[Star Wars spoiler alert!]

Han Solo is dead.

I have to say – it left me shattered. What a shocking, yet awesome finale to the first movie of the new Star Wars trilogy. For those of you not appreciating the force enough to care, there will be two more. In total Star Wars will have nine movies, grouped into three trilogies.

But why trilogies? Why not quadrilogies or pentalogies? (These words are so rare that even spelling corrector is struggling here…)

I hear you say: “Well it just makes sense, right?”

Yes, but why does it make sense? Why are we so accepting and appreciating of grouping things in three?

By reading this blog you might have seen a certain theme when it comes to rationale behind what works when speaking to people. There is a reason for this. Again and again, it’s always the same guy responsible. Your brain.

Memory has its limits

In one of the most highly cited papers in psychology The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, George A. Miller focused on understanding how our working memory functions and how much information we can effectively hold before we start forgetting it.

In appreciation of your time and inhuman effort it requires to thread through these publications, here is a snapshot. The study revealed that:

  1. How much we can remember is subjective, depending on the chunks and size of information as well as individual’s cognitive abilities (in plain English, how smart you are).
  2. Brain activity increased upon adding the third element of information and then stabilized.
  3. Subjects rated information consisting of three elements as easiest to visualize, most graphic and most integrated.

Could it be that our brains get to work most effectively when working with up to 3 concepts?

We Seek Patterns

“This is your last chance to pass this class” – teacher says to the struggling student. If you were to guess, which chance is it?


Consider how this shows in your life. If you can afford it, you always operate within a frame of 1 to 3 in trying something out, passing a certain trial, deciding to stick with an activity or solidifying a judgement about someone.

“I tried this twice already and failed. I’m going to try the third and last time today” – you might say. Why is that we always give ourselves or someone else three chances?

Because three is the smallest number required to create a pattern. We are wired to seek patterns in our everyday life.

Patterns help us to make sense of the world.

Imagine you are driving a car. You hear a weird sound. It is getting registered, but you ignore it. Why worry? Then few seconds later, you hear it a second time. Now you are getting suspicious. Is something wrong with the engine? You focus and listen for more.

There it is. Third time. Now you are certain. Something is wrong.

We scan around for patterns to make sense  of the world and make decisions.

Number Three is Life

That’s science. But let’s pause here. Think for a few seconds, where do you see number three in your everyday life?

Not sure where to start? I am happy to supply a hint immediately. Everywhere. Consider few examples:

  • In music you got musical triads.
  • In religion, the concept of the triple deity, common throughout world mythology, such as the holy trinity.
  • In physics, Newton’s three rules of motion or three parts of the atom.
  • Art and culture? The three-act structure: beginning, middle and end.  Three little pigs. Three wishes.
  • There are three medals in the Olympics.
  • You have three-part cutlery at your table.
  • 90% of the Fortune 500 companies have their acronyms shortened to three letters: IBM, UPS, CNN, DHL.
  • Think about how you memorize your phone number. Is it by any chance chopped into blocks of three digits so it’s easier to remember?

The list goes on and on.

So what do you take out of all this when you want to communicate for success and plant your cool ideas into the minds of your audience?

How to nail your next presentation

We heard before that sitting in the audience is hard work. It really is. Make it easier for them by not overloading their working memory with too much content. Take advantage of the Miller’s Law. Create an easy-to-follow pattern for your audience.


Picture12Use number three to your advantage on multiple levels (interestingly, on 3…)

1. Divide your presentation into three parts

Welcome back to primary school. Nothing has changed! The story needs to have the beginning, middle and the end. Take advantage of smart repetition across these three stages to help them see the big picture.

2. Tell them three things

Keep the number of main points which you cover in the main body of your speech to 3. Remember, unless they make notes, they are unlikely to juggle with more than 3 ideas, or supporting points.

Your goal is to make them remember the core of your idea. That’s it. If 10 minutes after hearing your speech, they are able to list these 3 points and tell their peers how these points related to each other, you have won.

If you need to talk about more than 3 things, put them into buckets. How many? You guessed it. Three buckets will be your best bet. Think of the 3 Star Wars trilogies.

This downsizing and understanding of what your 3 core take-aways are, has one additional benefit. If you run short on time, you can strip down the details to the very core – your three key points. This way you can still carry your points across, even when pressed for time.

Don’t overload them. It’s not about telling them everything you know. Be picky. Select what’s best in your message.

3. Use Transitions

They are looking for the pattern. Help them see it. Make it easy for the audience to follow from one part to another.

Use transitions. Unlike you, they don’t really know when does part one of your speech ends and part two starts. They are not in your head. Don’t give them an extra task of trying to figure it out. Use transitions like:

  • let’s start with
  • moving on to
  • to summarize

Give them an easy-recognizable indicator that you are moving on to help them navigate and follow along.

Wrapping it up

Look around. Number three is everywhere. Make sure your next presentation or speech also has it. Structure your speech or presentation around it to make use of how your target audience brains work.

Divide your message into three parts, tell them about three key things. Use smooth, visible transitions on top of it.

Help them navigate and follow along and they will remember and enjoy your message.

Check out Why And How To Repeat Yourself To Make Them Remember (3 Simple Steps…) to find additional, scientifically backed ideas on how to structure your message effectively.

Now tell me, what are the three key things your audience needs to remember from you next speech or presentation?

Wojciech is a trainer, teacher and life-long learner on the topic of effective communication. He believes that speaking clearly, effectively and with confidence is essential to our success and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. READ MORE