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Boosting communication impact with the rule of three

What is the simple, proven, powerful rule that we can use to boost the impact of our communication? In this episode, we’re going to share with you the rule of three!

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” This famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a great example of the rule of three. Our human ears, for whatever reason, like to hear triplets and there’s lots of interesting research in this area (Carson & Shu, 2007). It just sounds right and helps make things easy to remember. Think about some book titles: ‘The three musketeers’, ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’, and ‘The three little pigs’. Did you see what we did there? We gave you three examples of books that use three items in the titles! When we start looking, we see the rule of three all around us!

The Romans valued the rule of three and even had the saying ‘Everything that comes in threes is perfect’. Apparently it’s related to our human tendency to detect patterns in small samples. What’s the smallest number required for us to spot a pattern? You guessed it, three! This is how we detect rhythms… how many times do we need to click our fingers to create a rhythm? Three! Rhythm is made up of the beats and the spaces between them, so we need three beats to define a rhythm.

Or think of how we often start races… we say ‘On your marks, get set, go!’. We know by the pauses between the words when we need to be ready to launch ourselves into the race. And if we’re wanting to create an acronym, how many letters should it have? Three of course, and we even call them Three letter acronyms! Think of the ABC, NBC and the BBC. It’s not just acronyms that love triplets; slogans love them too. Think of Rice Bubbles and their ‘Snap, crackle, pop!’. Or what about Nike: ‘Just do it!’, or KFC… ‘Finger lickin’ good!’.

The rule of three is why good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. It cues us up for success. Another example is the common use of trilogies in books and movies. Think about ‘The lord of the rings’, and how while each told a story, they were part of the bigger story.

But how do we use the rule of three as enablers of change? At the highest level, when communicating an important message, break it up into three main sections. And explicitly tell people that there are three sections, as that cues their brain to listen for them. We can use the good old adult learning technique of first telling them what we’re going to tell them; then tell them; and then reinforce it by telling them what we told them. We’ve talked before about repetition being a powerful tool for learning!

On a smaller scale, in our sentences we should aim to use triplets – whether that be three words or three phrases in a row. For example, the US Declaration of Independence proclaims ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’, while the Olympic motto is ‘Faster, higher, stronger’. So if we’re going to give some examples, provide not just one or two, but three.

Of course it’s good to do all things in moderation. So let’s not overuse the rule of three, but use it to add interest and emphasis when required. This has just been a short episode to help make our communication more effective. You’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with the rule of three, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!

Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!

Carlson, K. A., & Shu, S. B. (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.

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Kamru (Md Kamruzzaman)
Kamru (Md Kamruzzaman)
19 days ago

That’s an amazing idea of triplet, yes people do listen and remember if there are only three words/ steps/ strategies.

Graham Harris
Graham Harris
19 days ago

One of the compositional “rules” in photography is the “rule-of-odds” – it states that an odd number of subjects produces a more engaging and interesting composition – 1, 3, 5… The rule of simplicity suggests a few subjects as possible – so three is a good number of subjects implementation for the “rule-of-odds”. An interesting observation given your latest video.

19 days ago

My current preoccupation is with TGP – total grazing pressure; but despite it meeting the criterion, the mission that it connotes has enjoyed little success. The 3 secrets to improving profits: reducing overheads, improving gross margins and increasing turnover. Yes I agree that simplifying complex challenges into threes can be a powerful motivator and reminder to keep returning to the primary drivers of any challenge.

18 days ago

Totally agree John. Always good to be reminded of the basics of adult learning as it is too easy to over-egg when you are presenting. I know I am guilty of it. I try to remember the famous words of Foghorn Leghorn…”I say, I say, I say…”

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