Break this presentation rule and you’ll lose your audience

Three is a kind of magic number. If you rub the genie’s bottle you get three wishes, Sleeping Beauty had three fairy Godmothers, there were three stooges and three little pigs, and three musketeers, “The Three Amigos”, “My three sons”, “Three’s Company” or you might think three’s a crowd, people usually give you three guesses or three chances and of course three strikes and you’re out.

And in presentation we have what is commonly called “the rule of three.”

Here’s what happens when a presenter breaks the rule of three.

A salesperson was recently presenting to our company the reasons why we should transition to his firm. He talked first about the excellent level of customer service his company could provide, then about their competitive pricing, he then moved on to talk about his firm’s awards, their experience in our vertical, knowledge of our needs…

Most of the audience had mentally disengaged somewhere along the way. But I continued to pay attention, realizing I had a future blog in the making, and I wanted to count exactly how many reasons he was going to give us. We ended up with eleven.

This had a severe negative impact on the salesperson’s presentation because research has shown that the human brain has trouble processing long strings of loosely connected information. What the human brain is much more comfortable managing are chunks of information – to be more specific we like three chunks of information.

If you give your audience more than three reasons to do what you want them to do or more than three key points regarding the case you’re making you are likely giving them too much information to process and remember. With every key point you give beyond three you significantly increase the information overload on your audience and as a result you significantly increase the chance that the audience will simply disengage from your presentation.

You may have a dozen key points that you are convinced your audience needs to be aware of but resist the temptation to tell your audience everything. Instead select just the most powerful and compelling points to present to your audience and never forget the magic power of three.


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