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The Amazing Power of Three

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Today, my friend, I am going to enlighten you about the simple yet amazing Power of Three. A marvellous law that you can use and abuse in all kinds of ways.

The human mind loves things that come in threes. It remembers lists of three items better than longer or shorter lists. It recalls three step programmes better than programmes with any other number of steps. It takes aesthetic pleasure in enjoying trios.

This bit of knowledge can be incredibly useful to you in a remarkable number of scenarios: preparing a presentation, selling a product or cooking a dinner to name three examples. So, if you are preparing something creative for other people − exploit the Power of Three whenever you can. It will only help you.

Three Part Presentations

Are you making a presentation any time soon? If so, use the Power of Three in designing it. Base the presentation on three key points and then present it in  three parts:

  1. Introduce the list of three points you will talk about
  2. Talk about each of the three points
  3. Conclude by listing the three points again.

Yes, it's a painfully simple model. But it works.

Illustrate Points with Three Examples

Throughout the presentation, illustrate your points with three short examples;  for example, presentations should be short, to the point and focus on three items. Can you feel the elegance of those three examples? Had I given just two, it would have seemed abrupt. Had I given four or more, it would  have been excessive. Three examples are elegant.

If You Must Use Bullet Points

While I sternly recommend against using bullet points in presentations, if you feel you must (for example, because your boss threatens to fire you if you do not), use three bullet points on a slide; no more and no less. The only thing worse than a slide with bullet points is a slide with more than three bullet points. And two bullet point would be ridiculous.

Three Sales Options

If you are selling something that has various options, give your perspective customer three choices. For example, if you are selling household cleaning robots door-to-door, give your customer a choice between three models, for example:

  1. The basic, no-frills, least expensive model.
  2. The middle range model with most of the features your average customer needs, but not the really cool features.
  3. An expensive, top-range robot with every available option.

Even if you have more choices, limit the options you offer to any given customer and you are more likely to make a sale. Why? Because customers can process lists of three more easily than lists of other sizes. They feel they have a range of choices, but do not feel overwhelmed by too many options.

Give a customer a choice of two models and she is too quick to provide an unspoken third option: buy nothing. Give her a longer list of models and she will want time to think about it; time that would allow her to look at competitors' products or realise that she does not really want a household robot.

But give her three choices and she is more likely to take one of those choices, or at least consider it. This is no guarantee of a sale, of course. But it increases the odds in your favour.

Writing in Threes

The most basic form of expository writing includes three parts:

  1. The beginning in which you introduce the subject.
  2. The middle in which you explain the subject.
  3. The conclusion when you summarise the explanation.

If you need to write a paper, stick to this format unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise and the approval of a professional editor. This three part model is the standard because it works very well.

If you are writing a longer paper or a book, try to go one step further and break the subject into three parts. If you can do this, your paper will be more effective in explaining your topic and convincing the reader (if you are trying to persuade others to see your perspective on the matter).

In my first book, The Way of the Innovation Master, I wrote three intertwined cycles. The first is a semi-spiritual journey of Jane, a newly appointed CEO of a large company; the second is a dialog (inspired by ancient Greek drama) between two old-school company presidents talking about innovation; and the third is a series of short, concise lessons. Each part reinforced the other. Readers have told me it was an effective way to learn how to set up an innovation initiative in a large company.

Fiction in Three Parts

If you are writing fiction, you should also have a three part structure.

  1. Set up the novel, introducing the characters, the location and the atmosphere.
  2. Something nasty happens to the main character, usually (but not always) as a result of her own bad decision.
  3. The nasty incident is resolved in one way or another. It may, of course, not be a happy resolution. The main character may die. Her family may leave her. She may be locked away in an insane asylum. But it could also be a happy resolution. The woman discovers that her uncle left her shares in a gold mine and her financial worries are over.

Novel Threesomes

In many novels, you will see that the plot comprises three parts. For example.

  1. Character does something stupid that messes up her life.
  2. Misunderstanding what she has done, she tries something else which only makes matters worse.
  3. Something happens to enlighten her and she finally takes the right course of action that leads to resolution.

