Improving Communication: the Rule of Three

Wooderson, the rule of three and improving communication

The rule of three is a principle that governs many aspects of our lives and for many different reasons, but what is it about this concept that makes it so useful for improving communication? And, better yet, how can you use it? Furthermore, what’s Matthew McConaughey got to do with it?

Firstly, I need to remind you that you already know the rule of three. Let’s start with a joke.

An Englishman, an Irishman, and Scottish man are drinking in a bar.
A fly lands in the Englishman’s pint.  The Englishman is incensed, and pushes his beer away and orders another.
A fly lands in the Scottish man’s pint.  The Scottish man looks at the fly, shrugs, and just drinks the fly down.
A fly lands in the Irishman’s pint.  The Irishman is furious.  He picks out the fly, and violently shakes the fly over his pint glass while screaming, ‘Spit it out ya wee bastard!’

We start first with the scene-setting (three men, drinking in a bar), progress to the action/complication (a fly lands in each of their pints) and conclude with resolution (each man has a different solution, the last being the punchline in this case).

While three is a magic number right across fields as diverse as photography and mathematics, the three stage structure is almost universal in strong, focused communication.

In academia: you introduce your hypothesis, explore it and test it through examples, experiments and references, then draw a conclusion. In fictional narrative: such as films, books and stageplays, we have a beginning, middle and end (a form that has been referred to as the mythic structure or the three act structure). In news stories: a journalist will introduce the focal event, delve into the who, what, when and why, and conclude with what, if anything, is being done about it.

Social Motive's take on the hero's journey, now customer's journey

The hero’s journey as customer’s journey follows the same structure of establishment, action, conclusion.

But we’re not just here to identify; we’re here with an eye for improving communication. For that – like the structure suggests – we need to delve a little deeper.

I’m going to start out using my own (non-rocket science) area of expertise, but then we’ll look into how you can apply these principles day-to-day, from emails to business proposals to complaints, and you will see how effective a method the rule of three is for achieving a desired outcome and improving communication.

SET THE SCENE

This is the ordinary world, the status quo, the current state of being. In marketing communications, this is where you identify the problem for your audience or customer. You suggest a problem they might not even know they have or simply propose a gap in their knowledge.

‘I’m Big Kev, and I’m asking all Aussies to try my brand new laundry products. You know, we’ve been using overseas brands, but I reckon, if you put mine to the test, I know they’re the best.’

INTRODUCE THE ACTION

This stage is also referred to as the initiation stage by narrative scholar Joseph Campbell, and for good reason. It is where a reader or customer is introduced to new information, goods or services and is able to experience, digest and take on board (or reject) these alternatives to the old way of being/doing/thinking.

‘We’ll give it a go.’

‘You beauty!’

RESOLUTION

Successful marketing for a good or service means that the customer reaches this stage and is impressed enough to become a loyal buyer or reader. They will recommend or share the information; return for more; and often, through word of mouth, they will recommend the good or service to others.

‘I’m back! That looks great!’

‘It’s amazing!’

‘I think yours works better, Big Kev.’

‘I’m excited!’

Vale Big Kev.


‘Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?’

‘It looks like the backstroke.’

Making a genuine complaint about something is a part of everyday life. But making a genuinely effective complaint is an altogether different art form. If your goal is to eat a bowl of soup (ideally without a side of housefly), then we can tailor the course of action around that.

Let’s apply the rule of three: set the scene, introduce the complications/consequences, suggest a solution.

‘Hi, I ordered this soup from the specials board. I was about to have some when I discovered a fly in it. It’s no big deal, I don’t want to make a fuss or give a bad review or anything, but it’d be great if you could take it back and return with a new meal.’

‘Sir, soup is not a meal.’

Seinfeld gags aside, you have stated the situation, suggested (kind of subtly) the consequences, and gifted a solution that avoids them.

Note: if you don’t suggest a solution in your communication and round out the three, the other party can be unsure of how they should respond. This can inhibit their actions and lead to a nonconstructive exchange.


If the point of much of our communication is either an exchange of information or the incitement of action, then the structure provided by the rule of three allows countless uses in improving communication day-to-day.

At a macro level, it can provide the structure for your writing, speeches and presentations  – ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them,’ writes Carmine Gallo for Forbes. At a micro level, items in lists of three, or three-word phrases are some of the most memorable e.g. Liberté, égalité, fraternité; Sex, drugs and rock n roll; ‘Alright, alright, alright.’

As pointed out by Jeremy Porter, a great example of the rule of three at a micro level is Matthew McConaughey’s 2014 Oscar acceptance speech. While McConaughey was criticised for not using his platform to speak out about AIDS (the condition afflicting his character), the speech is notable for being engaging and carrying you right through to its conclusion.

Apply the rule of three to your writing communications. Apply it to your presentations and business proposals. Hell, even apply it to a text message argument with your partner. Use the rule of three to help guide you through planning, writing and delivery, and you will go a long way towards improving communication.

And even if you didn’t pay attention to what I’ve been telling you, at least pay attention to Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike

 

 

Written by Mason Engelander