Ready, set, go: The Rule of Three

What would have happened in 1776 if Thomas Jefferson had left it at “life and liberty”? There’s little doubt the Continental Congress would have produced the same result. But those words, without their sibling, “the pursuit of happiness,” would not have found the prominent spot they hold today in our national lexicon.

As it turns out, Jefferson was familiar with the thinking of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, who believed that the combination of three words or ideas makes a message more easily understood, more memorable, and more effective. Today, the Rule of Three is ubiquitous because of how it’s used to describe everything from our favorite technology (“accessible, relevant, and personal”), to how to protect ourselves (“Stop, drop, and roll”), to our breakfast cereal (“Snap, Crackle and Pop”).

Marketing and behavioral science professors Kurt Carlson and Suzanne Shu have conducted extensive research on the Rule of Three. Data in their most recent paper, published in 2013, demonstrates that three claims are sufficient for consumers to draw a conclusion about a product, individual, or restaurant. Just as important, their experiments showed that consumer skepticism increases when the number of positive claims passes three. Earlier work by these researchers showed that we view two figures as a coincidence but see three as a pattern.

It’s a pattern from which Steve Jobs rarely departed during his keynote addresses that announced new versions of the iPhone, upgrades to MacOS and iOS, and new services like Apple Music.

Jobs’ legacy lives on at Apple in many ways. Among them are the descriptions of scores of products on Apple’s website that come in threes. AirPods are “Wireless. Effortless. Magical.” The iPad Pro is “Thin. Light. Epic.” These illustrations of the Rule of Three also demonstrate that using it can yield additional benefits if the writer or speaker delivers an unexpected third word to complete the triplet.

The Rule of Three has its roots in the number of things you and I can remember easily. In addition to giving speeches, presentations, and copy a new rhythm, using the Rule of Three also makes them more emotive, more interesting, and more enjoyable. So, build your next presentation on three main points, express your most important arguments as triplets, and move your audience to the desired action with a three-part call to action.

Ready, set, go.

Rod Hise is president of Rod Hise & Co. Ltd., a strategic communications consultancy.

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