Effective communication and the rule of three

In common with most communication skills trainers I know, I advise the people I work with to identify three key messages for media interviews and presentations. Why three? Why not two, four or five? And wouldn’t one message be the most powerful of all?

Well, no. A shedload of evidence and examples suggests that in oratory three is a magic number, just as it is in written communication, storytelling, all aspects of culture, religion, comedy, advertising slogans and sport. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_three_(writing)

What would be the point of stories if they had a beginning and an end, but no middle?

If there were only two bears, how would Goldilocks have been able to identify the bed that was neither too hard nor too soft, but ‘just right’?

Is ‘faith and hope’ half as compelling as ‘faith, hope and charity’? The same goes for ‘father, son and holy spirit’, ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, and even the more recent ‘education, education, education’?

If Mark Anthony had called on ‘Friend, Romans’ and left out ‘countrymen, would he have succeeded in swaying the crowd against Caesar’s assassins?

Are two sporting victories evidence of a trend? No, you need three, the proverbial hat trick, to provide that.

There are various explanations for the pervasive ‘rule of three’, apart from its purely rhetorical appeal, depending on the context:

People find it hard to hold more than three images or ideas in their heads at any one time.

  • In the oral tradition of storytelling, telling a story with three variations – as in the three little pigs who built their houses variously of straw, wood and bricks – made it easier to remember and to pass on.
  • In comedy, the first two iterations set up a norm while the third violates it to comic effect. Think of this question addressed to a bald person in The Dick Van Dyke Show: ‘Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?’ http://tvtropes.org.pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RuleOfThree

(You see how it works – I thought of including a fourth bullet point here but three is much more effective!)

Regardless of the whys and wherefores, the take-home message seems to be that if you want your message to be powerful, resonant and memorable (see what I did there?) your best plan is to put it in a list of three.

And that’s surely something any Tom, Dick or Harry (geddit?) could manage.