LIFE LINES: Why the rule of three is effective


Victoria Sarne


What is the rule of three and what does it mean? The rule of three is something which we all often use spontaneously or apply in many different areas of our lives, sometimes purposefully but frequently subconsciously.

The rule of three can be applied from everything design elements and placing of objects to speech and creative endeavours as well as rules that might keep us alive. Sounds simple, or just something we accept for no particular reason? That’s not quite accurate. It becomes important because it relates to the way our human brain processes information. It seems that we humans have learned to recognise patterns and three is the smallest number of elements that create a pattern. Think of a triangle: three sides. We have three main primary colours: red, blue and yellow. Even in fairy tales, rhymes and stories we grew up with from childhood the number three is prominent: Goldilocks and the Three Bears; Three Little Pigs; Three Blind Mice; The Three Musketeers, and going back to the Bible – the Three Wise Men who brought as gifts gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Without thinking about it, we habitually use some of the sayings we learned very early on as far back as the Romans: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.” A familiar one in everyday use is “blood, sweat and tears”. Or when we need some encouragement: “Third time lucky.”

Some of the phrases we date back to Shakespeare’s plays or beyond: “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Or again we see the use of these pairings in the Bible: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit; faith, hope and charity. The real estate slogan is considered an unbreakable rule: Location, location, location for buying property.

Big corporations all have their slogans, perhaps one of the most famous is Nike’s “Just Do It”. Story-tellers, artists, playwrights, comedians, all use this rule to create plots, scenarios and jokes; isn’t it usually something like ‘three men went into a pub…” et cetera. Fundamental rules for telling a story, making a film or writing a play, no matter how complicated the story line becomes, there is a beginning, a middle and an end.

With a more serious intent, the US Marine Corps uses the rule of three to make its points stick because in their case it could make the difference between life and death and because it creates a simple but memorable pattern for everyone to follow. The US Marine Corps instigated a rule of three for keeping men and women alive and getting things done efficiently and so structured their organisation and strategy accordingly. In a nutshell, the rule is this: Each Marine has three things to worry about. In terms of organisational structure, the rule of three means a corporal has a three-person fire team; a sergeant has a squad of three fire teams; a lieutenant and a staff sergeant have a platoon of three squads, and so on, up to generals. Apparently they experimented with a rule of four and noticed that effectiveness and memory retention slumped. Three things to remember is clearly easier than four or five and allows for little confusion even under duress or extreme conditions.

When making presentations of any kind, educational, sales, marketing or meetings to discuss important issues, if you pare it down to three main bullet points as topics or themes it will help you to deliver more succinct information in a format which your audience or associates can retain more readily. Remembering this rule helps eliminate the fluff or the padding or any extraneous material you might be tempted to include. In other words, the rule of three helps us make an impact when we want to get our points across to an audience in a memorable way. Keep it simple.

• Victoria Sarne is an entrepreneur and writer. She headed a team to establish a shelter for abused women and children in Canada and was its first chairwoman. You can reach her at victoria.conversations@gmail.com, visit www.lifelineswritingservice.com, or call 467-1178.


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