The Power of Three: In effective writing, editing and beyond
If advertising reflects how a society deals with information, then the modern era began in the 1940s with the “unique selling proposition” (USP). Embodying the wisdom of being concise – but also the struggle advertisers faced in getting there – the USP was anchored in the belief that consumers could most easily register and retain one important message.
However, as products with similar attributes flooded markets, clear differentiation became difficult to manage, and having an arsenal of attributes was considered more convincing. As the pendulum swung towards the more complex, some called for a return to simpler ways. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less highlighted how consumers faced with too many choices wound up more confused than satisfied.
So where is the happy medium? Today’s “multitasking” has replaced “juggling” – what we used to do with many projects and priorities. But the true challenge in real juggling was trying to keep three balls in the air rather than two. With the unending series of dropped balls providing clear evidence of the misery of three, was that magic number more curse than comfort?
Film and song have provided some solace and inspiration. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy could return home from her trip through Munchkin Land and the Emerald City with three clicks of her ruby slippers. And in 1978, the Commodores’ song “Three Times a Lady” became a number one single in the United States and United Kingdom.
“Three” is accepted today, with relative gusto. “The new conclusion, that consumer skepticism crosses a threshold at three claims, counters previous research. For decades, a principle called the set size effect held that the more positive descriptors crammed into a message, the better,” according to a study reported in The New York Times. Today for example, practically speaking, the “3 Things for Calgary” program encourages the city’s population to think about “3 things you can do to make Calgary better”.
Furthermore, Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, writes: “Stick to the rule of three. Simply put, we can only remember about three to five key messages in short term memory. There’s a reason why the [US] Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The rule of three is well established among authors in the academic research on persuasion.”
Three may indeed be the right mix. The standard presentation model – tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them – is a quick organizing principle. Moreover, audiences often don’t have the time or patience to listen to more than three points. In fact, three are in some ways more believable: one is too simplistic, two may cover the two sides of an argument, but another is needed for a conclusion. And four? Suddenly, that opens the door to – why not – five or six – and much more to juggle.
For effective writing and editing, “three” is a simple rule to employ to provide structure to content. Where does “three” fit in your approach – to writing, to editing or to life in general?
 Jacob, S. “The Power of Three: Three is the Right Number for Persuasion, a Study Finds”, The New York Times, 3 January 2014.
 “Things To Know: What Is 3 Things for Calgary?”, in 3 Things for Calgary, 2014.
 Gallo, C., 2014. “Talk Like A Leader, Talk Like TED”, at Monster.com. See: http://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/workforce-management/hr-management-skills/talk-like-a-leader.aspx.