Structure a Presentation in Three “Acts” — and Support it with Aristotle’s “Rule of Three”

Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Present Like a Pro,” to be published in the fall by Praeger. 

Plays have traditionally been structured into three acts, and you can make a case that the most engaging presentations in all media follow this durable structure as well. In fact, the late Stephen J. Cannell, — one of the most prolific scriptwriters in history – argued that “every great movie, book, or play that has withstood the test of time has a solid three-act structure.”[i]

Cannell sketched out his interpretation the of the three-act structure this way:

Act One: The central character meets the other characters and we learn the central problem of the story. Act One sets up the viewers or readers, getting them to like or dislike various characters and caring about the relationships and about solving the main problem.

Act Two: Here we see the problem loom larger, and the hero sets out to solve the problem and defeat his or her adversaries. But at the end of Act Two, things go very wrong for our hero, and it looks hopeless…

Act Three: The problem is solved. Often, a lesson is learned.

Now, I want to take a side-trip here to a related but not identical subject: The “Rule of Three.” Aristotle, the father of persuasive speaking, wrote about this in his book “Rhetoric.” It’s a pretty simple rule: People tend to remember and react to things when they are presented in groups of three:


I came, I saw, I conquered

Liberty, equality, fraternity

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people…


The three-act structure and the rule of three are not exactly the same concept, but close. I believe that in a micro way, people are hard-wired to have their attention arrested by a three-part phrase, but in the macro overview, they are drawn to a 1)beginning, 2)middle, and 3)end.

“Beginning, middle, and end” is useful but a little too general for most presentations, so instead think back to Cannell and about the content of those three parts:


Beginning= Act One, meeting the characters and understanding the problem

Middle = Act Two, complications and struggle

End = Act Three, problem solved and lesson learned


Get it? On a macro level, you cannot go wrong with a three-part structure (at least in terms of elements related to the structure). And on a micro level, you cannot go wrong with presenting some of your main ideas within the presentation in sets of three.

That is so important that I feel compelled to repeat it, using both boldface and italics, the writer’s tell-tale indicators of fanaticism:

On a macro level, you cannot go wrong with a three-part structure. And on a micro level, you cannot go wrong with presenting some of your main ideas with the presentation in set of three.

 You can fit any presentation into the three-by-three structure, and we will provide many illustrations throughout. The above point is very important, and alone is worth the price of this book. However, as my contract calls for a full ten chapters, I will nevertheless continue.



[i] “Screenwriting: Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell, access July 12, 2016,


Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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