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The Rule of Three

Under promise, start with a story and stick to the basics when preparing a presentation

The Rule of Three

The first problem with quick-fix, career-boosting, self-help books—you know, the ones at every airport news shop, all bunched together like so many bananas—is that you have to actually read them. Which, of course, takes time, and takes time away from mindlessly scrolling up and down your Instagram feed on that two-hour flight to Philadelphia.

The second problem is the advice therein tends to be a bit squishy. Find your purpose. Follow your dreams. Think of the end before you begin. Be proactive, not radioactive… or something like that.

C’mon, man. We know you had to fill 250 pages, but can you boil off the purple prose and get to the meat of it? How’s about a few simple tactics, a couple of do’s you can do for instant improvement?

OK, OK. Frankie say relax. In future columns, we’ll add some more, but to start, chew on these three.*


Guy walks into a dry cleaner with a fur coat under his arm. The woman behind the counter looks at the coat, then the big splotch of red wine on it, and says it will take two weeks to clean it and that she can’t guarantee it will be restored to its previous pristine state.

Across town, another guy walks into another dry cleaner with another fur coat under his arm with another red-wine stain. But this woman behind the counter says she will have it back to him tomorrow and just as clean as it was when it was worn by the animal that was bludgeoned to death to make it.

Five days later, each dry cleaner calls each man and says the exact same thing to him: that the coat is ready and 95 percent of the stain is removed.

Man No. 1 is happy, elated, overjoyed.

Man No. 2 is furious, enraged, inconsolable.

Two men. Two coats. Two butterfingered sommeliers. Two outcomes the same, but two vastly different reactions.

It’s all about expectations.

The lesson: Always under-promise and over-deliver.

Once Upon A Time

When giving a presentation, even a brief one, nothing grabs the audience’s attention quite so powerfully as locking the doors from the outside and shutting off the lights. In lieu of that, your best bet is to tell a story, something allegorical or at least germane to the topic at hand.

Now, you don’t have to prattle on like Tolstoy; you can tee up your theme in 30 seconds or less. There to talk about innovation? Tell ‘em about the accidental creation of Viagra. There to talk about customer service? Tell ‘em about the housekeeper than rummaged around a vat of dirty laundry to find someone’s Rolex. There to talk about managing expectations? Tell ‘em about the two men with the fur coats.

Ronald Reagan was the master of this. Ditto Bill Clinton. And can you think of a great stand-up comedian that isn’t also a master storyteller? Remember that the human brain wasn’t designed to recall names and dates and places and… uh, there was a fourth one but, well, that only further proves the point.

The lesson: Always start your presentation with a story.

Three’s Company

*Yes, that was a lesson inside a lesson.

Because three is the most powerful number in drama. Plays, movies and novels have three acts. Tragedies are said to come in threes. Great photographs are framed in thirds. Even C++ computer coders use the rule of three, as do fiction writers, because their version of it posits that a trio of characters or issues or events creates the highest level of emotional response from the audience.

Hey, if it’s good enough for Hollywood or Bollywood or Silicon Valley, it’s good enough for your next pitch to the board of directors.

When presenting something to someone, never make more than three points. Let’s say you’re selling a new idea: when rattling off the benefits, don’t go A to Z; rather, stop at C. Take it from TV infomercial star Ron Popeil, he of Veg-O-Matic fame: “It slices… It dices… It Juliennes fries!”

See? Three. That’s it.

Jay Walker, the founder of and a bunch of other businesses not quite as recognizable, is a virtuoso at this. About a dozen years ago, Walker made a pitch to Shuffle Master, showing how in—wait for it—three easy steps, riches could be reached though his new technology. He simply identified the problem, offered a solution and quantified the financial windfall.

It was the smoothest thing you’ve seen this side of a 6-4-3 double play, and it was like a gunfight to see who could whip his checkbook out first.

Most of us have some sort of stock presentation we give every year. Maybe it’s a new hire orientation, maybe it’s a product-line overview, maybe it’s an operational analysis. (There’s that three again.) Go in there and divide it into thirds. Like literally. Have an opening, a middle and an end. You’ll be amazed, even if you end up cutting the content and the time in half, how much more effective it will be.

The lesson: Heed the rule of three.

Bonus tip: Never write a sentence in the passive voice and end it with a linking verb.


Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.