How to Use the “Rule of Three” to
Create Engaging Content

Three

What’s so magical about the number three?

It’s no accident that the number three is pervasive throughout some of our greatest stories, fairy tales and myths.

It’s also no coincidence that some of the most famous quotes from throughout history are structured in three parts, nor is it surprising that the Rule of Three also works wonders in the world of comedy.

It all comes down to the way we humans process information. We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity, and three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. This combination of pattern and brevity results in memorable content, and that’s why the Rule of Three will make you a more engaging writer.

Storytelling

Have you ever wondered:

  • What the three little pigs, the three blind mice, Goldilocks and the three bears, the Three Musketeers, the three wise men and the Three Stooges have in common?
  • Why the three-act structure is the dominant approach to screenwriting in Hollywood?
  • Why three bullet points are more effective than two or four?

The Rule of Three works in stories due to the presence of the concise, memorable patterns that I mentioned above. But even if that wasn’t the case, the number three has been used so widely throughout some of the most memorable works from our childhood, it’s likely that we are preconditioned to respond favorably to elements grouped in threes.

Think in terms of three when crafting your content, and you’ll likely end up with a more engaging outcome. If at first you don’t succeed, remember—the third time’s the charm.

Sticky Ideas

You see the Rule of Three used all the time across diverse areas of life. Why?

Because information presented in groups of three sticks in our heads better than other clusters of items. For example:

  • “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”
  • “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”
  • “Blood, sweat and tears”
  • “Location, location, location”
  • “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”
  • “Faith, Hope and Charity”
  • “Mind, body, spirit”
  • “Stop, Look and Listen”
  • “Sex, Lies and Videotape”
  • “I came, I saw, I conquered”

The United States Marines are big believers in the Rule of Three when it comes to getting things done and keeping people alive. The Corps apparently experimented with a rule of four, and retention and effectiveness took a nose dive.

If you want something stuck in someone’s head, put it in a sequence of three.

Humor

One of the best examples of the power of the Rule of Three is in the world of comedy. Again, three is the smallest number of elements that can form a pattern, and comedians exploit the way our minds perceive expected patterns to throw you off track (and make you laugh) with the third element.

The Rule of Three fits the classic joke structure of set-up, anticipation and punchline. The three-part grouping also allows for tension to build and then be released thanks to the surprise and absurdity contained in the third element.

Here are a couple of humorous examples that use a shocking third element within the Rule of Three structure. First up, Laura Kightlinger:

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.

Here’s one from Jon Stewart:

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.

Using humor in your writing can be risky since some people just won’t get it, but using a Rule of Three approach is a safer way to make a funny. Professional comedians use it all the time, and that’s simply because it works.

Other Uses for the Rule of Three

I truly do believe that a set of three bullet points is the most effective use of the format. You might also find that list posts with three items will draw people in, because you’ve boiled things down to the essence with no fluff. And there’s a reason why people like to be presented with three choices rather than two or five.

When it comes to pleasing the human brain, it seems like three is simply a magic number. At least that’s what Schoolhouse Rock taught us as kids.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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  1. You said – ” You might also find that list posts with three items will draw people in, because you’ve boiled things down to the essence with no fluff. ”

    Can you elaborate on that just a wee bit further, because I’m not sure what you mean, I’d like to see it in action and I think I can take action on it ;-)

    It’s the “…list posts with three items…” that I’m looking to grasp a bit better.

    I read it to mean – ” The Three Best ways To…”

  2. Yeah, that’s what I meant. People will tell you that 7 is the ideal list length now, but I’ve had a lot of luck with three-item list articles too.

  3. Great post buddy- it spoke to be through the practical use that 3 is better than four and so on- i didn’t really think about it but you hear it for years at least in church I do- the three points. Instead of two or four. More than three and i’m lost.

    Beginning, Middle, Ending. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Okay thanks Brian.

    But if I start using it and end up getting too many readers, crash my blog and cry crocodile tears, it’s all your fault ;-)

    BTW – Great post.

