3 major breakthroughs

Steve Jobs and the Rule of 3. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I wrote about the Rule of 3 in this newsletter last week. I was humbled afterward by how many readers replied to let me know they thought it was insightful and useful.

As far as I’m concerned, one of the most masterful business communicators of the last 50 years was Steve Jobs. I’ve written before about how Jobs used the Rule of 3 constantly, and I’d like to share some of that with you here, as well.

Let’s start out by examining the words Jobs used when he publicly introduced three legendary Apple products. See if you can spot a pattern.

First for our purposes: In 1984, Jobs introduced the Macintosh (link to video):

“There have only been two milestone products in our industry: the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981. Today ... we are introducing the third industry milestone product: Macintosh.”

In 2001, he introduced the iPod (link to video):

“There are three major breakthroughs in iPod. Let's take a look at each one of them.”

In 2007, he introduced the iPhone (link to video):

“[T]oday, we're introducing three revolutionary products....

The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.

...An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. An iPod, a phone...are you getting it?

These are not three separate devices. This is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.”

When you line them up like that, I think it jumps out at you: Jobs almost always used the Rule of 3 in his presentations. It works because:

  1. Lists of three things create brief, recognizable patterns.

  2. Three is the maximum number of disparate items that most people can remember after a single exposure.

  3. Lists of three demand attention because they signal change from the status quo.

There are many more examples. (I may have spent too much time watching his old speeches on YouTube after I recognized this pattern.)

His most famous example, perhaps, is the “three stories” commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005 (link to video):

“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal.

Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots…

And, later: "My second story is about love and loss," and "My third story is about death."

Perhaps my favorite less-known example is when he described how he and his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs spent weeks (weeks!) debating whether to get a traditional American washing machine versus a more efficient but slower-working European model.

“We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family:

  • Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half?

  • Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer?

  • Did we care about using a quarter of the water?

We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table.”

Now, here's the big reveal. It's something so obvious that it's difficult to see.

It's that for most of these "3 major breakthroughs" type speeches that Jobs gave, if you go back and analyze them, there were not, actually, 3 items.

In some cases, there were two. In some cases, five; in some cases, probably 30. Really, “3” was just a number—and a rhetorical device.

The best example? Well, let’s go back to the Stanford speech, in which he explicitly said he had three stories to tell.

More than 38 million people have watched this on YouTube, and when I’ve done some speechwriting and consulting, it’s one of a handful of speeches (heck, usually three) that I tell people to go back and watch.

But guess what? There are not three stories. By my count, there are actually eight stories in the speech (link to full text):

  1. A story about his adoptive parents.

  2. A story about dropping out of college.

  3. A story about studying calligraphy.

  4. A story about getting fired from Apple.

  5. A story about rebounding with NeXT and Pixar.

  6. A story about considering death as a child.

  7. A story about his cancer diagnosis.

  8. Finally, a story about the Whole Earth Catalog.

It's kind of cool, right? Jobs clearly understood that no matter how smart and good and clever your ideas are, it doesn’t matter unless you use rhetorical frameworks that make it easy for people to hear and process what you have to say.

And the Rule of 3 makes things easier to hear and remember.

So, my advice? Next time you have to give a speech or convince somebody of something:

1. Remember this article about Steve Jobs.

2. Divide what you have to say into thirds.

3. Have at it, and let me know how it works.

Call for comments: Anything you feel moved to share, but for today, it has to be in a list of three.

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7 other things worth your time


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Matthew Yohe at en.wikipedia. I wrote about some of this in a different version for Inc.com. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.