Your messaging can be more memorable, and more credible, when reorganized using the Rule of 3 in our easy-to-use template.
The Rule of 3 has wide implications for companies communicating to the customers, media, investors, employees and any human audience:
1. Research shows that 3 is the maximum number of concepts that most humans can recall.
2. Research shows 3 key messages have more credibility than 4.
3. We show you how to structure your messages in the Rule of 3.
Three is the optimal number for spoken, written and visual messages. Anything more is less effective. To defy the “Rule of 3” is to defy deep cultural and historical biases — three acts in a drama, “things happen in three’s.” To defy the Rule is to also defy communications research.
In its most simple form, the rule of 3 takes this form:
“You should interview my friend Ann for your CMO position.
She is strategic, great with people and gets things done.”
If I added, “…and an excellent public speaker,” research shows your spidey-sense would begin to doubt my truthfulness.
Message repetition is critical
Memories change when they are recalled. The mere act of recalling an idea changes it. This is why repetition is so important. Communicating clear, strong messages once — eg. on analyst day — is a good start, but repetition is required to make the messages sticky and increase its accuracy.
In conducting qualitative research with even the most sophisticated audiences, our experience is that management teams vastly overestimate their audience’s understanding of their key messages, strategy, value proposition or investment thesis. Even when management feels confident their audience “gets it,” frequently, the audience is confused or all over the map in their understanding.
3 key messages is the most believable
New research shows that 3 key messages is optimal for credibility — better than 1 or 2. However 3 is also the tipping point: claiming 4 key messages to an audience invites skepticism, and reduces believability of all the messages.
Occasionally, a leader will want 4 or 5 key messages, insisting that people can somehow pick the ones that best fit their needs and throw away the rest (especially if the audience is sophisticated). This “piling on” reduces recall and credibility. The idea that the audience “picks and chooses” what works for them is false.
More simply, if you are aiming for maximum skepticism, communicate 6 key messages.
When people receive >3 messages, subconscious coping mechanisms kick in. A switch goes off deep in the brain, which generates counter-arguments in the listener. Subconsciously, the listener creates a more balanced elaboration of the message. Your “positives” are balanced by user-generated negatives. Overall, the listener discounts the message or, at worst, disengages.
The messaging research underlying these rules applies to all “sponsored” messages, where the communicator has a vested interest in the outcome. This motive is called the persuasion motive. Companies, media and analysts all have these persuasion motives.
In complex presentations, such as B2B sales, deal pitches, investor presentations and high stakes one-on-ones, it’s tempting to say more, to pile on the good things. Better to organize all the ideas ahead of time under 3 distinct thematic messages which can stand up on their own. Countering this research is 50 year old research showing that, when presented with a high number of negative messages, a high number of positive counter-messages works best. However, “high” in this research is 4 messages — not 7 or 10.
Simple messages are more easily recalled and shared
To create messages for customers, employees, journalists, or analysts, write simply. Aim for immediate understanding, not concepts that require mental translation or unpacking.
Writing or speaking indirectly, or in jargon, make messages forgettable, even with even for sophisticated audiences of PhDs, MBAs or Engineers. When developing key messages, simplifying is hard work. The payoff comes in immediate and wide comprehension, recall and creating a network effect of shareable messages. The children’s game of telephone is a perfect example of how complex messages morph during recall and repeating.
Elegant simplicity does not dilute a message. Elegant simplicity takes work: writing and rewriting, speaking and testing.
Simple messaging is more credible
Messaging that is easier to read and understand (easier to process) are also more persuasive. We frequently test messages with research subjects, aka strangers, to see if they are clearly understood and can be mirrored back to us. Tomorrow, in fact, we’ll be doing this for an organization that is tempted to load up on jargon in its public communications. Message testing doesn’t have to take a long time or require large budgets; even a little is better than none.
“The message that matters is the one that is received, not the one that is sent.”
How to structure 3 key messages
In our collaborations with clients to create messaging platforms for customers, media, analysts, or investors — for any human audience — we simplify to 3 clear, distinct message concepts. A “compound concept” does not count as one message.
We work with multi-layered message matrices. One overarching message, 3 key supporting “pillar” messages per audience, and 3 supporting facts for each pillar.
Learn the nuances of messaging
For a fuller understanding of the research, we recommend reading these papers:
Why 3 messages beats 4: When Three’s a Charm but Four Alarms, highly readable and enjoyable, and source of quote “The message that matters is the one that is received, not the one that is sent,” (summarized here). Also: How memory is distorted: Neural Correlates of Reactivation and Retrieval-Induced Distortion (summarized here); why easier-to-understand messages are more persuasive: Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience?