Tag Archives: presentation

3 Reasons Why 3 is the Magic Number for Your Story

We love threes in stories. Other numbers are also available: 12 Apostles, 10 Commandments, Seven Deadly Sins, the Famous Five and Fantastic Four. But we find threes again and again (and again): Perseus and Macbeth meet three witches; Goldilocks deals with three bears; Wise Monkeys, Wishes and Little Pigs all come in threes. We even structure stories themselves in threes: past, present and future; before, during and after; beginning, middle and end.

Winston Churchill loved a tricolon (the rhetorical use of threes). He famously promised the British people “blood, sweat and tears” in the dark hours of World War Two. Actually, he promised “blood, sweat, toil, and tears”, but we only remember three out of the four.

So, here are three reasons why we love threes, followed by some ways (guess how many) that you can use threes in your next story or presentation.

  1. Three is short. You can get three things into a tweet or onto a slide.
  2. Three is enough. We can hold between five and seven things in our minds at once. When you allow for distractions (“Ooh, I wonder if I’ve had any likes yet”, “That guy’s looking at me funny”, “How long’s this going to take?”) there’s only room in your listeners’ heads for three things you want to say, max.
  3. Three is a pattern. Once is just a random event. Twice might be coincidence. Three times is proof (in a folksy, rule-of-thumb sort of way). Four is just more of the same. Five, a boring list.

So how can you use threes when you’re telling a story or making a presentation?

  1. Emphatic Three. Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education” or Margaret Thatcher’s “No, no, no!” Simple repetition or on a rising scale: OK, we get it.
  2. Set Up and Contrast Three. “Never before in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Churchill’s Battle of Britain tribute sets up the huge scale of what was at stake (“so much” and “so many”) before contrasting with tiny scale (“so few”) of the victors. Lead your listeners left once, then twice and they will be half expecting you to go left a third time. When you switch to the right, the contrast is unexpected and delightful. This also works for Little Pigs (straw = failure; sticks = failure; bricks = success) and Boys Who Cry Wolf.
  3. Dialectical Three (aka The Goldilocks Three). For Hegel, it was thesis, antithesis and synthesis. For the rest of us, it’s the bowl of porridge that’s too hot, the bowl that’s too cold and the one that’s just right. Use this three when you want to appear moderate, taking the sensible centre ground between extremes.

More storytelling and presentation tools here. Or to arrange training in storytelling and presentation, click here.

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Why don’t people listen when I talk about my work?

Probably because already they’re drowning in a sea of words.

There are so many words coming at us all the time that we’re desperate for a reason to dismiss yours and move on. But there will be things which are “front of mind” for your audience, and you can use these to hijack their attention long enough to get your message across. This short film will show you how to make your message Timely, Relatable, Unexpected and Emotionally Engaging.

Effective communication means more that just giving people a list of facts and hoping they remember them. Wrap those facts up in a story and you are far more likely to get people to pay attention. Better still, they will retell your story to others if you get it right.

These two videos show how Nike changed their approach to storytelling. Their first TV ad from 1982 is about the company. The people who MAKE the shoe are the hero of the story. The second video from Nike’s 2012 ad campaign makes the people who WEAR the shoe the hero of the story.

Version 1 is your “foundation” story, the story of how you/your company got to where you are today. Version two is your “mentor” story. This tells how you are helping your customers get where they want to go.

Remember, you can only really tell your foundation story once. You can tell as many mentor stories as you have customers. And let’s be honest, nobody likes listening to someone go on about how great they are. We find them boring.

Finally, a word on how to make a presentation work so that what you show doesn’t clash with what you tell. If you don’t get the visual and verbal parts of any presentation working in harmony, you’ll leave your audience bored or confused.

More storytelling advice here and presentation tips here

Click here to download the worksheets for this presentation

Prepare, write and deliver better presentations

Fifteen minute masterclass in doing good presentations. This slideshow covers how to prepare yourself for a good presentation; tips for introverts and extroverts; how to think and write clearly and how to use some of the tricks of great speakers to make your message stick.

This slideshow includes several techniques that you’ll find elsewhere on the website:

Ethos, pathos and logos.

Make it original

Thinking in threes


Remember, it’s no good having a great idea if you can’t get anyone to listen. So check out these tools for selling your best ideas to the people who matter most.

Credit: thanks to Garfilld88 for the video of Nelson Mandela’s trial speech. Image copyright: Jigsaw, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, TED.com, Morgan Creek Productions and BBC.

3 steps to avoid the bull

Why do so many smart people in business and public service write and speak so badly? A UK judge recently accused a social worker of writing in such dense bureaucratic terms she might as well have been speaking a foreign language. What did “imbued with ambivalence” and “having many commonalities emanating from their histories” actually mean? And how did this help anyone decide if a child should be taken away from its mother?

If you’re writing bull, here’s three steps to help you sound more human.

Step 1: Work out why you write so badly.

It’s probably down to fear. Many of us are afraid we don’t belong, afraid someone will tap us on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry, there’s been a terrible mistake. We’ve just realised you don’t know what you’re doing, please leave.” So we copy the language and manners of those around us, the better to fit in.

Then there’s the fear that what we need to say is unpleasant and will upset the listener. So we reach for euphemisms like “downsizing”. The pain is still there, but with added confusion and mistrust.

Keep an eye out for these fears when you sit down to write, they are red flags predicting bull.

Step 2: Be sure of what you want to say and why.

What do you believe in? What are your values? How do they inform what you’re trying to do? In the case of the social worker, I bet she believes in giving vulnerable children the best chance of happiness. Does that mean sometimes making tough, painful decisions? Yes? Then say so. Explain why your values make you act the way you do.

Think about your listener. What are their values? Do they trust you to be honest? What language do they feel comfortable with? You owe it to them to be as clear as you can – on their terms, not yours.

Step 3: Re-write, with help from the masters of 20th century prose.

Write down everything you want to say. Read it back and underline all the moments you felt fear. Underline any section where you’re not sure about the values behind it. Chances are this is where you’re writing bull.

Now re-write, with advice from three masters of 20th century prose: Winston Churchill, George Orwell and David Ogilvy.

Churchill: “Short words are best and the old words, when short, best of all.” So engage in a process of extinguishing, eliminating, de-prioritising… No, try to strike out any long, modern word and use old, short words instead.

Orwell: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.” Passive is a fudge, allowing responsibility to be evaded. “Concerns were raised…” No, tell me who raised concerns about what and who responded.

Ogilvy: “Write the way you talk. Naturally. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” Enough said.

For more tips on great prose writing:

Five writing tips from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech.

George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing.

And David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing clearly.

99 problems (but my pitch ain’t one)

  • Any lingering doubts about your pitch will come out in the first 30.
  • The next 40 will reveal any patterns.
  • The last 29 will be unusual and could contain useful insights.

When you’ve completed your list, highlight any urgent problems. Turn these problems into “How could we….?” questions to brainstorm solutions.

So why does 99 Problems work – and won’t it discourage me?

It’s much better to spot a potential problem before the person you’re pitching to does. That way, you can address it before you go through the door, or at least show you’re aware of it.

Don’t worry that deliberately looking for problems will dishearten you.

Ironically, the harder we have to search for evidence of something, the less likely we are to believe it. If I asked you to find just two problems with your pitch, that would be so easy you’d suspect there must be more out there.

You’ll struggle to find 99 problems, and so you’ll instinctively feel your pitch is stronger. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this the “availability heuristic.”

Try it out. You’ll have 99 Problems, but your pitch ain’t one.

Try the original List of 100 technique here:


For more on the availability heuristic, see chapter 12 of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin 2011).