Three reasons for three bullet points

“Rules of Three” abound in presentation principles.

When it comes to good slide management, advice on how many bullets you should have on each PowerPoint slide is all over the place: anywhere from ZERO to 7. Different authorities have 6X6 or 7X7 rules governing the number of bullets, lines or words on a slide. Each to his or her own.

For me, three is the magic number for business presentations. There’re many “Rules of Three” that can be applied to content and performance. And I think three is the ideal number of bullets for most word slides, and I can offer three good reasons.

To begin, it helps to have a framework that defines the ideal slide; in this case an ideal word slide. Here’s a basic framework that can work for most any word slide for any purpose, and that includes three bullets.

Key Idea

  • Evidence/proof no. 1 – information/data that supports this idea (that proves this is a good idea.)
  • Proof no. 2
  • Proof no. 3

Your objective: What is the key takeaway: what audience response are you looking for based on this idea? Acknowledgement, acceptance or action?

The question you should ask and be able to answer for each word slide in your presentation deck is, “What do you want the audience to take away from this slide?” What’s the key idea? If you impart to the audience a good idea, three reasons why the idea is a good one and knowledge of what action needs to be taken to implement or realize this idea, you have a good slide.

Please note, in the model above, there are three bullets. There are three reasons for this.

Evidence

When staking a claim or making an argument, you need to have three reasons to support it. Any stool needs at least three legs to stand on. We often try to rely on one or two reasons, but you really need three. When we have only one or two reasons, the performance tendency is to slow and elongate our speaking to try to extend and make the reason seem longer and more impactful than it is; like we have more reasons than we do. “Welllllll, in the firrrrrrrrrrst place….” And then we quickly jump to another point. 

If you offer only a single piece of evidence, it can be dismissed as a fluke. An aberration. Random.  You’re not building a convincing argument for the audience to necessarily accept your idea and offer an active response. Many in the audience can easily offer a random piece of evidence of their own to contradict what you’re saying.

If you offer two pieces of evidence they can both be dismissed as a coincidence. Connecting those dots makes a line but a line can be drawn from any dot to any other dot. 

It’s only when you have three pieces of evidence that you begin to describe, and the audience begins to recognize, a related sequence. A trend. If you can offer three pieces of evidence as proofs it becomes much harder for the audience to argue with you or easily dismiss what you’re saying. No one in the audience is likely to be able to match you point for point with three alternative pieces of evidence. They are out matched. 

“In the first place, second and third…”  offered in quick succession is much more likely to disarm your audience, cause them to abandon resistance and respond, “OK, OK...,” accept your idea and be open to your objective.

You only need to offer three reasons in a presentation. There may be 11 reasons, but you don’t need to include all 11 on your slide; only the three most compelling reasons. You can always say in passing, “and there are eight more reasons that I’d be happy to share with you later if anyone is interested.”

If you only have two reasons, see if you can break one of the reasons into two – a first part and second part. 

Audience retention

There is evidence that audiences can only meaningfully hold a limited amount of information (3-7 chunks, depending on the type of ideas/numbers/words) at a time in working memory. Here are three links, addressing working memory capacity limits, I can offer as evidence of this work.

If you present an overwhelming number of ideas or proofs to your audience in a single slide, all you will succeed in doing is overwhelming your audience.

It’s our job as presenters to make the audience’s job as easy as possible. Do your audience a favor. Limit the number of bullets to the fewest necessary: three. Make is easy for them. They are more likely to be able to process and remember what you are telling them, and they are more likely to appreciate it and respond favorably.

Aesthetics

By aesthetics, I don’t mean abstract beautification of the deck; to “make it pretty.” Each slide needs to be simple, noiseless, focused and visually balanced or dynamic. Because:

  • Every pixel on a slide is information. That information is either essential to the communication of the idea or it’s noise and should be eliminated. It’s our job as presenters to reduce clutter and minimize visual noise in our use of media. We want to optimize every slide for audience impact and retention.
  • Reading a word slide is a 20’ experience for most members of the audience. The font size needs to be large enough, the wordcount small enough and the word group separation large enough for the audience to read easily and comprehend from the back of the room.
  • One idea, three supporting points of information/data and a clear objective per word slide can make it much easier for the presenter to verbally communicate what needs to be communicated. They are not wandering lost or trying to pick their way through a densely packed heap of ideas, information and data on each slide.

So, applying this simple Rule of Three to your word slides, can help sharpen your focus, unharness your energy and the economy of your performance. It can dramatically improve your confidence and effectiveness.

And you now know the three reasons why that’s true.

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