The peculiar power of ‘three’
You know the expression ‘blood, sweat and tears’?
It’s actually wrong.
The phrase comes from Winston Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister in 1944.
Except he never said ‘blood, sweat and tears’ exactly.
What he said was:
“All we have to offer is blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
A perfectly fine and well-crafted four-word phrase, which history somehow remembers as three words.
It’s a prime example of the rule of three.
When crafting a message, telling a story, making your case, think in terms of three.
That’s all you really need.
And that is all people will hear anyway.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
On the first slide of your presentation deck, show only three items on your agenda. Even if you plan to talk about 47 things.
When composing your keynote speech, or planning your address to the shareholders, always work in three acts. Even if you have only one thing to say.
What we did right
What we did wrong
What we still need to do.
When you need to rally the troops around a new strategy, hang it all on three points, three parts, three tactics. Same for your personal New Year’s resolutions:
Lock, stock and barrel
In 2008, Steve Jobs needed to instantly sell the concept for a new electronic device no one had ever seen before. He framed it like this:
It’s a revolutionary mobile phone
It’s a touch-screen iPod
It’s a breakthrough Internet communicator
Everyone got it, immediately. They bought billions of iPhones.
Thinking in ‘threes’ also helps you tighten your thinking, and eliminate stuff that doesn’t matter.
When I try to write pieces that lean on four main ideas (mainly because a client insists on it), one of the points always feels extraneous or weaker than the others. It wobbles like a chair with one short leg.
If I saw off the fourth leg, the argument hardens and becomes rock-steady, like a tripod.
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?
And why don’t we tire of it?
I think it’s because our brains are hard-wired with the notion of ‘three’. We innately resonate with the cadence and rhythm of it.
The Siriona tribe of Bolivia, and the Yanomamo of Brazil — both highly successful and rather bright indigenous peoples, by the way — only have words for ‘one,’ ‘two,’ and ‘three’.
Anything beyond that, they call ‘many’, or ‘a whole lot’. Very sensible.
Which is sort of how our primal brains perceive an endless sales pitch. We hear “Point 1, Point 2, Point 3, then . . . yada, yada, yada. . .etc ”
Beginning, middle and end
I can go to the store and easily remember, “Celery, eggs, Mint Milanos.” With a fourth item, I will need a written list.
Think of how many jokes start with “A rabbi, a jockey, and a CEO walk into a bar.” Add a pigeon in there and it gets too complicated.
Three is also the minimum we will accept as a pattern, as truth.
If it happens once, it’s a fluke. If it happens twice, it’s a coincidence. But three times? Now you‘re onto something.
I have spent far too much time thinking about this.
Perhaps it’s enough to say that ‘three’ works.
Three points will make your case, tell your story, make you look smart.