When can you break the “rule” of a three-part structure?

In my Presentation Planning Guide I suggest that you use a thee-part structure for your presentation. They work for novels and movies, and for presentations too.

But, using a three-part structure is not a rule set in concrete. Sometimes your presentation will be more effective with more points. There’s a risk though, that each time you add a point, you dilute the power of the points that came before. Hence the saying “more is less”.

So you need to be clear that more than three points really are necessary. Here’s the distinction to make:  is each point part of a logical sequence? Or can each point can stand alone?

1. Each point is part of a logical sequence

Sometimes every point is important. Each point flows from the one before, and the presentation wouldn’t make sense without each point. For example, when I’m explaining the process for designing a presentation, I have five main points:

  1. Focus your presentation around a key message
  2. Support that message with a three-part structure
  3. Craft clear and succinct assertions for each point
  4. Back-up each assertion with evidence
  5. Link the parts of your presentation with signposting.

They are part of a process which would be incomplete if I missed one out. And because they do all fit together as part of a process, it will be easier for the audience to remember than if they were stand-alone points.

Do what works. If it won’t make sense without five points, then include all those points.

2. Each point can stand alone

In other situations, the points can make sense even when presented alone. A reader, Sophie, wrote to me saying:

I’m going to give a 15-20 minutes keynote inspiration speech next week. I plan to talk about “failure”:

  1. Failure teaches us.
  2. Failure reveals our ability.
  3. Failure makes us stronger.
  4. Failure inspires us.
  5. Failure inspires others.
  6. Failure builds courage.
  7. Failure is better than regret.
  8. Failure leaves us open to better opportunities.
  9. Failure makes success a little sweeter.

As an outsider, you can probably see the problem here (but be empathic – it’s easy to get attached to your points, and think that they are all essential). Each of Sophie’s points can stand alone. So she can decide which points to include and which to discard. Here’s what I wrote back:

If you cover nine points in 20 minutes you can only spend two minutes on each point (you have to allow some time for opening and closing). In two minutes you don’t have time to make each point really hit home. You will need about 4-5 minutes to make each point memorable. So from your list of nine points – choose the three that you consider the most important to your audience and illustrate each one with a vivid and emotional story.

If you’re faced with a similar problem, your role is to be a prioritizer. If you include all your points, you’re letting the randomness of your audience’s memory decide which points will be remembered. You should be deciding that.

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  1. I agree with you Olivia that 3 point structures, in fact any prescribed structures, should not be applied religiously.

    In case of the nine failure points, I would go through them one by one without putting a structure upfront. In the end though you could put a slide that summarizes everything in less than 9 items, some of these points overlap slightly.

  2. Hi Jan

    Not quite sure what you mean in your second sentence – but I’m interested to find out. Are you talking about in the planning process or when the material is actually being presented?

    I agree with you that some of the points about failure do overlap a bit. Another way of handling this presentation, would be to “chunk” several points together to form one point. See more about this here http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/content/edit-presentation/.



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