Why Three Is The Magic Number For Interviews And Speeches

During our media training workshops, we typically recommend that people develop three main messages.

During our presentation training workshops, we often suggest that speakers focus on one main theme supported by three supporting ideas, or three main sections supplemented with compelling data and examples.

Several trainees have asked: “Why three?
There’s not a perfect answer to that question. Trying to prove that three is always the right number isn’t quite right—there are times when fewer or more messages can work. But there’s little doubt our brains seem to like organizing information into bits of three.

In fact, that dynamic is so strong that Schoolhouse Rock—the fondly remembered 1970s kids television program—dedicated a portion of its 1973 pilot episode to the power of threes.

Three is a magic number.
Yes it is, it’s a magic number.
Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
The past and the present and the future,
Faith and hope and charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three.
That’s a magic number.

Here are a few examples of powerful threes:
The Trinity: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit
The Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Children’s Game: Rock, paper, scissors
Julius Caesar: I came, I saw, I conquered (Latin: veni, vidi, vici)
Fast Food Orders: Small, medium, or large
Starbucks: Tall, grande, venti
Photography: The Rule of Thirds (governs visual composition)
Film: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Cable News Channels: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News
Traffic Signals: Red, yellow, green

Three colorful mug with steam
According to an article in Business Insider written by Ira Kalb of USC’s Marshall School of Business:

“Our brains evolved in a way to protect us from harm. As part of our protection system, we like to have choices. We know that if we don’t have choice in a dangerous situation, we may not find a way out of it. On the other hand, our brains also know that if we have too many choices, we often get confused.”

That’s easy to observe when an audience is being barraged by too many points—you can almost see eyes glazing over from an acute bout of information overload. Some studies about persuasion also show that when confronted with too many choices, we enter a type of decision paralysis that leads to inaction.

The truth is, three is not a hard number. The thought behind the advice is that too few messages or points can lead to redundancy, while too many can lead the brain to tune out. But I’ve seen speakers succeed while using only one or two main messages, particularly when they provide each with a sufficient number of engaging statistics, stories, and sound bites that bring their ideas to life without repeating the same thought in the same words twice.

But as a general rule of thumb, the rule of threes is useful—and often leads to communication that is more engaging, more memorable, and more effective.

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