Three: The Magic Number

Power of Three

During my Catholic upbringing, I was taught that three is a magical number. It took three days for Christ to rise from the grave, God himself exists as three separate entities in one (i.e. the Holy Trinity), and any Catholic church has sets of three everywhere you look.

Religion aside, the number three is a magic number – in communications. Look at the paragraph above. I gave three examples of how the number three is relevant to Catholicism. Look back at previous blog posts I’ve written. You’ll see more often than not, when I use examples, or even adjectives, I use three. This isn’t a coincidence.

I won’t pretend to understand the psychology behind it, but there’s something about three that helps your language flow better, your message be remembered, and your listeners take action. There is evidence to suggest that anything more than three will overwhelm your listener – it’s too much information to take in quickly. On the flip side, two doesn’t give them enough evidence.

Let’s look at an example:

Mindy Cat copy

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr, adorable whiskers, and the softest fur I’ve ever felt.

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr and adorable whiskers.

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr, adorable whiskers, the softest fur I’ve ever felt and a sweet personality.

(I have to work Mindy into my blog posts whenever I can. Let’s try again, sans Mindy.)

She won the award for her clear, concise and compelling speech.

She won the award for her clear and concise speech.

She won the award for her clear, concise, compelling and competent speech.

What do you think about the above sentences? I know at this point it’s hard to be impartial and decide which one you would best remember if introduced to them individually. So you’ll have to trust me on this one. Or trust these guys: The New York Times, Business Insider, Forbes (Really, check out those links. There’s some great additional info there, such as how Thomas Jefferson used the rule of threes).

While this post is on language use, I will briefly mention that the rule of threes isn’t limited to writing and speaking. Designers use it in the number of colors and fonts they choose. Many websites (especially news sites) use three columns to report their stories. Our favorite books and stories have a beginning, middle and end.

See what I did there?