Have you heard of the rule of three? If you are a professional communicator or a presenter you may have, but have forgotten it and instead you keep writing messages and presentations which include a multitude of themes and bullet points wondering why they have minimum impact?
My participation in the Strategic Internal Communications training course, organised by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in London, UK, reminded me of how ‘the rule of three’ can result in a very engaging content as well as make communications much more effective and memorable. This rule can also stretch beyond work: it may potentially simplify and help you regain control of your life, boost your productivity and reduce your anxiety.
I recall my university days where I heard the Latin phrase Omne trium perfectum (Everything that comes in threes is perfect) for the first time. This saying conveys the same idea as the rule of three since having three entities combines both brevity and certain rhythm with the critical amount of information to create a pattern that people can easily relate to and remember. If speeches and pitches are sprinkled with lists of threes, they look both simple and catchy without authors/presenters losing the impact as subject matter experts. Even a speech itself can be structured along the tri-pattern; you may have come across the old advice by Aristotle* for the most effective speech delivery: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them”. Simple, direct and memorable, this ‘triptych’ is a useful method to deploy whenever you need to make a presentation, long or short, which you want audiences to remember.
So, what’s the magic behind number three? It is well established that we can hold only a small amount of information in short term. In 1956 Bell Labs reached out to Harvard professor George Miller who published a paper titled, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Miller argued that we have difficulties retaining more than seven to nine digits in short-term memory. Contemporary scientists, however, have put the number of items we can easily recall in short-term memory closer to three or four chunks of information. Think about it. When someone leaves a phone number on a voicemail, you’re more likely to recall the first three digits before having to listen to the message again to get the remainder of the number.
Many companies use the rule of three to craft their taglines and marketing communications. Take ‘Just do it’ (Nike), ‘Every little helps’ (Tesco) and ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ (VW). Steve Jobs apparently applied the rule of three in nearly every presentation and product launch. For example, in 2007 Jobs introduced the first iPhone as the ‘third’ of Apple’s revolutionary product categories (the first two were the Macintosh and the iPod).
On the politics front, the Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ was promptly transformed into the popular and more memorable ‘blood, sweat and tears’. In a more distant past, the rule of three clearly impacted slogans such as the well-known French Liberté, égalité, fraternité used during the French Revolution in 1789 and Veni, vidi, vici attributed to Julius Caesar who wrote the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate around 47BC. Tapping into literature, it is also no accident that the number three is pervasive in well-known stories, such as Three Musketeers and Three Little Pigs, to mention but a few. And there are many more examples from other disciplines.
As the seminar also focused on building a company culture, our discussion revolved around values that companies want their employees to identify with and embed in their daily activities. We were put through a challenging test to name our company values, which created embarrassing moments for a few participants but also revealed that some companies have up to 12 values and nobody remembers any. Company values should be authentic, relevant, should have the purpose behind them, embody what the company stands for, and should be linked to the key areas that matter to a particular business. And, they can be just three, three core values which represent deeply ingrained principles, guiding all company’s and employees’ actions, serving as cultural cornerstones.
The same applies to personal goals; if you have an endless list of goals and simplify them to the three principal ones, you are more likely to achieve them. It will help you stay on track, focus fully on less with absolute clarity about your progress. In the today’s fast-paced world, your huge workload, family and busy social life can sometimes get the better of you; the rule of three can help you regain control of your life. How many times have you felt you have more than you can chew on your plate? How many times has your day gone confusing or out of control? If that happens, one of the methods to get out of the rut is to try to prioritise, invoke the rule of three to settle your brain and bring some focus to your activities. And don’t forget to count to three when you encounter some disagreeable idea!
However, the power of this rule does not solely lie in the number three; such list is not created randomly and it always matters most what sits behind, so the substance, the meaning, the purpose. I believe this applies to any set of threes mentioned in this article including values.
Although it may seem beneficial to follow the rule of three, there might be occasions when this rule may not work. However, before you decide to dismiss it, it’s advisable to understand it better and see how and where it could work to your advantage, in a company and/or for you as an individual.
*This quote has been also attributed to Dale Carnegie, an American writer and lecturer, as well as to others.
By Tereza Urbánková – PR, communications and marketing professional with over 19 years’ experience and proven success in delivering award-winning communications programmes for multinational companies operating in industries such as hospitality, retail, IT, defence, broadcast, logistics and engineering. After having lived and worked in the UK for 11 years, she has recently moved to Germany where she works as Head of Global External Communication, Animal Health, for Boehringer Ingelheim, a global pharmaceutical company. Tereza is a member of the Executive Committee of the Czech British Chamber of Commerce in London. She speaks Czech, English, Spanish and Russian and can be reached through her LinkedIn profile.