Chances are, if you’ve seen a Hollywood film then you’ve seen the three-act structure in action. The origin of the three-act structure as a narrative model remains shrouded in antiquity for the most part, but Aristotle is regularly attributed to its invention because of his observation in Poetics that tragedies should have a beginning, middle, and end. Written in 350 BCE, Poetics is the earliest surviving treatise on Greek dramatic and literary theory (and still an interesting read today!)
The three-act structure became popularised for film by American screenwriter Syd Field in his 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Field’s book sold over a million copies and become known as the ‘screenwriting bible’. Field mentioned that it was common at the time for major Hollywood film studios and production companies to contractually stipulate for screenplays to have a three-act structure. It’s possible that the immense popularity of Screenplay helped turn this practice into the industry standard, influencing the majority of films produced in Hollywood from then on.
The three-act structure comprises Act I (The Setup), that establishes the main character, their situation, and relationships; Act II (Confrontation), where the main character pursues their goal while confronting various obstacles, and Act III (Resolution), in which the main character finds the solution to their problems and achieves their goal.
The question is, why does this particular narrative formula remain so popular with audiences and so financially lucrative for Hollywood? Simple: Because using the three-act structure creates a satisfying story arc that people can easily follow and recall afterwards.
Communication expert and writer Nancy Duarte wanted to know why stories presented on stage or on screen have such power to engage and move us, but presentations are generally considered to be boring and ineffective. She believed that by incorporating the three-act structure and focusing on storytelling, presentations could become a transformative medium to communicate new ideas and impact audiences.
At Synapsis, we talk a lot about the power of stories to make presentations more engaging and relatable, but in her 2019 book DataStory Duarte really digs into the science behind why we respond so strongly to storytelling. Duarte writes that scientists have found stories engage the emotional, rational, intuitive, and somatic levels of the brain, engaging it completely in a way that no other form of communication can. When someone tells us a story, the limbic (or emotional) part of the brain releases chemicals which stimulate feelings of reward and empathy, immersing us as listeners and connecting us more deeply with the storyteller.
Here’s a breakdown of how to use the three-act structure when writing a presentation:
ACT I: MAKE YOUR AUDIENCE THE PROTAGONIST
The beginning of your presentation should set up the status quo: the world of the listener and the issues that they face compared with a future where your idea, product or service has solved these issues. Duarte equates this with the idea of ‘the hero’s journey’ or monomyth in narratology, which is divided into three stages of the departure, initiation, and return. The hero, or the protagonist, of the story receives a call to adventure which they are initially resistant to, and are helped along the way by a mentor figure. The key here is to place the audience in the position of the hero, and frame yourself as the mentor, helping your listeners move from the ordinary world into a new world transformed by your idea. Your audience is the likable protagonist with a desire to transform, and you as the presenter are there to guide that transformation.
ACT II: CONTINUALLY BUILD AND RELEASE TENSION
In her research on storytelling, Duarte came across Freytag’s Pyramid, a structural framework designed by nineteenth century German dramatist Gustav Freytag. Freytag believed that stories have a five-act structure starting with an exposition, followed by a rising action, climax, falling action and denouement, which results in a distinct arc resembling a pyramid. Duarte used this to create her own shape of an ideal presentation. She tested this shape using speeches by famous orators and communications including Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Steve Job’s 2007 iPhone launch presentation, and amazingly, it matched! What these great speeches have in common is that the speaker continually builds tension and then releases it, over and over. By moving between the current situation and the future, what is and what could be, you make the status quo seem unappealing and unacceptable, and the future world where your idea or solution has been applied a comparative ‘utopia’.
ACT III: DESCRIBE THE WORLD TRANSFORMED
Once you have built enough tension in your audience, the end of your presentation should focus on the potential future where the issues of your audience have been solved and their world has transformed for the better. This can sound like a pretty dramatic technique, but people are more likely to remember the last thing you say rather than the beginning or the middle of your presentation, so make sure that your conclusion is strong!
Interested in learning more about Nancy Duarte’s philosophy on presenting? Check out her TED talk on the secret structure of great talks to see how she came up with the ideal presentation shape.
For more practical tips on storytelling, structuring presentations, and other narrative techniques to try, have a read of our blog page with gems including Storytelling Techniques for Presentations, Writing a PowerPoint Presentation, Rewriting the Rulebook on PowerPoint Scripts, and more!