One of the first challenges for a new public speaker is to find more to say. They’re not sure what to write down and how to fill their speaking time productively. However, over time, people become more competent at speech writing. They’re able to come up with 3, 4, 5, and even more points that they want to say. While this growth in ability is good, it often results in speeches that try to cover too many points at once.
The rule of thumb is to only use 3 points, and there are good reasons for that.
Why you should only use 3 points
It is simpler for the audience
Modern audiences are not easy to keep engaged. With a low attention span and a general disinterest in most speeches, you’ve got to do all you can do make your speech easy to digest.
In most contexts, people won’t be writing down your points. It’s hard for people to remember more than 3 main points, especially if you don’t have much time to spend on them.
Your points are usually not as clear as you think
People who use too many points often have to speed through their speech in order to fit everything. This means the audience usually won’t be able to digest your points or get a full understanding of them.
Speechwriters have already studied the subject for a while before they start writing their speech. By that time, they are pretty familiar with it. As a result, they usually do not have an accurate view of how to explain it to someone else. I call this problem prior knowledge bias: when you think you explained something well because you already get it, but other people are just confused.
It’s easy to go overtime
When you have more than 3 points, it becomes harder to keep track of time and apportion it properly. You’ll often end up rushing the last couple of points or going overtime. There are few things worse than going longer than your allotted time. It’s disrespectful to the audience.
Think about it: all those people in the crowd are actually there to hear you speak. They have agreed to sit down quietly and listen to what you have to say for a set period of time. Going overtime is like buying super expensive food because someone else is picking up the tab.
It helps you do deeper analysis
If you spend more time on each point, you can develop them better. Give more reasons why they are true, or read more quotes, or show more powerpoint images. You will have more success trying to convince the audience of 1-3 things with deep analysis than convincing them of 4+ points with shallow analysis.
It helps you avoid weak points
When you try to include too many points in your speech, you’ll often end up including points that are not particularly persuasive or helpful. This is a matter of quantity over quality.
Of course, I just gave five points. Isn’t that a contradiction? The reason I did so is because an article is a lot easier to digest than a speech. Reading helps you retain a lot better than presentations. So I strive for my posts to be complete and comprehensive, instead of leaving things out for the sake of time. You can always skim the headings if necessary.
Exceptions to the rule
There are a couple of times that you might want to consider including more than 3 points.
First, if you simply can’t talk about any of the points at length, you might need more to fill up time. However, this is quite a rare occurrence. Ending a speech early is better than stuffing in useless words.
Second, if the topic you are trying to address simply requires many points to take down, you might consider breaking the 3 point rule. Some topics just have too many facets to fit in 3 points. If you must do this, I suggest combining all the points under three major headings, so that people can at least remember those. They might not remember all the sub-arguments, but they are more likely to remember the three main points.