Punch up your writing with the Rule of 3

There’s a reason. Great speeches are. Usually delivered in. Three-word chunks. It’s so listeners. Don’t miss anything. Especially the buildup. To applause lines.

Another reason is that great speakers (and speechwriters) know all about the Rule of 3. It’s the principle in speaking, in writing, and in music that concepts or ideas presented in threes are more enjoyable, more interesting and more memorable.

In fact, the Rule of 3 is a great way to punch up your copy in your next email, pitch or presentation. You can do that by applying the rule to your writing on (wait for it …) three levels — how you structure your communication, what you want your audience to remember, and by reinforcing your points with the words you choose.

Tap into human nature

The Rule of 3 has been around at least since Aristotle and The Art of Rhetoric (400 B.C.). And if you look for it, you’ll see it everywhere in American culture. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit… Three Little Pigs… Offense, defense and special teams … Location, location, location … Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … Larry, Moe and Curley. (Leave a comment below with three examples of your own.)

Communications coach and author Carmine Gallo points out in a great piece in Forbes that in 1956, Bell Labs reached out to Harvard professor George Miller, who published a classic psychology paper titled, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Miller wrote that human beings have a hard time retaining more than seven to nine digits in short-term memory. The folks at Bell Labs thought about that.

So much for mystery of why your phone number has seven digits.

What’s more, Gallo writes, contemporary scientists built on Miller’s research and found that the number of items we can easily recall from short-term memory actually is closer to three or four “chunks” of information. Not four or five. Three or four.

So if you trust the science on short-term memory, then you can trust that the Rule of 3 to can improve your communications, right?

Don’t get me wrong, posts on 10 rules of proper manscaping or 22 tips on growing kale in a subway tunnel may in fact be the very best information out there. But you can’t expect people to remember most of those rules or tips.

Organize with a 3-part structure

Divide your speech, email or presentation into three parts: a preview, the presentation itself, and a review. A beginning, a middle and an end. Or as Dale Carnegie says – “Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.”

A more generalized form of this structure organizes the middle as three main ideas or points. In this structure each main point is then supported by three pieces of evidence. (These could be a mix of examples, statistics, analogies, comparisons, questions, and quotations).

The hard parts are 1) choosing which three points will make the biggest impression and then 2) choosing the best supporting evidence.

Give them 3 takeaways

Earlier this summer I enrolled in Copyblogger’s Certified Content Marketer program. It was not cheap and, more to the point, it would take a bite out of my family time, which in summer in Maine, makes mamma unhappy. And if mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. But I digress.

After some serious thought, I did decide to enroll in the program. Why? Because having this certificate will make me more marketable. (And billable, which makes mama happy.)

I built my argument on three benefits, or takeaways. They are in bold below.

Earning the certificate:

  1. Sharpens my writing to better engage, educate and persuade
  2. Lends professional recognition to my knowledge, skills and experience
  3. Demonstrates my commitment to my craft, clients and the quality of my work

Remember, most people will remember only three things from your communication, no matter how long it is, how much time you spent creating it, or how well you delivered it. So how successfully you communicate comes down to how well you select your points and how effectively you support them.

Which three points are the most important to your argument? Build your communication around them. Make sure you provide evidence and examples that reinforce each point in a way that helps your audience remember them.

Let’s return to my certificate example. Here are the three main points established above (takeaways in bold), plus three sub-points to back up each claim.

Sharpens my writing to better engage, educate and persuade

  • Underscores mindset needed to write well
  • Reviews elements of effective copy
  • Reveals keys to writing magnetic headlines

Lends professional recognition to my knowledge, skills and experience

  • Copyblogger certificates are relatively rare — and hard-earned
  • Copyblogger can connect graduates with prospective clients
  • Great prospects will recognize the quality of the Copyblogger brand

Demonstrates my commitment to my craft, clients and the quality of my work

  • Reflects curiosity and a willingness to learn
  • Illustrates the desire to deliver a better product or service
  • Shows a proven understanding of overall content marketing strategies

Make sense?

Apply the rule to the language and structure that you use

Think about how you can apply the Rule of 3 to specific words, phrases and sentences. Take a minute to look back through this article for how often I presented ideas in threes.

Did you notice it during the first read through? Now that you’re looking for it, do the groups of three strengthen the argument? Or at least make the piece easy to read?

If you remember just three things from this post…

It’s easier for people to remember three points than it is to remember four, five or seven of them. And they can act on only the points they remember, right? Build a rock-solid argument with a three-point structure, three key takeaways and by reinforcing your points with the words you use and how you use them.

With practice, applying the Rule of 3 is as easy as … well, you get the picture.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with a friend — or three!

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