by Achim Nowak

The Power of 3s

May 17, 2024

I used to resist simplistic communication rules. I have come to realize they work.

Many moons ago, I worked as a Master Trainer for Langevin Learning Services, the largest Train-the-Trainer company in the world. One communication principle we taught our clients was the Memory Rule of 7. The Memory Rule of 7 suggests that 7 points, 7 tasks, 7 quick ideas are the limit of new information the human brain can absorb in one sitting. Present more, and the brain shuts down and won’t remember what was presented.

Hey, what is this rule? An old-wives tale? Was there research done to validate this principle?

I don’t know. But I know the Memory Rule of 7 works. If you don’t wish to overload any audience with too much information, stop before you pile on more new information. Ask a question. Encourage reflection. Pause.

Make it stick before you move on.

Let’s take a look at the Power of 3s. I was flipping through one of my favorite communication books, Connie Dieken’s “Talk Less, Say More.” I stumbled onto her pages about the Power of 3s, and I immediately thought to myself, YES. Yes. Yes.

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

Winston Churchill

Marketers know about the 3s. When you check out a book on Amazon, Amazon immediately shows you their “frequently bought together” offer. The book you’re looking at, bundled with 2 other books. Yup. 3.

Eager to enhance your impact on your audience? Wish to activate quicker action in your audience? Think the Power of 3s.

  • 3 drives impact.
  • 3 drive retention.
  • 3 accelerates action.

Here are some specific ways in which you can apply the Power of 3s in your business communications.

1. Offer 3 options.

Want to drive a team toward making a decision? Frame it by offering 3 potential paths forward. We could hold the retreat in New York, in Dallas, or in San Diego! Offer no option, and you may be perceived as controlling and non-collaborative. Not interested in the thoughts of others. Offer a binary choice, and yes, you have opened the door to a discussion. Offer 3 options, and we suddenly feel like we have some real choices.

Offer 4 or more, on the other hand, and our conversation is much more likely to get lost in the weeds. It will take a lot longer, the decision will be harder. Way harder.

2. Repeat it 3 times.

Writers know about the rhythmic power of 3’s. Be bold. Be brave. Be free. A classic slogan. 3 statements. They have structural repetition. Catchy and memorable.

Similarly, the verbal repetition of a key call to action works well when repeated 3 times. I know we can do this. Offer some elaboration. Then, again, I know we can do this. More elaboration. I know we can do this.

Say it 10 times? Your audience will likely think oh, shut up already. Overkill destroys impact.

3. Present 3 categories.

When you’re constructing a slide and have a set of complex information or data to present, try consolidating this information into 3 categories, 3 columns, or 3 boxes if you can. It’s the same principle we’ve already reviewed. 3 is manageable. 3 does not overwhelm. 2 may feel too simplistic if the message involves complexity. More than 3 can seem daunting.

3 makes me want to tune in. More than 3 makes me want to tune out.

When sub-organizing your categories, think 3 bullet points, as well. 3 will force you to prioritize. If I only have 3, what’s the most pressing information that I need to include? And when you list 3, even if you don’t number your 3’s as I have just done in this text, lead with the most important item. Because that’s where our attention goes first.

I had a meeting with a new coaching client a couple of weeks ago. A colleague in her firm who knows her well said to me casually: When she talks it feels like a verbal assault.

Ouch. That’s not the sort of feedback you or I want. A verbal assault, no matter how impassioned, has little impact.

I have a hunch she and I will start with The Power of 3’s.

Simple. Clean. Time-tested.

Consider it, won’t you!

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