Using the message triangle for greater clarity
Defining a structure can improve your audience's understanding
Do you sometimes feel that you are struggling to get your point across effectively? Do people read or listen to you, but fail to understand or remember your messages? The answer may be in the way that you are structuring what you say or write.
Structure, stories and simplicity
We have often talked about the importance of stories. However, even stories need a structure, albeit a fairly simple one.
For some reason, people find it easier to remember things when they are structured in threes. There is something innately satisfying about trios. It is not clear why this is so, although it has been suggested that it might be the smallest unit that makes a pattern. However, you only have to look back to fairy tales—which are, after all, mostly rooted in ancient folklore, often going back to oral storytelling—to see that this idea has been around for a long time.
There were, for example, Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks met three bears, three Billy Goats Gruff crossed the troll’s bridge, and so on. The youngest son or daughter—always the third—is a pattern repeated in a huge number of stories, from fairy tales to Shakespeare and beyond. Many pieces of music follow the same structure: a fast first movement, a slower middle movement, and then back up to speed for the finale. In its simplest form, even the structure of stories themselves conforms to this rule. We all know that you need a beginning, middle and end to any piece of writing to make it effective and enjoyable for readers.
Structuring your points in threes in more formal communication, therefore, may help your audience to remember your key messages. One way to ensure that you follow this structure is to use the ‘message triangle’ in planning your article or presentation.
Planning your communication using the ‘Message Triangle’
First, draw yourself an equilateral triangle. The title of your presentation or article goes above the triangle. In the centre of the triangle, write your objective: what you are trying to achieve, or why you are communicating with your audience. You are not going to share this, but it will help you to remember your focus as you plan.
Next, along each side of the triangle, place your three ‘key messages’. These three should be broadly equally important, because the three sides are the same length. They therefore deserve equal billing in what you say or write.
Finally, each one of these broad messages should be supported by facts or examples: your supporting evidence. It makes sense to have three facts or examples supporting each message as well: the ‘rule of three’ works throughout. These might be in the form of memorable quotes, statistics, personal anecdotes or stories, or analogies or metaphors. The ‘three Cs’ (colourful words, clichés and contemporary references) can be particularly helpful for experts speaking to a less knowledgeable audience. The real point is that you want your audience to remember these supporting facts, so it is worth thinking hard about how you structure them and the form that you use.
Managing an event with the message triangle
If you are giving a presentation, or responding to comments, the message triangle can also be a helpful way to enable you to keep ‘on track’. This is particularly true when your audience is hostile—and you will see politicians using this technique a lot. The idea is that when you are asked questions that are ‘off topic’, you make points that will gently ‘redirect’ the question back to one of your key messages. You can therefore think of the triangle as providing boundaries for your communication.
This technique takes a bit of practice to make it look subtle. Many politicians, for example, simply look like they are avoiding the question. It is therefore worth spending some time before your presentation thinking about the likely hostile questions, and how you might link them back to your key messages. You may need a colleague or friend to help you do this. It can be particularly helpful to make two or three points before ‘bridging’ back to your message, as this often provides a better and more natural link than simply restating your message.
Making your messages more memorable
The ‘message triangle’ is a relatively simple concept, but it has a powerful concept at its core: using the power of threes will make your messages more memorable.