Good stories usually have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning of this story goes back to childhood when, as children, we would hear or read stories where three was a significant number (for instance The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or The Three Billy Goats Gruff). Three is also significant in adult story telling too. Think about Hollywood movies, which are typically based on a three-act formula. And whether consciously or not, authors often use the “rule of three” writing principle for all kinds of storytelling. This rule of three principle says that “a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers.”

But, my rule of three has to do with business communication. The reason is that again, and again (and again!) I’ve found that successful business communication relies, in various ways, on the number three. These are some example of what I mean. (Three examples of course.)

My Rule of Three for Business Communication

1. The Three Ps of Business Communication
Be powerful. Be persuasive. Be precise.
The three Ps are key to attracting and holding attention of prospective clients (or colleagues, or bosses, or employees). To find out more about how the Three Ps work, have a look at an earlier Language Lab blog post, A Blueprint for Communication.

2. Three Strikes and You Call
One email. Two emails. Three emails! And still nothing happens. Your questions haven’t been answered. You haven’t been able to seal that business deal. So what do you do when you get to this point in your email transactions? You pick up the phone and call the other person. By the time three emails have gone back and forth without any results, chances are the time you would spend crafting yet another email would be better spent simply picking up the phone to discuss the matter. And it’s a lot easier to get to the point on the phone.

3. Speeches, Memory, Feedback
I am cheating a little by bundling three ideas into one, in this third example. But the three things–speeches, memory, feedback–are all connected by the rule of three concept. In speechwriting, it’s well established that concepts are most memorable when the rule of three is used. This premise has to do with memory. People tend to remember three things better than four or five. (For more on this, have a look at Andrew Dlugan’s article, “How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches.”). As for feedback, when providing negative feedback it’s crucial to use the rule of three in this way: 1. Tell the person something good. 2. Tell the person what isn’t working. 3. Tell the person something constructive. In other words, your feedback has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end (and the end has to contain something helpful for the person on the receiving end of the criticism).

As to why three is the magic number, it’s something no one seems to know for sure. What we do know is our brains look for patterns. As the Alive with Ideas blog points out, three is the smallest number people need to create a pattern. The blog post goes on to say that in persuasive messages, whether that’s a speech or an advertisement, “three claims will persuade, four will trigger skepticism.” Given that claim, my experience tells me it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I’m sure you see where I am going with this! And that is: once you become sensitive to the rule of three, you’ll see it everywhere. At the café (Tall, grande, venti), driving up to a traffic light (as it shifts from green to yellow, to red), or perhaps when you receive your weekly Biz Tips from the Language Lab!

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