Why Successful Speech Outlines follow the Rule of Three

Why Successful Speech Outlines follow the Rule of Three
Posted: 3 June 2009
Six Minutes: Public Speaking and Presentation Skills Blog
Previously, we learned how the rule of three improves
speeches when used at the micro-speech level, to craft
memorable triads of words, phrases, and sentences.
In this article, we will learn how the rule of three
improves speeches at the macro-speech level when
applied to speech stories or to entire speech outlines.
Storytelling and the Rule of Three
Last week, my daughter and I visited our local library to fetch another bounty of children’s books. We
returned with a diverse collection that included:
the educational Sesame Subjects: My First Book About Fish,
the hilarious Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business; and
the classic The Golden Goose from the Brothers Grimm.
(Note to parents: All highly recommended!)
The Golden Goose is the story of three brothers who attempt to chop down the thickest tree in the forest.
First, the oldest brother fails; then, the middle brother fails; finally, the youngest brother succeeds — a
three-part plot structure.
“Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act
-- Stephen J. Cannell
The three-part story outline is a common structure in folk tales, Biblical tales, and Hollywood plots:
Three Little Pigs — The first two pigs get eaten because their houses are weak; the third pig’s house of
bricks is strong.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears — The porridge was too hot; the porridge was too cold; the porridge
was just right.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff — The first two goats sneak past the troll, while the third goat defeats the
The Good Samaritan [New Testament, Bible] — The first traveller passes. The second traveller passes.
The third (the Samaritan) helps the injured man.
Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl in the end.
The Three Act Structure
These fall under a general pattern known as a Three Act Structure. It is widely used in storytelling and
screenwriting because it is a proven formula. Stephen J. Cannell claims that “Every great movie, book or
play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure.”
Syd Field (author of The Screen Writer’s Workbook and other instructive screenwriting guides) asserts
that most successful screenplays follow a structure like this:
Act I: Setup (approximately 30 minutes of a 2-hour movie)
Act II: Confrontation (approximately 60 minutes)
Act III: Resolution (approximately 30 minutes)
He further asserts that these acts are separated by two plot points: events that thrust the plot in a new
direction. For example, plot point #1 might be the pivotal moment when the reluctant hero is convinced to
join the crusade for justice (after spending most of Act One refusing to do so). Plot point #2 might be the
moment when the momentum swings from the villain to the hero, eventually leading to a triumphant
This three-part structure is so pervasive in movies, books, and other storytelling forms that audiences
feel naturally comfortable when it is used. This comfort can be leveraged by a skillful public speaker.
Three-Part Speech Outlines
When you apply the rule of three to your speech outline, you gain all the benefits of the three-part
structure. Your presentation gains warmth, familiarity, and understandability. With the three-part outline
framing your ideas, your speech will be easier to follow and remember.
Let’s examine a variety of three-part speech outlines, beginning with the most basic.
Speech Outline #1A: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion
It doesn’t get any simpler than this. Even if you don’t read the rest of this article, you will improve as a
speaker if you consistently apply this generic speech outline.
It seems obvious. Almost too obvious. Yet two of the most common speaking blunders are:
1. Omit the introduction: The speaker launches directly into the meat of the content without providing a
roadmap or context.
o Result: The audience wonders “How did we get here?“
2. Omit the conclusion: The presentation ends abruptly immediately after the last statistic or slide with
“So… any questions?” Perhaps this is the result of poor time management and a novice speaker who
decides “I’m running short on time. I’ll skip the conclusion.”
o Result: The audience feels stranded, far from the point of origin, wondering “That’s it? What does it
Speech Outline #1B: Tell them what you’re going to say, Say it, Tell them what you said
“Repetition is a powerful speechwriting technique.”
This isn’t a new speech outline, but a slight elaboration of the first:
1. Tell them what you’re going to say (Introduction)
2. Say it (Body)
3. Tell them what you said (Conclusion)
Some may say that this speech structure is almost too simplistic. If it is accompanied by boring content
and lifeless delivery, that’s a fair critique.
However, repetition is a powerful speechwriting technique, and you can do much worse than repeating
your key points three times during a speech to persuade your audience. Take inspiration from Lewis
Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark:
I have said it thrice: What i tell you three times is true.
Speech Outline #2: Past, Present, Future
This speech outline can either stand on its own:
Past, Present, Future
or take the place of “Body” in the pattern above to make:
Introduction, Body [= Past, Present, Future], Conclusion
A common application is a persuasive speech where you pitch a solution to a business problem:
Past – You set the context by identifying a problem facing your company, and describing how it came to
Present – You lay out the decision to be made now, and the alternatives to choose from.
Future – You paint a picture of prosperity that will be realized if the right choice is made (perhaps you
use a successful case study).
If you apply this speech outline well, your audience will more easily understand your message. On the
other hand, your audience is more likely to be confused if you jump forward and backward in time
repeatedly (talk about the decision first, then the future prosperity, then the root cause of the past problem,
then another alternative, then…)
Speech Outline #3: Complication, Resolution, Example
Another three part speech outline for persuasive speeches is the S.Co.R.E. method offered by Andrew
Abela in Advanced Presentations by Design: Creating Communication that Drives Action (read the Six
Minutes book review).
Abela recommends starting your speech (Introduction) by establishing the Situation, and then iterating
through a three-element series of Complication, Resolution, Example. In a sequence form, your speech
might look like:
Introduction – Situation
Complication, Resolution, Example
Complication, Resolution, Example
Complication, Resolution, Example
…, …, …
The three-part Complication-Resolution-Example structure can be repeated once (e.g. a five-minute
speech) or many times (e.g. a one-hour seminar).
Speech Outline #4A: Three Main Points
“Limit yourself to your best three points. Any fewer, and your message won’t be
compelling. Any more, and your message risks becoming tedious.”
A basic three-part informative speech outline is as follows:
Introduction — Establish topic and core message; list supporting points
Supporting Point One
Supporting Point Two
Supporting Point Three
Conclusion — Recap main points; summarize core message; call-to-action
In this case, the rule of three magic lies in limiting yourself to your best three points. Any fewer, and
your message won’t be compelling. Any more, and your message risks becoming tedious. Brainstorm
many, but select your best three.
The Decker Grid System (from You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard – reviewed here) is built on this
foundation. Bert Decker goes on to say that, for longer speeches, each of your three supporting points can
be reinforced with (no surprise) three sub-points each.
Speech Outline #4B: Three Stories
Stories can strengthen any type of speech, but are especially powerful in motivational speeches where
making an emotional connection with your audience is required. When you tell stories, pattern them on
the three-act structure for maximum impact.
The Three Main Points speech outline can be given a storytelling slant with the following:
“When you tell stories, pattern them on the three-act structure for maximum impact.”
1. Attention grabbing opening which introduces the topic and core message
2. Tell story #1.
o Make point #1.
3. Tell story #2.
o Make point #2.
4. Tell story #3.
o Make point #3.
5. Memorable conclusion which ties together all three stories to support the core message.
Speech Outline #5: Pros, Cons, Recommendation
We’ll conclude with a common speech outline used for persuasive speeches where you are recommending
a course of action.
Introduction – Brief setup of problem and proposal
Pros – What are the benefits of this proposal?
Cons – What are the drawbacks of this proposal?
Recommendation – Why do the pros outweigh the cons?
Conclusion – Restate the pros and repeat the recommendation
This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Andrew Dlugan is the editor and founder of Six Minutes. He teaches courses, leads seminars, coaches
speakers, and strives to avoid Suicide by PowerPoint. He is an award-winning public speaker and speech
evaluator. Andrew is a father and husband who resides in British Columbia, Canada.
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