If you're like me, you work hard to communicate simply and clearly: turning a 45-slide PowerPoint into a few brief messages, summing up 37 changes into bullet points, eradicating jargon and eliminating corporate speak.
It's sometimes an uphill battle, but it's always worthwhile. Today more than ever, people just don't have time for complexity--they need to get the point simply and quickly.
That's why you need the rule of three.
Maybe you learned about the rule in math or writing class. Here's how marketing expert Gord Hotchkiss puts it: "We humans tend to think in triplets. Three is a good number to wrap our mind around, and we see it in all kinds of instances. We tend to remember points best when given in groups of three, we scan visual elements best when they come in threes, and we like to have three options to consider.
"Think how often three comes up in our society: three little pigs, three strikes, three doors on 'Let's Make a Deal,' three competitive quotes. It's a tri-ordered world out there."
What does this mean? Seven strategies are (four) too many to remember. Nine key messages won't be retained. If you can't recite your (three-part) point in one breath, it's probably too long.
The rule of three can help you create better communication, and it can also help you manage your stakeholders who want to convey every detail about their stuff. (Who can argue with a "rule"?)
And, once you get attuned to the rule of three, you'll see it everywhere:
In speeches and plays
- "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" - William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
- "Blood, sweat and tears" - General George Patton
In slogans and titles
- "Stop, look and listen"
- "Sex, lies and videotape"
And even in comedy. As humor specialist John Kinde writes, the rule of three is particularly useful in comedy writing because "a funny line . . . is like a train wreck. You know where the train has been, you think you know where it's going, but then you're surprised when it goes off track."
The rule of three sets up the joke and makes it memorable. Like the tee-shirt that reads, "World Class Cities: Paris. Rome. Fargo" The third thing is the kicker that creates the joke.
So, to sum up, here are three things to remember about the rule of three: It creates simplicity, creates recall and makes your job easier. Got it?