The Power of Three: John Chapman

I first became consciously aware of the Power of Three in the mid-1980s whilst attending a training course on public speaking and presentations.

At the time, the company I worked for was planning a flotation on the London stock market and were told by their advisers that all senior managers who did formal public speaking or press interviews should be sent on a professional course to hone their skills.

So, several of us were sent to Sheffield to be trained by two ex-BBC presenters who essentially took us apart and rebuilt us. Previously I had done lots of presentations and thought I was pretty good. But these two guys showed me how amateurish I had been and gave me a whole new perspective on audience engagement.

But what stood out most from this training was the idea of the Power of Three, the concept of which I have used not just in my subsequent presentations but also in my personal work planning, business organisational structures and journalistic endeavors.

 The first element of the Power of Three that I picked up was that an average listener to a talk or presentation has an attention span of three seconds and that if you don’t keep engaging them with one of three types of words or phrases in those three seconds then you will start to lose them.

These three types are warm words, picture words and personal words.

In essence warm words show that you understand the issues your audience faces, picture words help your audience visualise what you are trying to explain, and personal words are where are you are directly addressing the audience and bringing them into discussion.

I have found that over the years by using this approach it not only keeps the audience's attention but has also encouraged them to come up to me after the presentation to engage in exploring the themes of the talk further.

Following on from types of words used, the course highlighted the power of the use of triplets to give a rhythm to the talk. Instead of saying this and this you say this, this and this. Even if you only have this and this to say, invent a third point to create the rhythm.

An example when describing a product would be instead of using ‘strong and powerful’ you would use ‘strong, powerful and innovative’. Or, of a service instead of using ‘helpful and useful’ you would use ‘helpful, useful and engaging’.

Triplets is probably the most useful element of the Power of Three for everyday use. I have used it not only in presentations but also in articles, business reports and marketing ecasts. Whether you are applying for jobs, trying to influence colleagues or explaining a technical issue, the use of triplets is amazingly powerful.

The idea of triplets also leads to the way you display your ideas on screen via Powerpoint or any other visual presentation application. We have all heard and used the phrase ‘Death by Powerpoint’ when referring to a presentation. This usually refers to both the length of the presentation and to the amount of information on screen meaning that the audience ends up reading the screen instead of listening to the speaker or the speakers continually referencing the screen and not facing the audience.

So, the Power of Three comes into play when you are preparing your slides for an engaging presentation, the rule being no more than three headlines or bullet points on a screen.

If you have more than three points to highlight, then the rule is, if you only have four then have four points, however if you have five invent a sixth and have two slides.

Putting lots of words on screen only detracts from the presentation. Grouping by three means the audience can easily see what the subject is about and its structure, and the presenter can keep his ideas precise, poignant and clear.

This leads to the final element in the Power of Three when it comes to presentations, length!

You should be able to deliver any presentation in three different time spans. I have found this invaluable over the years as organisers regularly change the time you are given for your talk, or things happen that change an event's structure or ‘heaven forbid’ you arrive late.

You will find, after practice, that you can deliver a 30-minute presentation in 20 or 10 minutes if you structure it properly, without losing the key elements. In fact, the process of practicing this three-time method enables you to cut out all the chaff and bring out the key messages with force, clarity and effectiveness.

Finally, the most powerful lesson I learnt from the course in Sheffield was, when it comes to presentations, never trust anybody but yourself.

On the last day of the course we all had to do a presentation on a subject close to our hearts. We spent a considerable time making our 35mm slides. (Yes, there was no PowerPoint then.) Then arranging them in the carousel. But, unknown to us, the tutors changed the order of our slides or turned them upside down.

So, as first on my feet to deliver my presentation I was surprised when the audience of my colleagues started laughing and pointing at the screen. This caused me to stumble in my talk and start apologising for the slide mishap. Only to be met by a bellow from the back of the room from one of the tutors saying ‘If you don’t know your subject get off the effing stage’.

A valuable lesson that I had reason to thank on more than one occasion throughout my career.

Back now to the Power of Three theme.

When it comes to presentations using the Power of three helps you plan, structure and deliver effective talks. However, when you start extending the use of the Power of Three to the rest of your business life you start to understand what the phrase really means.

Whether it is building teams, organising your own time or creating clarity of ideas the Power of Three is mightily effective.

I first realised this in business when putting together teams to launch a new product, address a problem issue or identify new opportunities. By starting off the process with a team of three with complementary skill sets accelerated the process exponentially.

The dynamics of a group of three means that they all have to work together. With four or more you get factions or festering disagreements. With three this just does not happen. If there is disagreement this comes to a head quickly and gets resolved. The group of three acts as a driving force within the business not as a committee of discussion.

Looking back over my career I can identify many instances where, by using groups of three employees, to address sometimes complex issues has resulted in faster, clearer and more effective resolutions.

In my personal business lifetime management has always been an issue but by applying the Power of Three principles it enabled me to keep ahead of my workload.

Each day throughout my later career I would sit down first thing and identify the three most important and time critical issues that I needed to resolve that day. By focusing on resolving those three as soon as possible, it helped me by clearing the rest of the day to respond to colleague issues and to close off issues that had the potential to escalate.

I recommended this process to several colleagues who appeared to be overwhelmed by their multiple lists of things to do. Many seemed to spend more time managing their lists than actually getting anything done.

The last point I want to highlight on the Power of Three, I think is the most important, the development and passing on of ideas.

Often when I have delivered talks, I have told the audience to identify three ideas from the content of my presentations that are relevant to them, or their business as take aways. To expect them to remember all my points is unrealistic, so getting them to find the key ones relevant to them will be most valuable.

But why three you may ask. Well, it has been proven in many business, sporting and cultural spheres that individuals find it difficult to remember or focus on more than three ideas at a time. Information overload affects us all. Too many instructions cause confusion, hesitation and misinterpretation.

Keeping the message simple, concise and relevant leads to success.

My nephew confirmed this point to me recently. He manages a Welsh professional football team and just completed all his coaching badges. On hearing me expand on my Power of Three ideas he enthusiastically backed what I was expounding.

Apparently, as part of their training football coaches are strongly advised to give players no more than three ideas before going onto the pitch. Research has shown them that anymore and players get confused at what is expected of them at a particular point in the game. Especially in such a dynamic sport.

So, there we have it, whether you are coaching a professional football team, running an expanding business or just trying to get your ideas over in a presentation, employing the Power of Three can make an amazing difference.

Enjoy the Power of Three

p.s - How many triplets have I used in this article?

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