by the number three (“third time’s the charm”). Try to use this method in structuring your speeches, and also in individual sentences, and you will amp up the power of your public speaking.

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