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Public speaking is something I really enjoy and fortunately I get asked to talk quite often on a range of diverse topics to interesting and varied audiences both technical and generalist. In this year I’ve talked on topics as diverse as Yoga at the House of Lords, Workforce health at Sandhurst to the Field Army and on LGBT Older people’s health at the University of London.

I was having a discussion over the weekend about how I approached public speaking and it struck me that I use a the rule of three a lot of the time, so I thought I’d share it in case it might help you next time you step up onto the stage.

The rule of three has three parts:

  • Three points
  • Three breaths
  • Three landmarks

The Rule of Three Points

Somewhere along the way someone drummed into me that a presentation should never try to make more than three points, a slide should never have more than three facts and a good story never has more than three key characters otherwise the audience gets confused.

When sitting down to write your presentation and slides think about what you want the audience to walk away with, what are the three key things you want your audience to take away from the event – apart from liking you!

Picking three can be quite challenging, especially if you know your topic really well and feel really passionate about it, but if people remember three things they can always come back to you afterwards to find out more, and if the three things resonate with them then they may invite you back to share three more!

But at the end of the day think about what you would want a member of your audience to say to a friend or colleague about your talk, what three points would you want them to make?

When you have your three points think about how they fit together in your presentation, is there a natural order to your points? Do they bounce of each other or sit independently?

I am not someone who speaks from a script, I often use slides to help keep me on track, but if I’m speaking without slides then I’ll write my three points on a card with some key facts or stats that support or reinforce them and then build my speech around them.

Like a good book a speech should have a beginning, a middle and an end. For most talks I think about how I open with a set of intro stats or facts that set the scene for the three points I’m going to make – but rarely more than three! – and then use the middle section to set out my key three points that I am trying to make people take away from the talk and wrap up in the end framing my three points again in the context of the future and next steps.

Now this might not work for everyone, but much like trying to develop an ‘elevator pitch’, drilling down into what is really important for you to get across in your talk is a good way to shape it and ensure that your audience gets your message.

The Rule of Three Breaths

So this one does what it says on the tin…..before you take the podium, in the moment between the chair introducing you and you starting to speak, stop, pause and take three breaths.

If you are the kind of person who finds silence a bit awkward, the kind of person who always has a question on the tip of their tongue, and opens their mouth rather than sit with it then this will be a challenge but stick with it!

Take three breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth – concentrate on your breath, use it as a mindful moment. If you can do it count to 6 seconds with each inhale and exhale, the audience won’t mind waiting 36 seconds for you to do it, and there seems to be collective agreement that the 6 second breath cycle actively reduces stress and induces calm and peacefulness – which is super helpful at the start of a talk.

At each of the three stages of your talk, at the beginning, before the middle section and before the end use the three breaths to pause and pace yourself. At the end of the talk, after your final slide/point take three breaths and say ‘Thank you very much’.

The three breaths are a great way to keep your anxiety and stress under control when you’re speaking but they are also a really good way to keep a reasonable speaking pace. All of us speed up our talking pace when we’re nervous, so taking these breathes is another way to help put the breaks on and rebalance your speaking pace for the audience.

The three breaths also give the audience time to absorb what you’ve just said and mull it over, or perhaps bash out the point in a quick tweet or two – depending on their thumb speed!

Each cycle of three breaths should take just over half a minute, not much in the grand scheme of things, but a great way to balance, regroup and recharge your speech.

The Rule of Three Landmarks

When I’m waiting to go up on the stage or to start talking, I start looking for three landmarks in the audience, three people who I use as landmarks for when I’m talking.

If I know people in the audience then I try to pick one person who I like or who I know likes me and has similar values, this is ‘the rock‘. This person is who I look at when I’m making a point that I’m confident about and feel resonates with my core values. This landmark can be a risk to focus on solely, and it’s tempting in an audience who are ‘foreign’ just to focus on the friendly face, but your audience will notice if you only look at one spot/person and you won’t really be getting a sense of whether the talk is ‘landing’ at all.

If I know someone in the audience who is not a fan, or has a very different view from me, then I choose them as the second landmark, this person is ‘the counterbalance‘. This is the person I look at when I’m making a point that I think is controversial or challenging and their reaction gives me a sense of whether I’ve got the point across – if you can sell your message to a detractor then it is going well. If I don’t recognise anyone like this then I tend to pick someone in the front row to one end, this is often where the important people sit so they can duck out early, and similar to the detractors they give you a good sense of whether your points are landing with an audience who may or may not share your values and common language.

The third landmark is a person I don’t know, this is ‘the wild card‘. Looking at this person’s reactions during my talk gives me a good sense of how they are landing with someone who has no affiliation with them and gives me a feeling of how the mood of the room is responding to my content and delivery. If they look confused or bored then I might change the timbre or tone of my talk and dial up the comedy, decrease the pace, up the fact quotient or any of a range of techniques to shift the vibe a bit and see how it resonates in their body language and facial expressions.

During the three breaths I lock in their location and just make eye contact if I can with each one, I will do the same each time I do the three breath exercise to rebalance and refocus and checking in with them visually during these breaks.

If I’m lucky the three ‘landmark’ audience members are sat one to each side and one in the middle towards the back, and if I’m really luck I have a radio mic on and I can move around the stage as I talk and make eye contact and look at them while I speak – this keeps me active while I’m talking and helps keep the audience engaged.

If two of the landmarks are close together then I’ll purposefully choose the ‘wild card’ landmark location to the other side of the room to help keep variety and keep my eyes and face moving back and forth.

If I’m talking from a podium, although I’m physically stationary I still keep rotating between the three landmarks with my gaze, alternating the order so i don’t end up looking like a bobble head or owl rotating in the same cycle each time.

The three landmarks approach helps keep me engaged with the mood of my audience. It also helps keep them engaged with me, especially if the landmarks are in different parts of the room as it makes the audience feel that I am engaging with the whole room and not a specific part.

So three rules in the rule of three….I hope you find them useful next time you step up on stage and help get you the applause you deserve!