The following is the third in a series, "," in which communications coach/author Carmine Gallo applies tips, techniques and insights to help entrepreneurs and business professionals sell their ideas more persuasively. These ideas are inspired by the TED Conference’s most celebrated talks in its 30-year history.
Every fourth day in July, America celebrates the three “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life, liberty and happiness might be the three most important words in American history.
Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant writer, knew exactly what he was doing. Three is the most powerful number in communication. It’s so powerful, in fact, that you can use it immediately to pitch your ideas and close more deals.
The rule of three simply means that people can remember three pieces of information really well in short-term memory; add more items and retention falls off considerably. As more and more items are added to a list, the average person retains less and less. Four items are a bit harder to remember than three. Five items are even harder. Once the number of items on a list hits eight, most people have little chance of remembering the entire sequence. And now you know why the phone number is seven digits! Even seven is too long, so when you try to remember a phone number you’re likely to group the numbers into bite-sized nuggets of three and four digits.
The rule of three pervades TED Talks. I’ve analyzed more than 150 TED talks (500 hours) for my new book, . In addition, I’ve interviewed some of the people who have given the most viral TED talks. I was amazed at how many of them rely on the rule of three to deliver persuasive pitches and presentations. For example, Harvard brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor, who delivered the second-most-popular presentation in TED history, told me that she purposely divided her talk, “Stroke of Insight,” into three parts, each lasting six minutes. By doing so, the presentation was easier for her to remember and deliver, and it made the presentation easier for the audience to follow.
Here are some other examples of the rule of three in TED presentations:
Blogger Neil Pasricha explained the “3 A’s of Awesome.” YouTube trends manager, Kevin Allocca, revealed the three qualities of viral videos: tastemakers, communities of participation and unexpectedness. Don Norman explained three ways design makes you happy. Tom Wujec talked about the three ways the brain creates meaning.
V. S. Ramachandran revealed the three clues to understanding your brain. Tim Leberecht discussed the three ways brands lose control of their identity. Ric Elias talked about the three things he learned when his plane crashed. Mikko Hypponen revealed the three types of ways crooks can steal your digital data.
Dan Ariely offered three irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered three pieces of advice for women aiming at the C-suite.
And this isn’t even close to being a complete list!
The rule of three works for some of the best communicators on the planet and it will work for you. The next time you deliver a pitch or a presentation, group your content into three key messages. In a sales pitch, you might give your prospect three reasons to hire you. In a job interview you might offer three stories that demonstrate why you’re the best candidate for the position. In a status meeting you might want to bring your group up-to-date on three initiatives.
Take a cue from TED speakers to make your content easier to digest and, as a result, easier to remember. In three words: Keep it simple!