We're all familiar with the jokes that list three identical things as a punch line (e.g. "location, location, location" for factors driving real estate value, or "money-driven, money-driven, money-driven" as the three most important qualities of a salesperson; by the way I blew a job interview much earlier in my carreer by missing this last one).
As it turns out, three is an important number – and not just in jokes. Here at Fusion PR, we have often evangelized about the power of three in communications. We tell clients that key messages should be crafted and organized ino three concise statements. The same three messages should be used in three places (at the beginning of the interview, the end, and in the middle).
It might sound boring and repetitive; but, as it turns out, there is a scientific basis for the power of three in rhetoric. The New York Times wrote last week about the conclusions of a new study:
The world assigns the number three elevated status..Oddly, scant academic research explains the triad’s sway over our lives or the ads we see. But a new study finds that in ads, stump speeches and other messages understood to have manipulative intent, three claims will persuade, but four (or more) will trigger skepticism, and reverse an initially positive impression.
Hmmm… manipulative intent… moir? I don’t recall seeing many other articles about persuasion in PR and marketing, and that could be because we feel we are above this; after all we are not just peddlers and spinmeisters, right? But let’s face it; persuasion is a key part of what we do. Sure, we inform and educate,but we also seek to persuade; e.g. to get users to click on a link, come to an event, check out a trial offer, or that a certain product or service is a good one.
I was reminded of this when I read an earlier NY Times article about the art of rhetoric, or communicating to persuade. It cites some examples from the world of politics, and included a bit of wisdom about writing that I would love to share:
If a piece of writing feels like a unit, it lends its argument an impression, however spurious, of coherence. The more each clause or sentence relates to those around it, whether in parallel or counterpoint, intellectually or musically, the more it will feel like an organic whole. Syntax can do much of the work of sense.
This article also touched on the power of three:
The tricolon, putting phrases into groups of three, is perennially effective… Lists, in general, work well. Try enumeratio: setting out your points one by one, to give the impression of clarity and command. Music matters, too. The effects of the tricolon, as of any number of other figures, are in some ways metrical. Think of how clusters of stressed syllables can sound resolute and determined. “Yes we can!” is three strong syllables… One of the most memorable lines in American history, for instance, is the clause in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” That, among other things, is an example of iambic pentameter… Rhetoric… is about patterns and echoes and resonances.