Early in my career, I worked with a brilliant guy—a charismatic showman who may have sold snake oil in some other life—who presented every case in three parts. He’d stand surefooted, arms akimbo, extending his left hand to count off the first, second and third evidentiary pillars of his argument.
It was persuasive and memorable. Both because he was gifted at this sort of thing, but also because he was aware of the power of three.
He knew that if he had wheeled off on some run-on tangent, off-roading into nuanced asides and unthreaded commentary, he’d probably lose his audience forever. But when he spoon-fed his wisdom in three conveniently packaged doses, they both understood and remembered.
What I soon came to learn was that, much of the time, he was simply winging it. Often, he committed to the three-part structure before he had fully formed his argument, believing that the symmetry of this structure would somehow conjure clearer thinking. This was probably helped by the fact that he was a quick on his feet, but I don’t discount the importance of this three-part rhetorical architecture.
Why am I talking about this? Because the rule of three is useful for anyone in the persuasion business. Clearly, it has a purpose in oratory, but it’s also instructive for how marketers communicate any message.
One is an incident, two is a coincidence, but three makes a pattern. And human beings really like patterns. Why? Because they offer tidy explanations for things that are otherwise difficult to grok. Of course, such explanations can also serve to manipulate, bending the truth toward some opportunistic end. (The onus is on us to ensure that our efforts to persuade don’t submit to this corrupted fate.)
How does the rule of three apply to marketing?
- Three problem statements—three reasons the world has changed
- Three benefit statements—better, faster, cheaper (but, please, never that)
- Three features that matter most—the whatsis, the thingamajig and the carbondingulator
- Three packaging options—small, medium, large
- Three service levels—silver, gold, platinum
Anything more will be an offroad path into the wilderness. I assure you.
I’ll leave it to the social scientists to explain why three is such a seductive number and simply cite evidence of its wide application. From the holy trinity to the three pigs, bears, blind mice, musketeers and stooges; from snap, crackle and pop, to stop, look and listen, to stop drop and roll; from blood, sweat and tears, to earth, wind and fire, to Peter, Paul and Mary; from veni, vidi, vici, to the three branches of government, to the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, to the beginning, middle and end, to the nasty, the brutish and the short; three is, indeed, the magic number.
The best marketers understand the rule of three. Truth is, as daily life becomes more cluttered and complex, the power and purpose of three is that much greater.
So, as marketers, when you seek to persuade, look to the rule of three. Make a pattern. I assure you, it’ll help make your story stick and your message travel.