Christmas and the Rule of Three

By | December 16th, 2021|Communication, Pitching, Presentation skills, Storytelling|

There’s a hilarious home video of a Nativity play in an English village church. It usually goes viral at this time of year. A four-year-old girl doesn’t so much sing as bellow her way through ‘The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy’. The girl, now 29 (where did the time go?!), was interviewed on Radio 3 this morning. She called her performance, in which she plays Angel No. 3, ‘3 minutes of embarrassment’.

Radio 3 – Angel 3 – 3 minutes… the radio interview added yet more threes to my (long) Christmas list! Elsewhere in the Nativity, three ‘kings of Orient’ bring three gifts to honour the baby Jesus. ‘What shall I give him?’ wonders the narrator of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. I am neither (1) a shepherd nor (2) a wise man but (3) I can give my heart. Another narrator saw ‘three ships come sailing in’ – a possible reference to the coat of arms of King Wenceslas II. It was a different Good King Wenceslas whose snow lay (1) deep and (2) crisp and (3) even. ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, we sing three times before adding ‘and a Happy New Year’! The traditional coin stirred into the Christmas pudding was the silver threepence. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, one of the most famous Christmas stories of all, tells of the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge…

I could go on, but you get the idea!

There is something about a pattern of three that has a particular power over us. The Rule of Three is everywhere, not just at Christmas, but across every sphere of human thought, from music and folklore to physics, philosophy and art. For most of human history, we have been an oral species. If we wanted people to remember what we told them, we arranged our stories, proverbs and slogans into threes. For the human brain, three truly is a magic number.

Channel that magic! At MSB Executive, this one of our central pieces of advice to clients who want to increase the impact of their presentations. If you want to grab your audience’s attention, keep them engaged, and lodge your key messages in their minds, then develop the habit of organising your ideas into patterns of three.

There are many different ways of doing so. Divide a topic under three headings. Use three bulletpoints on a slide. Illustrate an abstract point using three pieces of real-world data, or a trend using three metrics. Highlight your three most important challenges, opportunities or objectives. Tell a story in three sections (past/present/future or villain/victim/hero, for example.)

We at MSB Executive strive to practise what we preach. The Rule of Three is an important structural principle in our work, too. We pride ourselves on giving our clients practical, manageable and memorable tips and tools for great communication. What better way to back up this claim than by arranging our key topics into threes? We have the three-step answer, three stages for getting nerves under control, three bridging techniques, and a great many more triples besides.

If you’d like to find out more about our coaching, training and workshops, please get in touch with us. For now, though, from the three of us and all our associates, we wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, restful and happy end to the year. And if you’re awake in the very early hours of Christmas morning, why not step outside and look up into the starry sky? If you’re lucky, you might just hear the most festive three of all: ‘Ho, ho, ho!’

(And for the curious, here’s that video.)

The Power of the Pause

By | June 30th, 2020|Authenticity, Leadership, Public speaking, Storytelling|

At MSB we often talk about the importance of pauses. They are great for adding impact and helping your audience process information. Pauses are a great replacement for filler sounds and words.

We generally say you can pause for longer than you think. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes this to the extreme with a 21-second pause.

Donald Trump: Storytelling in 140 Characters

By | January 31st, 2017|Blog, Featured, Perception, Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Storytelling|

“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!”

So says President Trump. Whatever you think about the personality or the policy, one thing is for certain: Donald Trump knows the art of storytelling.

Villain, Victim, Hero

One of the classic storytelling techniques we cover in our workshops is the Villain, Victim, Hero formula. It is so familiar to us that our brains expect it and respond to it. From bedtime stories as a child to Star Wars, the formula’s power is used again and again.

To summarise how it works:

Villain: this could be person, think Lex Luthor, or a “thing” such as the shark in Jaws or a volcano about to erupt.

Victim: the poor, innocent victim.

Hero: Superhero or ordinary person doing extraordinary things  (or both in the case of Superman/Clark Kent).

To make the story more dramatic, make the Villain more dastardly, the victim more worthy of our pity or the hero more compelling.

Donald Trump uses this formal in a relentlessly consistent and simple way:

Villain: the establishment, “crooked Hilary”, “the swamp” in Washington.

Victim: You! The honest, decent hard-working ordinary soul.

Hero: An outstandingly successful businessman with stellar talents and dealmaking prowess…….

Instead of varying the message, Donald Trump is a master at giving more impact to his storytelling by repeating and strengthening the formula. He makes his villains ever more villainous. The victims and their suffering, “the horrible mess” from the tweet above, is presented in colourful and dramatic ways. And of course, the more dangerous the villain and the more wronged the victim, the more impressive the hero is!

Using storytelling in your presentations

We may not want to emulate Donald Trump but we can certainly learn from how he tells stories. If you have to present data and facts in a way that will have your audience paying attention, try to think about:

  • Who is the Villain?
  • How bad is that Villain?
  • Who is suffering because of the Villain?
  • What is the impact on the Victim?
  • How can this be solved?
  • What are the qualities of your hero?

Next time you hear a speech from Donald Trump listen out for Villains and Victims. You will hear what an impact storytelling can have.

Martyn Barmby

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