A communicator’s job is to distill information into easy-to-understand terms. We all wrestle with the clutter of industry jargon, acronyms and data when crafting a persuasive message. Whenever I’m in the weeds trying to communicate a complex issue, I often pause and remind myself to keep it simple.
Whether in speaking or writing, putting things in groups of threes is an effective way to reach your audience. Our brains are conditioned to keep things simple to retain information. We like choices, just not too many of them.
The rule of three isn’t new. From childhood we learn our ABC’s; to play Rock, Paper, Scissors; and to Stop, Drop, and Roll in case of fire. The rule is subconsciously a part of our daily life. Red, yellow and green lights keep us safe on the road. We order a small, medium or large drink (except at Starbucks). Athletes strive for a gold, silver or bronze medal.
Those of us in media relations are prepared with a few key messages before any interview. Regardless of what questions are asked, we should steer our answers toward one of those messages.
As communicators, how else might we apply the rule of three?
When I see PowerPoint presentations with 10-point font and a dozen bullets on a slide, my eyes glaze over. The only thing worse is when the presenter decides to read aloud every word on the page. PowerPoint decks should be designed for the audience, not as a crutch for the presenter.
Slides should leverage photos, graphics and video. Each slide should only have a few bullets, or perhaps a memorable quote. When developing a deck, ask yourself what are the three unique benefits of your product or service that should be shared with others? Focus the deck around the top three takeaways. Steve Jobs was famous for this, and Apple remains a best practice example today.
Almost by definition, crisis situations are messy. Something bad happened, your company is thrust into the spotlight, and decisions need to be made and communicated. There is the added pressure that all the information you need isn’t readily available. Regardless of the situation, you can help your company navigate a crisis by driving answers to three important questions:
- What happened? These are the basic facts – who, what, when, where. Stakeholders need to know first from you and not the media.
- What did your company do once you found out it happened? Here is where it gets tricky. Did you take immediate action? Did someone hope it would go away or try to hide the truth?
- How can you ensure this doesn’t happen again? What long-term changes have you made? Was someone terminated and replaced? Have you hired a third-party to investigate and recommend actions? Have you invested in training?
Most organizations are on a constant journey to improve culture. A few years ago, I was part of a team to recommend Amtrak’s new corporate values. After our HR team held several employee focus groups across the country, they presented us with a few dozen aspirational attributes as our guide.
The previous company I worked for had 10 values. Each was important but none more than the other. And I can’t remember any of them.
Some on our “culture” team wanted to use a mnemonic device – having five or six principles and beliefs spell something catchy. Some of us made the case for three, broad values that could be easily remembered and repeated. I’m proud to say that Amtrak’s values of “Do the Right Thing,” “Put Customers First,” and “Excel Together” guide our company’s decisions and behavior today.
Once you are aware of the rule of three, you’ll begin to see it everywhere – in marketing, graphic design, even in engineering. Try leveraging the rule of three to simplify your job and communicate more effectively.
I wish I learned this simple truth earlier in my career, but I’m passionate about it today. You could say I love things in three – just ask my three siblings and three daughters.
Doug Duvall is the AVP of corporate communications at Amtrak.