  5. Brian – thanks for the simple reminder of the rythym of 3′s – we use it in face to face presentations and need to incorporate them into our blog more. Thanks for all the “real world examples” – Cyndee Haydon

  6. Triangles… Stools, cheerleaders’ pyramids, and bridges. Solid effective balance. And really great compositional dynamics. Three primary colors. Small, medium and large forms. Point, line,and plane . All essentials to making good art. Just read Kandinsky.
    It is so very exciting for me, a painter, to find these rules of three work across disciplines.
    As always you are brilliant, effective and timely.
    Thanks Brian.
    All best , Jan

  7. Brian:

    This got me trying to figure out why? and it is so obvious that I never saw it before.

    There is only one shape that can be made with three lines once you have determined their length….a triangle (only mirror images or rotated images based on how you chose the pieces). As the number of lines grows beyond 3, the shape of the images can change based on the sequence in which the pieces are chosen.

    Thus three is easy to remember and relate to because it is a constant.

    That is why a triumvirate of power tends to be stable.

    Now most readers will think I’m a nut but I get it….

    Thanks

  8. Sounds like math to me…

    Cool concept and one that I’ve found showing up in my own work without thinking. Blog posts cover three topics always sound best to me. They’re short, sweet and pack a punch.

  9. James, that reminds me of the classic SNL bit with Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford:

    “It was my understanding that there would be no math…”

  10. Thanks for sharing the insight.

    I will definitely keep the rule of three in mind when writing…sounds like it will keep me on the straight and narrow.

    Thanks for the post!

  11. @ Brian – if I’d been good in math, I would’ve been an accountant, not a writer ;)

  12. I’ve never realized this rule in humor… It’s amazing!

    Great things in every single article! I wonder how much it takes to write such article… Congratulations!

  13. So thats why every jokes starts with “Three guys walk into a bar…”

  14. Yes the handy rule of three – always a winner when picture-making.
    Triangulation too..

  15. veni, vidi, vici

    How Copyblogger became the pre-eminent copywriting tips blog.

  16. Brian, great as usual. But I don’t have anything to say about the article itself. I’m just surprised that somebody else out there knows who Laura Kightlinger is.

  17. Does this work for relationships, too? Just wondering. :)

  18. As a young PR account executive, I was taught the rule of three for effective presentations.

    It is:

    1. Tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em
    2. Tell ‘em
    3. Tell ‘em what you told them

    It’s a simple but powerful way to help people to retain the main points of any presentation. Probably more useful in training young PR account execs, its a good way to ensure the presenter has a clear point to make!

    So tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; tell ‘em what you told them. Rather than sounding repetetive, use some of Brian’s many refinements to reinforce the message and add interest.

  19. Great post Brian. An extensive study on somem popular fairy tales did conclude that number 3 has been repeatedly used. It has Spiritual as well as sexual connotation. Good to see how this number can be effective in writing. An insightful post indeed.

  20. You forgot the most important “sticky idea”,
    Reduce, Reuse, Recycle !

    Great post!

  21. Hi Brian, I really like your site. Its very informative. Just one question — How does one actually start a blog? Is there software or something?

  22. @ Kendra – they say three time’s the charm…

  23. (or is that three times, the charm? How the hell do you write that saying?)

  24. James, check the last sentence of the “Storytelling” section of this post. :)

  25. I think that any idiocy on my part before 9am and three cups of coffee should be completely overlooked and erased from the tomes of history.

    (Thanks, Brian)

  26. I guess that’s why I use three adjectives when describing a noun?

    And this is what this article is: brilliant, effective, and to the point. :)

  27. 3 is a lucky number!

  28. This is a great article because if you print it out and cut out each line and line them up and do a 45 degree angle at each point that expresses a double possitive, it creates a triangle. 3 sides.

  29. Okay here’s a somewhat related explanation for the beauty of the number three:

    3 points determine a plane, which means when you build a chair, it’s bound to be more stable with 3 legs than with 4 (or any other number). :P

  30. Very, very, very interesting.

    I knew 3 was a good number, but you just went out and proved it.

    I was wondering – are 5 and 10 in any way comparable, because people use “Top 5″ and “Top 10″ lists a lot. It would be interesting to compare which is most effective.

  31. The way in which the rule of three impacts sticky ideas is very intriguing. I am going to try to incorporate more of this into my writing. Great post…

  32. I can’t argue with you…it’s an excellent point!

    One thing I’ve been taking more notice of and trying to implement is blogging in series. Write a post but leave them with a cliffhanger. Lol. Make it a 3 part series!

