Limit Presentations to Three Themes

Former eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman is pushing three ways to revitalize California: create jobs, cut spending, and fix education. As she campaigns for governor, Whitman repeats those three themes in every interview, every advertisement, and on the home page of her Web site. Several people I've talked with who are not politically active have been able to recite her themes from memory. One reason is that the billionaire is spending a lot of money on advertising. The second is because ideas are best remembered when presented in threes.

Every great speechwriter knows this. It's why Goldilocks did not encounter more bears. Three is easier to remember. Neuroscientists are finding that numbers and ideas are more easily processed when presented in three or four chunks. This does not mean you should deliver only three messages—that would be a very short conversation. It simply helps to refine your ideas into three big themes or key messages.

I recently spent a week preparing a global company's executives for a day-long series of presentations to the investment community. Seven executives planned to take the stage for up to 45 minutes apiece, each focusing on a different part of the business. Together they would present a couple of hundred slides, dozens of charts, and countless facts. I challenged each member of the group to simplify the message by identifying three—and only three—key messages. Each message could have up to three supporting points. These key messages would be introduced at the beginning of each presentation, throughout the presentation, and summarized at the end. These leaders had never been through such an exercise but it helped them create one of the most refined and well-received analysts' day presentations in the company's 20-year history.

Disney (DIS) is a major brand that understands the power of three. According to Bruce Jones, Disney Institute programming director, the company uses the magic number three to get its guests' attention at theme parks. Three ways that it does this that might spark ideas you can use in your own business, regardless of what you're trying to get across to your audience.

Finding the car. Disney's guests find it hard to remember where they parked in the gigantic lots outside the parks. Disney helps them recall by providing guests three ways to remember where they left their cars: by name, number, and color. At Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., each lot is named after a character (Goofy, Donald, Mickey, etc.). Each lot has a sign with a picture of the character, a unique color, and a number (for the row in that lot). "Research shows that women and children remember by color and picture while men tend to remember numbers. By providing all three on our parking lot signs, we are increasing the chances that at least one family member will remember where the car is parked," says Jones.

Enjoying the show. Disney makes three loudspeaker announcements prior to the start of each parade and the beginning of nightly fireworks shows. The announcements include safety information, schedule reminders, and directions.

Staying safe. Disney must take guest safety very seriously and has done research to learn how safety instructions are best delivered. Guests boarding Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom, one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World resort, hear critical safety announcements three times before the open-sided vehicles enter the wildlife preserve.

Try incorporating the rule of three in your own presentations. While it might sound easy, you'll have to decide what to include and what to leave out. Once you refine the information—and take the time to practice—you'll find it's extremely effective.