Jerry Johnson, October 2016
I do media training and public speaking clinics. If you ask me for a communication “secret”, I’ll tell you to talk in threes. If fact, even if you don’t ask, I’ll tell you to talk in threes. My colleagues have heard it a million times, and I take good-natured ribbing for it. But I’m okay with that.
I obsess about threes for good reason.
First, when I say talk in threes, I mean if you’ve got a short list, make it three things. If you’re telling a story make it three parts (beginning, middle and end). If you’re putting together a presentation, make it three points. When you’re making a point, try three bullets or images.
Threes work. There’s overwhelming evidence that all things being equal, three is the optimal number for just about everything, particularly storytelling.
Let’s start with the hard sciences. The “rule of three” is elemental in art, music and geometry. How many primary colors are there? Three. In musical scales, what is the common harmonic? Three. How many sides does the most stable form in geometry have – a pyramid or triangle? Three. Look at the grid when you’re posting on Instagram. Yup, three by three.
Then think about how we organize the world around us. We live by an existential “rule of three.” Our days are divided into morning, noon and night. We feed ourselves at breakfast, lunch and dinner. We measure a work-day in 8 hours or 1/3 of a day.
Then there are cultural and anthropological cues. Shorthand for schooling is learning your “A,B,C’s”. When we evaluate things, we bucket them as positive, negative or neutral. When we award prizes or rank athletes, we talk about 1st, 2nd, and 3rd or gold, silver and bronze. We even tell jokes in threes (“three men were sitting at a bar …”).
Three is a common denominator in both philosophy and theology. When Aristotle outlined he theory of persuasion he spoke of “logos, pathos, and ethos.” When Hegel outlined the dialectic it was “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in defense of Democracy we wrote about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And of course there is the Trinitarian divine.
Threes abound in storytelling in every culture. In his seminal work, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,” Christopher Booker writes, “Once we become aware of the archetypal significance of three in storytelling, we can see it everywhere, expressed in all sorts of different ways, large and small.”
Finally, there is considerable evidence that three is the optimal number for retention and persuasion. Behavioral economics and decision theory have taught us that consumers prefer oligopolies – that is, not universal but limited choices. We like some choice but not too much choice.
Researchers Suzanne Shu and Kurt Carlson have dug deeply into the persuasive power of three. In one paper titled, “When Three Charms but Four Alarms,” they cite abundant marketing, behavioral decision-making and message persuasion research, and conclude that, “In settings where consumers know that the message source has a persuasion motive, the optimal number of positive claims is three.”
In fact, if you go further than three, they say, you’re probably hurting your case: “More claims are better until the fourth claim, at which time consumers’ persuasion knowledge causes them to see all the claims with skepticism.”
I believe it. I preach it. And I get ribbed for it.
But I’m ok with that.
It’s the power of three.
Uslay, Can, Z. Ayca Altintig, and Robert D. Winsor (2010), “An Empirical Examination of the ‘Rule of Three’: Strategy Implications for Top Management, Marketers, and Investors,” Journal of Marketing, 74 (March), 20-39.
Tybout, Alice M. (1978), “Relative effectiveness of three behavioral influence strategies as supplements to persuasion in a marketing context,” Journal of Marketing Research, 229-242.
Sheth, Jagdish N., and Rajendra Sisodia (2002), The Rule of Three: Surviving and Thriving in Competitive Markets. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kinde, John (2009), “The rule of three: A humor technique from the world of comedy,” http://www.humorpower.com/art-rulethree.html.
Dundes, Alan (1968), “The Number Three in American Culture.” in Alan Dundes (ed.), Every Man His Way: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Carlson, Kurt and Suzanne B. Shu (2007), “The Rule of Three: How the Third Event Signals the Emergence of a Streak,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 104 (1), 113- 121.
Booker, Christopher (2005), “The Rule of Three,” in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 229-235.
When Three Charms but Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings SUZANNE B. SHU KURT A. CARLSON