The magic of three

When Winston Churchill gave his first speech as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940, he ended up coining a phrase that has been part of the language ever since.

Well, sort of.

What Churchill actually said that day was:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

And ever since, of course, we have gone around saying :

blood, sweat, and tears

Our collective sensibilities took a perfectly good four-word phrase, and somehow remembered it as three words.

It’s a prime example of the rule of three:  When framing a message, think in threes.  Three ideas.  Three examples.  Three chapters.

That’s all you really need.  And it’s all people will hear anyway.

Location, location, location

When you’re creating sales literature or drafting a proposal, build it around your three best sales points.

Why three?  When I try to write pieces that lean on two big ideas, the message always feels ambivalent or at odds with itself.  (“So which is it?  A way to save money, or a more flexible solution?  Tastes great?  Or less filling?  Make up your mind.”)  Two-headed messages suggest conflict and uncertainty.

But three ideas are solid, like a tripod.

And four points are too many.  One of the points will always be extraneous or weaker than the rest, making your argument wobble like a chair with one short leg.  Saw off the fourth idea and your argument will immediately sharpen and stabilize.

Veni, vidi, vici

The playwrights in ancient Greece figured out that their stage dramas worked best in three acts — just as Broadway plays do today.  And every good movie since King Kong uses the same three-act structure:  Setup. Conflict. Resolution.

So when you’re composing your keynote speech, or planning your address to the shareholders, always work in three acts.

What we did right
What we did wrong
What we still need to do.


Our competitors
Our challenges
Our responses

When you’re trying to rally the troops around a new go-to-market strategy, or hoping to sell your marketing plan to the folks upstairs, hang it all on three points, three parts, three tactics.

Getting smarter
Getting leaner
Getting faster

Hone your five-point sales pitch down to a triad, and you’ll sense an uncanny concentration of power. Your case will harden and draw in on itself.

Tom, Dick and Harry

When reporters interview you about your company’s prospects for the quarter, tick off three factors, three trends, three efforts. That’s all they’ll hear, and that’s all you’ll see in print, no matter what you say.  (And if reporters see you as a source for tight sound bites, they’ll call you more often.)

Your message can have three aspects, three pillars, and even (ugh) three prongs.  But never more than that.  With three prongs, you have a strategy.  With eleven prongs, you have a manure rake.

But what if your plans or processes absolutely, positively involve nineteen steps or elements?  What then?

Simple:  Put all the elements, steps, and factors into three piles.  And build the talk around the piles, the categories, the buckets.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner

When you launch your PowerPoint presentation, never list more than three items on your agenda.  Even if you plan to discuss 87 different topics, make them sound like three.

Target markets
Primary messages
Next steps

Then, limit yourself to three bullet points per slide.  (Although one point is even better.)  You will be feeding your audience in more digestible bites, and they will love you for it. Yes, you will need many more slides.  But it means you will change slides more quickly, which keeps the audience watching.

Why, why, why?

Why is three so magical?  Why don’t genies grant two wishes?  Or seven?

Why do we have Three Bears, Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, Three Stooges, Three Coins in a Fountain, Three Worlds of Gulliver, Three Strikes, We Three Kings, Three Blind Mice, Three Dog Night, Three Square Meals, My Three Sons, Three Faces of Eve; Tic Tac Toe; Snap, Crackle and Pop; eenie, miney, moe?

I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this.  But here’s my take.

Three is the minimum we will accept as a pattern.  If it happens once, it’s a fluke.  If it happens twice, it’s a coincidence.  But three times?  Now you have something.

Or maybe it’s because three is the most economical way to define a spectrum:  good, better, best.  It neatly delineates the continuum we’re talking about.  Too hot, too cold, and just right.  We don’t need a fourth Little Pig.  We get it already.

Ultimately I think it’s because our brains are wired for threes.
We can comfortably keep three plates spinning in our heads at the same time.  But no more.  It’s a holdover from our ancient oral traditions.

At the grocery store, we can remember “celery, milk, and eggs” without a list.  We can follow that joke about the farmer, the clown, and the lawyer.  But if we add another guy . . . wait, which one has the pigeon again?

Of course, it could be that ‘three’ just plain works better.

Which, in our line of work, may be the only thing that matters.

One Comment

  1. You have 7 seconds to capture audience attention when public speaking
    November 11, 2016 @ 4:22 am

    […] Never underestimate the power of “the magic of 3“. […]