The magic power of the Rule of 3

The magic power of the Rule of 3


You won’t have to look too far to see an example of the power of the ‘rule of 3’.  From fairy tales such as Goldilocks and the 3 Bears; advertising and communication techniques – “Snap, Crackle and Pop”, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”; through to medals and accolades – Gold, Silver, Bronze; 1st, 2nd, 3rd, the power of the rule of 3 is all around us.  And if you look carefully you can see that I’ve used 3 examples to make my point!

Understanding the benefit of ‘3’ takes us back to when our brains were evolving. To give ourselves the best chance of survival, we liked – and needed to have – choices.  Stuck in front of a spear wielding tribesman, or a rampaging bear, we needed to know that we had a choice that avoided a sticky end.  But, not having enough choices might have meant that we didn’t have the ‘out’ that we desperately needed, and too many choices could have led to us feeling overwhelmed and confused, resulting in us making the wrong decision and ending up with a fate worse than the spear or bear!  3 seems to be that ‘magic number’ which gives us the right number of options to make a good decision but not so many choices that we end up doing the wrong thing.

The rule of three also exists in writing with the belief that things are funnier, more satisfying or more effective when written as a three rather than another number.   This is based on the notion that we process information through recognising patterns.  3 is the smallest number which can create a pattern – and be short and rhythmic enough to stick in our minds – and is often used to create memorable phrases; “blood, sweat and tears”, “location, location, location”, “stop, look, listen”.   Stories have a 3-part structure – beginning, middle and end – and next time you listen to a comedian or hear a joke, look out for the set-up, story build and punchline (and there’s a reason why there’s always 3 people who walk into a bar!)

Using the rule of 3 can be really helpful when crafting your speech or presentation.  Not only does it provide a solid structure and framework, but it will also help focus your mind on the most critical points that you want to make, whilst enabling you to use powerful and impactful language.  Ways to optimise your presentation using the rule of 3 include:

  • Making sure you have a defined beginning, middle and end. Introduce your topic clearly at the beginning, focus on the key takeaways during the body of your speech and then summarise neatly at the end.  As Dale Carnegie pointed out “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said.”  (That’s a ‘three-er’ just there!)
  • A recognised presentation structure is to open with a hook, introduce the topic you’re going to talk about, highlight your key message and then use 3 supporting points to explain and define your key message before summarising with a call to action. These 3 supporting points provide the right amount of evidence and information to back up your key message – 1 or 2 points might seem flimsy and not enough.  5 or 6 points becomes overwhelming and hard for the listener to take on board.  3 is the right number.   This is also a useful tool to use when you are asked an off the cuff question, asked to speak spontaneously or composing a response in a job interview.   Listing 3 points that you are going to cover, and then ticking them off as you speak gives you an instant structure and provides prompts along the way.
  • Following on from the above, ensuring you stick to 3 supporting points means your speech or presentation stays focussed. As you start writing your presentation you might think that you have 5, 6, 7 points that you want to get across, but really this is just too many.  By being focussed and single minded you can say less and what you do say will have more impact.
  • When writing your speech and preparing what you are going to say, try to shape your language with the rule of 3, perhaps by using 3 adjectives to describe a product, 3 words to create a memorable phrase or slogan, or using 3 elements to tell your story. Goldilocks had to work out whether the porridge was too hot, too cold or just right, the big bad wolf had to try to blow down 3 little pigs’ houses before he got his comeuppance and it’s no accident that Scrooge encountered 3 Christmas ghosts in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

As you can see, there really is power in the rule of 3, and 3 is a magic number!  Have a go at using it next time you craft a presentation or write a speech and see how helpful it can be.

You might also have noticed that I used 4 examples to make my last point – I’ll leave that with you as to whether it’s one too many…

If you’d like to find out more about building and developing your ability to create and deliver high impact presentations, our Presentation Skills Bootcamp is designed to give you the confidence and expertise you need to see a really positive leap in your presentation skills.