B2B Marketing Blog

Written by The Mezzanine Group
on December 27, 2011

The ‘rule of three’ is a common term describing the phenomena of the number three showing up all over our popular culture.

Some examples of this include*:

  • Movies & Books
    • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
    • Sex, Lies, and Videotape
    • Superman’s “Truth, Justice, and the American Way
    • Nursery rhymes such as the Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks and the Three Bears
    • In a more general sense, there is the allure of trilogies as with Indiana Jones, The Godfather, The Matrix, Star Wars, and many others.
  • Civic, Organizational, and Societal Mottos
    • Fire safety motto: Stop, Drop, and Roll
    • Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius or Faster, Higher, Stronger
    • Real estate: Location, Location, Location
  • Great Speeches
    • Julius Caesar
      • “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered)
    • Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
      • Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears.
    • Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
      • We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.
      • Government of the people, by the people, for the people
    • General MacArthur, West Point Address, 1962
      • Duty, Honor, Country” [repeated several times in the speech]

However, it turns out that the number three can go way beyond popular culture and actually improve our ability to communicate effectively.

As we all know, presenting to your staff or marketing a message to a client can be a nerve racking process, especially if you want them to stay engaged and/or act on the information you are providing them. When in this situation I always try to ask myself what realistically can I expect my audience to take in and at what point will the information begin to overwhelm them and they will tune out.

According to the famous cognitive psychologist George Miller, humans have the capacity to understand and retain five + or – two pieces (chunks) of information at a time. While there is some controversy with the theory of the ‘magical number seven’, at the very least it would appear that when presenting an idea, no matter how complex it may be, once you leave the realm of seven options or principles you need to begin to tread carefully and engage with your audience to make sure they are with you and are not being overwhelmed with the information or options you are providing them (of course it’s a good idea to keep tabs on the faces in the room even before you get to seven).

While seven may be the outer bounds of what humans can handle, according to Jean-Luc Doumont (Magical Numbers: The Seven-Plus-or-Minus- Two Myth. IEEE Transactions On Professional Communication, Vol. 45, No. 2, June 2002) , the number is actually closer to three in terms of what we can realistically expect to present and hope our audience to meaningfully engage with.

This does not mean that a presentation or message needs to be simple but rather that the presenter needs to think hard about the categories or ‘buckets’ that the information is presented in and to limit them in order to make sure that your presentation or marketing message takes advantage of the powerful ‘rule of three’.

I welcome you to share examples of how you use the ‘rule of three’ in your marketing messages.


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