  33. Excellent article, Brian. I have no idea how I’ve never thought about or recognized the Rule of 3 before (at least, not on a conscious level). Very simple, yet incredibly effective.

    I probably already employ this in my writing, without even realizing it. But, now, I’ll be making a more conscious effort to make use of it.

  34. Great insight Brian!

    I went out and start hunting on things that obeyed the rule of 3. Some of the things that came to my mind: new picture frames with 3 photos, hotel decor arrangements, movie trilogies (LOTR, Matrix)!

    like your insight on 3 is the minimum number of creating a pattern. I also find 1-2-3 step process more appealing and friendly.

  35. In line with the Rule of 3 , here is one more … odd numbers work better than even. This applies to bulleted phrases, lists, etc. (exception are variations on 10.)

    I’ve often though that the reason odd numbers work better is that they create dissonance and therefore force more interest. Even numbers connote stability and balance and make us feel more peaceful – not what you’re looking for when you’re looking to engage your prospect/customer.

    (I don’t have any research to support my thinking on this but if someone does, lay it on me!)

  36. The number three is truly fascinating! I love how you’ve explained the concept with so many fun-to-read examples.

    And I’m liking some of the theories in the comments here, lol. The rule of three is also very big in photography — look up the “rule of thirds”. A photo is often much more interesting when it’s broken up into thirds rather than halves.

  37. Kinda funny. I was checking out many magazine headlines and behold there were tons that use the rule of 3. Here are a few examples.

    Here is one from Self: Shrink A Size Naturally – No Starvation, No Fads, No Regain

    One from Mens Health: New Year, New Body, New Life.

    A third from MORE (my favorite): Moms in menopause, daughters in puberty, dads in hell

  38. Good Advice…

    Thanks for that…

  39. Good Advice.

    Many Thanks

  40. This is a great post. Thank you. I knew bits and pieces from experience regarding the use of 3 throughout time, but you did a great job of pulling it all together. I felt kind of good because I am just finishing up a 3-part post.

  41. Excellent Article. Makes a lot of sense.

  42. No fair Brian. I wrote about the rule of three over a year ago.

  43. It works and I think that the 3 is a good basis for adding more depth and layers in writing. It isn’t the only method for writing structure but it is one that works.

    Thanks for the post brian.

  44. 3 is the real formula. We teach the children when telling a story: start at the beginning, then there is the middle and finally the ending.
    How soon we forget. You are so right. Keeping it simple is the way forward.
    Thanks

  45. So basic…yet it totally makes sense!
    Thank you.

  46. Another place the number three turns up is in the “Rule of Threes” that is taught by survival experts.

    These simple to remember rules remind you how long you can survive in life-threatening situations:

    * You can survive 3 minutes without air

    * You can survive 3 hours without shelter

    * You can survive 3 days without water

    * You can survive 3 weeks without food

    By learning (and applying) the “Rule of Threes” your chances of surviving a life-threatening situation go up. A lot!

    Here is a good introduction to the “Rule of Threes” for setting survival priorities: http://www.survival.com/bookch1a.htm

    I have used the “Rule of Threes” as the inspiration for my “ISV Survival” blog (http://isvsurvival.com/blog/) where I cover the life-threatening challenges that independent software vendors (ISVs) face in the shift to Software as a Service (SaaS).

  47. Sadly there is a downside to this rule of three. When you think about the way organizations use taglines the recent trend is to find three descriptive words, plop some periods between ‘em, and call it done.

    Three. Word. Tagline.

    Sure it is comfortable. And it might even sound memorable… but the only thing memorable about it is that there are three words, not what those three words stand for.

    Just one thought from a guy that writes names and taglines for a living.

  48. This makes total sense. There is a rule in proposal development that works without fail. In reading a detailed proposal, the brain naturally picks up the first line of a list, then jumps to the last, so classically, put the most important point in the 1 position, the 2nd most important point last. Then, it seems, the eye jumps to the 2 position, then next to last, then back up to the 3rd position. A pattern, until the eye and brain give up. So to make a more solid proposal, make only 3 points, that way, the reader can more effectively scan, reading point 1, 3, and 2, and then free to move to the next subject. Guaranteed to expedite the review, and probably increase success in marketing.

