The Rule of 3

When I was a child and my mother sent me to the local shop for groceries she would ask me to remember three items. If she wanted more than three things she would write me a list. That’s because she understood the rule of three. 

The human brain can remember three things easily. It’s why good speeches are peppered with lists of three items: William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar called ‘Friends, Romans, and Countrymen’.

 George W Bush used three ‘F’ words in his election campaign – ‘Family, Faith and Flag’. In fact, he used it in nearly all of his speeches, because it is so easy to remember. 

Winston Churchill in his famous speech said, ‘I can promise you Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears’. Yes, that’s actually a list of four, but because we remember three things best, it is usually quoted as ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’.

From politics to nursery rhymes we see the rule of three in action. Think of childhood stories - Three little pigs, Three blind mice, Goldilocks and the three bears. And have you heard the joke: ‘There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman ...’

Religion refers to Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then again to Faith, Hope and Love. 

Put simply, no matter what you’re calling it, if you want to get across a message, the best way to deliver it is in a run of three. Here are three ways to apply the rule of three to school marketing. 

Presentations  1. 

If you’re going to get up and talk about your school, odds are that people will only remember three things from your presentation, so before you even start, plan your three key messages. Next time you give a talk ask yourself – if there are only three points I’d like my audience to take away, what are they? Once you have these in mind, structure your talk around the three key messages and illustrate each point. 

I recently attended an oration where the guest speaker – a Principal - covered so much ground and gave so many quotes and policy statements that I came away completely bamboozled. After her talk, as I mingled with the audience over drinks, and I asked different people to comment on the most important points they would take away. Not one person could give me three points. It seems that very little synthesis of ideas took place in the minds of the audience. There was just too much to absorb. If only the speaker had known about the rule of three. 

Just as you can identify three main messages you want to leave in an audience’s mind so you should have three distinct parts to your presentation – the beginning, the middle and the end. The beginning is the hook or the icebreaker. The middle expands and illustrates your three key points, and the end is the wrap up that should summarise your three points and leave the audience feeling inspired and/or challenged. As the speech experts say: Tell the audience what you are going to say, then say it, then tell them what you said. There it is again – the rule of three. 

Advertising  2. 

Lists of three are particularly useful in advertising. Think of some memorable jingles: ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’ or the very effective sunscreen slogan: ‘Slip, Slap, Slop’.

When preparing your ads list three benefits – no more – and when taking promotional photographs limit the composition to three people per picture. If you are using bullet points stick to the magic number. It’s easy for the eye to take in and easy for the brain to recall.

Image Objectives  3. 

When I run staff workshops on improving customer relations I guide staff members to come up with their own customer relations creed that they can all live by. A good example of the rule of three comes from the school who formulated the creed: We will pull together through communication, co-ordination and co-operation - a simple and memorable statement that’s easy for everyone to remember and practice.

It’s the same when you are setting your image objectives. Work on three things you want to plant in the minds of your marketplace. For example, from Emmanuel College Warrnambool in Victoria: ‘We encourage a sense of identity, a sense of faith and a sense of enjoyment.’

So many schools I work with have such complex mission statements, with multiple ideals expressed in long sentences, that staff cannot repeat them back to me. A smart school marketer will translate these complex statements into three clear marketing objectives and narrow them down so that everyone can remember the school’s mission in everything they do. For example, the King’s School in Sydney clearly states repeatedly that it specialises in boys’ education, residential care, leadership training. 

The rule of three makes it easy to express your ideas in a memorable way. Mind you it isn’t always rosy. It didn’t help Guy Fawkes; he was hung, drawn and quartered!

About the author
Dr Linda Vining was the Director of Marketing Schools
Source:  Official Journal of The Australian Council for Educational Leaders