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Three is Perfect

Whatever your communication challenge, you can always fall back on a trusty tool that somehow manages to work in all circumstances: the Rule of Three.

One of the most universal and intimidating experiences at work is the blank page. You have a speech to deliver, a video to script, a presentation to design, a plan to draft, an announcement to make. Where to begin? What is there to say? Will I have enough to write? My simplest, ever-green ‘go-to’ in such circumstances is the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is an all-purpose foundation and career-hack for any form of communication. It consists of three simple points, from which all else stems. These don’t even need to be the most important points, but they nevertheless give your content three priceless things: structure, authority and easy recall. These in turn help:

  • you in drafting, breaking the complex into three manageable chunks

  • the speaker/actor in delivery, providing mental hooks to make the material memorable and flow more easily

  • the audience in comprehension, providing easy paths by which to follow the content.

Whether you are drafting a document or you have been called upon to speak in a meeting, the Rule of Three is there to help! Instead of worrying about all the things you could possibly say, start by making order out of chaos by using any one of the endless formulations of the Rule of Three. Here are some I’ve found most helpful in my own career:

  • Yesterday, today, tomorrow: what was it like in the past, what’s it like now, what will it be like in future?

  • Head, heart, hand: what do we want people to think, feel and do?

  • Departure, journey, destination: where did we come from, where are we now, where are we going?

  • Is, Could be, Should be: what is the actual situation, what options do we have to change it, which of those options are the best?

  • Introduction, description, conclusion: this is what I’m going to say, this is what I’m saying, this is what I just said

  • Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: some people say this, other people say that, on balance I think that…

  • Scene-set, tension, resolution: standard screenplay structure

  • Departure, initiation, return: classic hero’s journey

  • Starter, mains, dessert: provide an introduction, expand into 3 main points, then wrap up with a conclusion

  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: make a virtue of simply repeating a single point three times, enough to make it memorable, not too much to become tiresome.

  • Question, question, question: three consecutive questions can act as structure or simply as a way to draw maximum attention to a specific passage.

  • Three little words (Hendiatris): summarise the whole message into a simple, three-word shorthand - or go one better and condense into three letters.

Once you start using the tool, you become aware how widely it has been used across all forms and ages. In ancient times it was known as “omne trium perfectum” (“everything that comes in threes is perfect” or “Threes are perfect”). Here are some well-known examples illustrating its universal appeal:

  • The Three Little Pigs (fairytale)

  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln)

  • “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning” Winston Churchill

  • “Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education” Tony Blair

  • “The good, bad and the ugly” (film)

  • “Get Brexit Done” / “Build back better” / “Hands, Face, Space” / “Build Back Better” (political slogans)

  • “Every little helps” Tesco’s slogan

  • “In the beginning” / “Still, small voice” / “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” / “Faith, Hope and Charity” (Bible)

  • Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (France’s motto)

  • “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (US Declaration of Independence)

  • CIA / MI5 / FBI / CNN / BCC / CBC / CBS / FCO / LAX / WHO / IMF / UNESCO / UNICEF (national and international agencies known by their three-syllable abbreviations)

While most of us are unlikely to produce such famous content at these, their very fame and longevity point to how effective and timeless the rule is. Simply out, it is one of the most dependable communications tools in the box. So if facing the torment of a blank page or a blank mind, remember the Rule of Three is always there to see you safely through.

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