Of course there are many exceptions to this structure, but it is an effective model and one that many starting novelists as well as experienced ones, use all the time.

Groups of three are often used elsewhere in novels. There may be three main characters, there may be three main locations or there may be three murders before the killer is found.

Cooking with Three

Want to get creative in your cooking? If so, harness the Power of Three. Create a meal with three main components, such as a starter, a main course and a dessert.

If you want to create a special dish, try giving it three unique aspects, such three distinct flavours or three distinct textures. For example, although spaghetti bolognaise includes a number of ingredients, there are three distinct parts: the pasta, the tomato sauce and the minced beef. A nice fish dinner might include grilled salmon, baked potatoes and spinach. An Asian inspired vegetarian curry might include a coconut based sauce, tofu chunks and vegetables.

Each of these three examples (did you notice that there were three examples?) include many more than just three ingredients, of course, but each has three distinct elements that stand out when you eat it.

This is not to say that every dish should be limited to three distinct parts. Many great dishes are not. But if you are trying to be creative and feel a bit overwhelmed by choice, let the Power of Three help you make decisions.

My partner is a creative cook who is inspired by recipes, but seldom follows them. If she is making something new, she often asks me to taste it and tell her if it needs something more, I usually remind her of the Power of Three. If her dish has three distinct flavours, I'll tell her that I believe it's enough (whether or not she listens to me is, of course, an entirely different matter!).

Three Step Training Programme

Do you need to design a training programme? If so, harness the Power of Three to increase the power of your training. Teaching a process? If so, try to break that process into three steps. You'll find the participants grasp the process much more easily than if there are more parts.

If the process is too complicated for just three steps, try to cluster the steps into three groups, such as analysis, testing a solution and implementing a solution. Then try to include three steps in each group.

Of course, it is not always possible to break a complex process into three steps and sub-steps of three steps. And you should never do this if it will mean you do not cover necessary material. But, when you can break aspects of training into three steps or three processes or three components, you'll increase how well participants retain the material −   thanks to the power of three.

In my creativity workshops, which are super interactive, I often like to break points into three parts:

  1. I explain the concept.
  2. Participants do an exercise that applies the concept. This exercise is often collaborative group work.
  3. We discuss the exercise and the results.

This approach of learning, doing and analysing helps ensure that the material in my workshops is retained by my victims − oops! Of course, I mean "my participants"! ☺

Marketing in Three Arguments

If you are preparing marketing communications material to sell your product, limit yourself to three main arguments as to why customers should buy it. Sure, there may be many more reasons. But if you list them all, you will overwhelm customers. Instead, identify your three best arguments and focus on them in your marketing materials.

Why not use more arguments? Because too many will overwhelm your customers' minds with arguments and put them off. Fewer arguments will make it seem like you product is not so great (customers will think, 'gosh, they could only come up with two reasons to buy that?!'). Three arguments, on the other hand, taps into the Power of Three. Those arguments will stick in potential customers' minds and make them more likely to buy from you.

Humour

Jokes often include three parts or elements. Many jokes, at least in English, start with something like, "Three men go into a bar..."

A great humour technique is to give a list of three points in which the third point is unexpected and absurd. A good example is this famous joke by Laura Kightlinger: “I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.”

This trick can be useful for adding humour to a presentation, a story or a meeting. For example, "our new office chairs are stylish, highly adjust able and perfect for beating back the undead in the event of a zombie apocalypse." Of course, you'll want to judge your audience before making such a joke.

If you watch stand up comedians, you'll see they use this technique often. They recognise the Power of Three.

Use the Power of Three Everywhere

These have been just a few examples of the use of the Power of Three. I find that whenever I am creating something for others, I always consider how I  might use the Power of Three. For example, many of my cartoons have three elements, such as two people talking and the background scene. My workshops and speeches are often in three parts or include three main elements.

Now, you may have noticed that I used more than three examples in this article. That's right, I did. Although the Power of Three is powerful, you should not let it imprison you. Use it often, but not obsessively and you will soon find you are making better presentations, writing better papers and cooking better meals. (Ha, did you notice how many examples I put in that sentence?)

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