So far we have talked about The Frame, where you get your audience onto the same page with you, and The Take Away, where you attempt to actually deliver a message. This post will dig into the main points of your presentation. I propose that three points is the right number. There is no real magic to this because there are many examples of effective speeches with some other number of points. With three you have a chance that someone in the audience will actually be able to remember your points and use them to reconstruct your argument.
Just like with the Tell Tell Tell structure we talked about, the challenge is to reconcile the conflict between the need to be entertaining and the need to be repetitive enough to make your point. When you launch into a presentation and say you have three points there are several traps waiting for you:
- Trap 1: Too predictable: Some people are going to immediately think that your talk is going to be over structured and boring. After all, most presentations have three points and by saying yours does too you risk being lumped in with the worst of them. Sometimes I make a comment about this by saying something about it like: "Three points may sound boring, but it's better than five!"
- Trap 2: Hard to follow: Once you announce the three point structure, people will work to put your talk into that structure. So if you have sub points or anything else that would confuse the counting, you may end up with some distracted people wondering if you are on point 2 or 3. It is a good idea to tie your comments back to your structure often with reminders of what the first point was during the second point and a looking into the future about the third point that is on the way.
- Trap 3: The points must support your argument: Anecdotes, asides, tangents, counter arguments, and other conventions have their way of sneaking into your presentation. Making these into points in your talk will dilute your effectiveness. When using these types of items -- which are often highly entertaining -- it is a good idea to change your tone, walk to a different part of the stage, turn off the visuals, or anything to indicate that this is a break in the action. And make sure that they are not the main points, but illustrations that bring your points to life. After delivering one of these, you can then get everyone back onto your structure by saying: "Ok, so back to our list" and then review the progress so far.
I highly recommend using three points for the reasons I listed above. Many of the great presentations I have seen follow this structure. The other day I saw an incredible use of this convention. The speaker started by saying I am here to tell you about three numbers: X, Y, and Z. He did not say he had three points, just that he was going to talk about three numbers, and he gave the numbers without any context. So he had set up his three points without sounding too conventional. He then proceeded to circle around the three numbers, adding information to each one. I visualized it like building three stacks of something, say quarters. Imagine a guy with a roll of quarters, he lays out three, and then he walks around them adding a quarter to each stack each time around.
By the end we knew those three numbers backwards and forwards and since they all supported his main point -- we had it down. It was a spectacular use of a very traditional three point presentation structure.