  49. I couldn’t agree more–also consider the fact that photographers use the rule of threes to divide their pictures into tic-tac-toe boards. And when in doubt, remember the German proverb: “Alle guten Dinge sind drei.”

  50. What a truly enlightening post.

    Even our lives are based on 3:

    Birth, Life, Death

  51. Father, Son, & Holy Ghost,
    which amounts to
    the Creator, the Creation, and
    everything the Creation isn’t.

  52. Classical music symphonies are in three movements / fast-slow-fast. We juggle three balls. The waltz (most graceful for couples) is written in three beats per measure. I Ching is composed of trigrams. Japanese gardens use three rocks not four. The triangle is a sound structure, like a roof. Catholics have their holy trinity. And when ya “rack em up” to play pool you use a triangle.

  53. Great post – thank you!
    I am a speech coach and just posted on the rule of three…
    http://sarahgershman.blogspot.com/2009/11/remember-rule-of-three.html

    It would be great to hear your feedback!

    Sarah

  54. Thanks for this concise, educational, and interesting explanation. I’ve noticed in my own writing I am drawn to three examples of most things. It’s nice to know it’s not a personal foible, but an ingrained part of our brains. This also carries over into graphics where there is also a “rule of thirds”.

    Maybe this is also why three beers seem better than one. Six-packs, (2X3) and 24-packs. (8X3)

  55. I’m wondering if anyone got the Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference….

  56. I love this rule. It’s funny, it’s engaging – and it totally works.

  57. You know what I’m gonna do with this rule? I’m gonna read it, think about it a moment, and then disregard it entirely.

  58. That’s right Jeff, ignore everyone that knows more than you do and is trying to help you. That’s why you’re not a successful writer or graphics designer.

    Don’t bother thinking about it, you’ve obviously given up thinking a long time ago.

  59. Great observation. I’ve noticed when I write articles and I want to give examples or a series I’ll write the intro . . . use a colon: blank; blank; and blank.

    I find it an efficient way of writing. I also use “including: blank, blank, and blank.”

  60. William Gerald :

    And then there is the final #3 grouping that many encounter:
    READY . . . AIM . . . FIRE!

  61. Thanks Brian, for another action-provoking post.

    Incidentally, Churchill never referred to “Blood, sweat and tears”.
    He said: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

    (Many years ago, my teacher explained that “toil” was forgotten because you can SEE blood, sweat and tears, but you can’t see toil.)

  62. This is great and makes a lot of sense.

    The number 3 is also used in Boy Scouts, many eastern religions (as well as the trinity) and I think there is merit in it. Any numerology people want to comment?

  63. I like the number 3 and often find myself using it in my article writing.

  64. classic storytelling: beginning – middle – end

    but mathematically, “three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern” is incorrect; that would be two. Just ask any binary number.

    but two is boring, and not nearly as memorable as three!

  65. Excellent post. I like how you hit home with the memorable patterns from the childhood stories that were read to us. Another potential reason why many of us can relate to the number three is its popularity in some of the world’s religions. I had stumbled upon this website a little while ago – http://www.threes.com/

  66. I love this post………and can ‘t forget

    A cord of three strands is not easily broken…..

  67. Everyone who grew up in the 1970′s/1980′s knows that “Three is a Magic Number” –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA69pmhrBiE

    :-)

  68. i know its old, but Lol @Jeff . @james u DON’T get it do you!!!

    Now we need an article on how to effectively use punctuations, emoticons, etc.

    • Yeah Andrew, I get it. Obviously, you don’t have a clue.

      You are basically a moron with no understanding of anything. Who ties your shoes for you? Mommy still does it?

      Why an article on punctuation? You wouldn’t understand it anyway.

      • Larry aka zenabowli :

        Is it just me or has this conversation turned out to be an infantile and egotistical smack down. Language is the currency of thought. Right now I don’t see much thought, just one ups man bulls**t. If there is no wisdom, civility or human respect in the thought process, the currency only amounts to play money. (did ya notice my rule of three)

        The thread of the original topic has been going on for a few years now. Every so often I get an email with a new entry. Some more interesting than others. But, adult civility was kept intact. Come on folks. Give it a rest or exchange email addresses. Take this to the back alley where it belongs.