I was pleasantly surprised to find a great example of the three-act structure at a recent Young Professional forum where I was speaking. All of the presenters were engineers and scientists. The topic was project management by Shelby Droze. Her presentation that day brought together the concepts of presentation structure and noise reduction.
The Three-Act Structure
The three-act structure (opening, middle, and closing) provides a proven, universal framework for all types of communication. As technical professionals, we often spend too much time in the middle with our data. Too little time is spent in the opening and closing, where we are remembered.
Communication Forums and Noise
Communication forums provide a potential source of noise. Each forum requires a slightly different approach because what serves as useful in one forum is noise that distracts from our message in another.
I discuss four distinct forums in my workshops and book:
Internal and External Team Meetings
Interfaces with Elected Officials
Presentations at professional association meetings fall into the category of public speaking. Public speaking is entertainment. Most technical professionals fail to realize the difference in outcomes and use the same presentation approach for public speaking as they do for internal and external meetings. The audience is not entertained. Both the presenter nor the message is not remembered.
This was not the case with Shelby Droze. Shelby dedicated six of her eighteen slides in the opening and the close. The opening was about the complexities of a 'simple' jacket zipper, which no one had thought about, and laid the foundation for project management of a lift station is not so simple, either. The opening pulled the audience in – Shelby was interesting and they wanted to hear more.
The close consisted of a discussion of bombers returning after their flights after World War II. Again, interestingly and simultaneously re-iterated one of her key messages that we bring many assumptions and biases to small project management. Shelby left them on a high note with something interesting.
While Shelby was articulate, she was a young project manager. I was pleasantly surprised because she did not spend too much time in the middle trying to describe advanced concepts of project management applied to wastewater (which she was still learning). Instead, she spent an equal amount of time on the opening and closing.
Shelby's opening and closing would have been noise in an internal project meeting. Her approach was right on the mark as part of a series of presentations where entertainment is a premium. Both she and her message were memorable because she simultaneously executed the three-act structure and adapted it for the presentation forum.