The Power of 3 - a massively effective writing tool

Once upon a time, there lived a young, ambitious, politician.

One day he stood up in front his audience and promised,

“When I become Prime Minister my 3 main priorities will be education, education, education.”

His early years as Prime Minister went rather well.  It was only towards the end of his term of office that things went somewhat awry for Tony Blair

The power of 3

Maybe he should have stuck to speech writing - he certainly knew a trick or two about turning a good phrase.
The trick he demonstrates here is the mysterious ‘power of 3’ - the knack of using repetition to make messages memorable.

How is it that repetition can be so effective?  And what’s so special about the number 3?

It's all in the mind.

Certainly, psychologists know that it’s part of our nature to want to create and respond to patterns.  Just watch a young child in the supermarket absent-mindedly re-arranging the tubs of butter into neat rows.

Our brains are wired to seek out patterns.  Patterns are more memorable because they imply order.  Order suggests significance.

Repetition doesn’t have to be in 3’s.  2’s can work pretty well too.

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”
(John F Kennedy, 1961)

“Many people in this country have paid the price before me and many will pay the price after me.”
(Nelson Mandela)

But this repetition lark takes a bit of finesse.
Randomly dropping in repeated words won’t, of their own, float the boat.
Try this -

“Here’s a strategic opportunity to grab market-share in Europe.  Our strategic goals always comprise seizing opportunities.  It would be strategically counter-productive to ignore this chance.”

Did you get to the end?  No - me neither. The repeating od 'strategy' was simply clumsy and ineffective.

For the rule of 3 to work really well, you need a twist at the end – a turn-around.

“Do you run a small business?
Do you run a big business?
Do you run the marketing department in somebody else's business?”
(This comes from some obscure Northampton-based copywriter’s website)

This works because the third line is longer than its predecessors.

How about this one?

“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.”
(Laura Knightlinger)

The shock value is priceless and makes the line very funny.

So just remember when you're writing your website copy -

So just remember -

Repeating in threes.

It looks good, it sounds good and by golly, it does you good!

(Apologies to Mackeson Stout).


Update December 2022 - There was another Prime Minister who had a go at the old Rule of 3 trick -

'We will deliver. We will deliver. We will deliver.'

She didn't last quite as long as Tony Blair - just 44 days.


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Jun 15, 2019
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