Writing tip: In presentations, 3 points is plenty

When preparing a presentation, whether of 5 or 50 minutes, be strict about structure. Successful presentations tend to have one theme, three sections.

Basic structure of a memorable presentation:

  • A single core theme.
  • About 3 coherent sections, each of which makes a point that supports or extends your central theme.

That was the tip. Now we chat.

You know a lot. You know so much that you could make 20 important points in the time available. And heck, you need to, don't you? This is your one chance to tell the audience everything you know. This is their one chance to benefit from your vast experience. But wait—a mere 20 points? By talking fast you could tell the audience 50 things, one per minute!

Each section kind of works on a single message of its own. Each section has to hang together, focused on a single aspect of the theme.

If you try to make 50 important points, the sections turn to jelly and the audience chokes. Go write a book instead.

Ignoring the 3-section tip is not a capital crime

Now, I'm not saying that the 3-section constraint is an unbreakable rule—but it's a very handy guideline.

As Garr Reynolds says in his gorgeous book, Presentation Zen:

There is no rule that says your presentation should have three sections or three "acts" from the world of drama. However, three is a good number to aim for because it is a manageable constraint and generally provides a memorable structure.

Structure is only the bones. Plenty of dead boring presentations have a perfect structure. So start with the one-theme, 3-point tip—then inject originality and hard work.

Add creativity, inspiration, energy and humanity

As I write this tip, the Glorious Panoply of Heavenly Experts is shining forth at Webstock, Wellington's festival of technology and life. (Yes, I am suffering deeply because I'm not there.) Garr Reynolds' presentation about presentation is on Thursday, Valentine's Day.

These outstanding speakers have 40 minutes to enlighten the audience. Their talks will cover everything from empathy in design, to expertry in HTML5 & CSS, to the future of education and how tech makes us human. Their style will vary from ra-ra-ra song-and-dance to scathing intellectualisation to friendly chat and beyond.

But one thing is pretty much guaranteed. Every presentation will focus strongly on a single theme. And every presentation will be structured into several—probably three—sections, all supporting the central theme.

A palpable structure ensures that even after gorging on a 2-day feast, the audience will recall not just the stars' presentation style, but (roughly) what they said.


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