Today I want to talk about the “rule of three” and how it can be used to communicate and persuade others.
The human brain likes patterns. In fact, when processing information, the mind subconsciously groups things together in patterns. One of anything alone is obviously not a pattern. Two of anything is just a duplicate, a copy or coincidence. But three, however, is where a pattern can begin and why there’s a rule for it.
The “rule of three” is often associated with writing, however it is also widely used in storytelling, arts and entertainment and in advertising. In the visual and performing arts, patterns of three are more aesthetically pleasing because of the rhythm and balance three can provide. In short, our minds are conditioned to like things in threes.
As a result, examples of the rule appear everywhere. Here are some commonly used phrases I am sure you have heard that prove my point: Lights, camera, action…Ready, set, go…Ready, aim, fire…Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…Stop, look and listen…Reading, writing and arithmetic…Father, son and holy spirit…Mind, body, spirit…The good, the bad and the ugly…Beginning, middle, end…Thinner, lighter, faster…The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…Blood, sweat and tears…
So whether its language, the arts, handling widgets or learning new information, advocates for the rule of three suggest that things are just simply more satisfying and desirable if presented in groups of three. Not surprisingly, things presented in threes are also more easily remembered.
But why? Here is an example –
Think about a job interview. While a degree of anxiety can be managed and even helpful in this situation, it can also cause a number of things to not go as planned. For me, nerves tend to make me rush and omit critical details. In order to compensate for this, in my early career interviews, I would memorize the answers to dozens of questions I anticipated might be asked. The truth is, trying to stick to the script in my head actually made me more nervous. I should have actually spent more time practicing improvisation.
Thankfully, at some point, it dawned on me that worrying about how I would respond to questions asked during an interview should not be my focus. There were always other candidates that knew as much or more than me. What I finally realized was that the difference between me getting the job and other candidates of equal skill or experience was not what I knew, but what I could help the selection committee remember about me.
While I didn’t consciously think of it as the rule of three, I started to condense my impassioned beliefs and goals for the position into three things. This helped ease my nerves as well as gave me a consistent message which I could embed in all of my responses. Remember “drain the swamp, build a wall, make America great again?” Proof positive that getting the job isn’t always about intellect.
That aside, using the rule of three in an interview situation has always worked for me and I’ve seen it work for many others. More importantly, this same approach can be used to persuade and influence others. Whether you want to rally your team or stakeholders around a common purpose, address a hot button issue or brand your organization, the rule of three is just as effective.
So as a recap, the human mind likes patterns and groups of threes are more satisfying and memorable. Whether you’re preparing for an important presentation, trying to persuade others to rally around a common purpose or applying for a job, using the rule of three as your framework can make the difference between OK and amazing.