3 things

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My mom tells a story from when I was very young—barely 3 or 4 years old. My grandfather asked me what I hoped to learn at preschool. 

"Three things," I replied. "How to read, how to play the piano, and how not to cry when I have a shampoo."

I share this story not just to point out my long-ago comedic timing, but also as my own personal proof that we're hard-wired to be receptive to the single, simplest, most powerful rule of communication.

It’s the Rule of 3, and it underpins some of the most effective speeches, jokes, and stories that we all know.

A few examples:

  • During times of peril, we talk about dedicating "blood, sweat, and tears" to the cause, about a government "of the people, by the people, for the people," and for values including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

  • When we're children, we read stories about the Three Little Pigs, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you’re roughly my age, maybe you even remember: “a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.”

  • Or else, we tell jokes when we get older: "A doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer are playing golf one beautiful morning..." (I'll finish the joke at the end of this newsletter.)

The Rule of 3 works for at least three reasons (no surprise there):

  • First, because people respond to patterns, and three is the minimum number of things required to create a pattern.

  • Second, because we respond to change, and if you articulate three things, you create an imbalance. Either all three things go together, or two go together, while the third represents an exception. It's either 3 to 0, or else 2 to 1.

  • Finally, because three is the maximum number of things people can remember quickly without effort. The U.S. Marine Corps uses the Rule of 3 throughout its organization for exactly this reason: three Marines in a fire team; three fire teams in a squad, etc.

In fact, it was the Marine Corps angle, which I first read about in Inc. magazine back in 1998, that initially drew me to articulate this concept—or at least to identify it more readily. (When the Marines experimented with a Rule of 4, author David H. Freedman wrote, effectiveness plummeted.) 

So, how should you use the Rule of 3 if you're not already doing it? (I mean, you probably are.) Still, a few examples:

  • If you’re giving a presentation, all else being equal, organize it around three big objectives or agenda items. This doesn't always mean ignoring everything else; it means reorganizing.

  • When leading or counseling employees: Identify two things that the employee is doing well and one key thing to improve. This might mean meeting more often, but about fewer things each time.

  • In advertising and marketing: Focus on three benefits to the customer. Bonus points, at least sometimes, if the third benefit can be a bit incongruous or apposite; that's where the humor can come from. 

Speaking of which:

A doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer are playing golf one beautiful morning.

The group ahead is moving slowly. They're annoyed until they learn that it's a foursome made up of firefighters who lost their sight while rescuing people from a burning building.

  • "They're heroes," says the doctor. "I wonder if any of my physician friends can help."

  • "I agree," says the lawyer. "I'd love to offer my services to help them get compensated."

  • "It's too bad," says the engineer. "But why can't they just play at night?"

OK, maybe it's not the funniest joke ever. But imagine how much worse it would be without the Rule of 3.

(Leave a comment. Even better: Leave 3!)

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Bonus: Here’s the “bread/milk/butter” video from Sesame Street that I suppose maybe 5 percent of readers currently have in their heads, thanks to the reference above.


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. I wrote about part of this for Inc.com long ago. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.