What’s with the Rule of Three? — Frequent Questions

Q: What’s with the Rule of Three?
A: Depends. Which one do you mean?

I know at least two Rules of Three. I’ve written about the one in comedy—jokes are funnier when you break a pattern with the third item. But a fellow participant in Seth Godin’s “The Marketing Seminar” just reminded me of a second Rule of Three. (There really ought to be a third one, don’t you think?)

Jared Dees has his own Rule of Three
Jared Dees, from “Jared Dees Teaches” Facebook page

Jared Dees—who’s branded himself as as “The Religion Teacher”—posted a video to remind his community that less is not more. (Watch it here on Facebook.) Leave aside all the religious stuff if you like; his message about great communication technique works as well for an audience of agnostics as it does for catechism teachers—and everyone in between. It’s simple, as it should be:

People retain more when you say less.

So plan your speech or presentation to deliver three ideas. Not four, not five. Just three.

I can hear you wailing: But I have so much to say! I know you do, dear. We all do. The question is, do you want your audience to remember what you have to say? If you do, you can’t stuff their heads full of facts—they need space to integrate all that content.

So Jared says you need to be “crystal clear” about what your three things are. And if you can’t state them all in one sentence, then maybe you’re not as clear about all of this as you’d like to think.

Rule of Three, with details

This is not about dumbing down a presentation; it’s about organizing it. If you’ve got lots of details you need to fill in about each of your three points, then by all means detail away. Let the Rule of Three give you a frame on which to hang those details: a Christmas tree, a coat rack, a hall chair (I don’t know about you but that’s where all my coats end up).

Make it easy for your audience to create their own story, using the details and facts you provide. Once they’ve done that, they’ll remember you—and your ideas.

By the way, Dees practices what he, um, preaches. A quick trip to his blog reveals posts like “3 Lessons I Learned from Reading Real Artists Don’t Starve and Creative Blocks: 3 ways to find great ideas (great suggestions, by the way). Yes, I’ve only listed two blog posts. Another way to play with the Rule of Three is to keep an audience waiting for the third…“How to Be a Writer: 3 Lessons I Learned from Jeff Cavins.” Enjoy.


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