Article Category: Speechwriting

Why Successful Speech Outlines follow the Rule of Three


Rule of Three Speech WritingPreviously, 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:

(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 structure.

-- 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 troll.
  • 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 climax.

Rule of Three - Screenplay Three Act Structure

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.
    • 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.”
    • Result: The audience feels stranded, far from the point of origin, wondering “That’s it? What does it mean?

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 be.
  • 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
  • Body
    • Complication, Resolution, Example
    • Complication, Resolution, Example
    • Complication, Resolution, Example
    • …, …, …
  • Conclusion

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:

  1. Introduction — Establish topic and core message; list supporting points
  2. Body
    1. Supporting Point One
    2. Supporting Point Two
    3. Supporting Point Three
  3. 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 Heardreviewed 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.
    • Make point #1.
  3. Tell story #2.
    • Make point #2.
  4. Tell story #3.
    • 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.

  1. Introduction – Brief setup of problem and proposal
  2. Body
    1. Pros – What are the benefits of this proposal?
    2. Cons – What are the drawbacks of this proposal?
    3. Recommendation – Why do the pros outweigh the cons?
  3. Conclusion – Restate the pros and repeat the recommendation

Other Three-Part Speech Outlines?

Do you use other speech outlines that follow the rule of three? Please share in the comments.

Conclusion of the Rule of Three Article Series

The final article addresses how the rule of three applies to speech humor.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.

Comments icon7 Comments

  1. This is a great article on the rule of threes. The thing to remember is that the power comes from grouping three different things together. Merely repeating something 3 times doesn’t have the same effect. That’s why the “tell em what you’re going to say, say it, and tell em what you said” is NOT effective. It came from the Army in WWII, and it’s merely repetition, not art. Repetition has to be with a difference to be effective! I’ve blogged about this many times; here’s one example: http://publicwords.typepad.com/nickmorgan/2009/03/the-rule-of-threes.html

  2. Allyncia says:

    Also a good book or supporting example on this would be Cliff Atkinson’s book, Beyond Bullet Points!

  3. Jeanette Collier says:

    Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! “This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!”

  4. David says:

    The outline is usually the hardest part to writing anything for me, this has helped me improve my outline usefulness exponentially!

  5. andy says:

    Is this is also reason for 7 seas and mountains,7 dwarfs,7 heavens and 12 days of X-mas ?
    I rather follow survival rule of 2, you or me ?
    Do you know many that do not ?

  6. suresh says:

    superb articles … very useful for public speaking students

  7. Carlos says:

    Hi from Down Under,
    Imagine you are a senior citizen and the defendant in a trial where your car caused death because you had a seizure.
    How would you apply the power of 3 in your opening and closing statement?.
    Your article is very informative.
    Thank you.

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Scott Schumpert @schumpert — Nov 26th, 2011

Speech Outlines and the Rule of Three – http://t.co/ThRF9anz /via @6minutes #writing #speeches

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Bruno Pfeiffer @b_pfeiffer — May 31st, 2012

Preparing presentations is my new favorite activity. Especially the planning & storyboard part: http://t.co/4J6ijwFY

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Why Successful Speech Outlines follow the Rule of Three http://t.co/r5HwlgvS via @6minutes

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