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The New Rules of Communication :: Rule #4 — The Law of 3's

Here’s the principle:

People can remember three things.

Build your plan to communicate vision or a strategic plan or a solution around four or more big points and folks will always struggle to remember them. In fact, the longer your list, the fewer points people will remember.

You’ve said or heard others try to talk about the 4 or 5 priorities of a plan, saying, “Dang, I’m forgetting one, what was the other thing?”

As a mental model, think of the three-legged stool. How many times have you spilled a drink because the table wobbles, or fussed with a chair whose four legs don’t land flat? That never happens with a three-legged stool. No matter how uneven the ground, three legs always adjust for each other so that the stool lands firm.

Maybe you need to communicate your annual strategic plan. Maybe you're crafting long range vision. Maybe you're presenting the essence of some new program or initiative. Maybe you're simply installing the new disciplines for your weekly staff meeting.

Your challenge as a leader is to find a way to capture and communicate the essential components of your agenda in three main points—or less!

Wait a minute, are you telling me that smart people can’t remember more than three things. No. Of course not. I am saying that with the flood of information flowing across our mental screens every day, if we want people to act with focused energy on an important plan, we will accomplish more by narrowing the number of pieces to that plan.

The longer your list of key points, the more likely people will see it as a menu of options from which they can choose.

As a hobby, I love photography. I learned a long time ago that photography is not about snapping pictures. It is about creating pictures. You actually create them in your head before you take them with your camera.

In pursuit of my hobby, I’ve watched a lot of You Tube videos from photographers offering their best tips toward better images. And, thinking about “this law of 3’s” or about my earlier post on identifying the one thing, I have to laugh. The classic You Tube offering sounds like, “17 secrets for great composition.” or “ 8 solutions to lighting that you can’t live without!” Or, “197 things you can’t live without.” You get the idea. But, this isn’t a post about photography.

When someone offers a list of 17 or 8 or 197, as the audience, I immediately know I am not going to try and remember them all. I know they are offering a menu of insights that I can pick and choose from. Shoot, when a video offers that many takeaway ideas, I usually fast forward until I get to one that is uniquely helpful.

As a leader, you are a communicator. You need to tell stories and share vision. You need to rally people around essential plans and unifying ideas. You need to shape the culture and direction and best practice of your people. So, here’s the big idea:

The more you need your audience to remember and align themselves around the points of action you are offering, the more important it is for you to narrow those points to three or less.

That means, you will need to take all the competing ideas that you wish you could talk about and wrestle them to the ground, until only three survive. You might need to find ways to get those “also important” ideas — numbers 4 and 5 and 6 — to work as sub-points under a larger banner.

You cannot afford to have people pick and choose their preferred action steps of a longer list. Rallying people, achieving alignment, and shaping corporate culture are communication challenges. You need make your plans eminently memorable and inviting. The law of three’s will help you get there.

For fun, consider a couple sample corporate initiatives. How do you instinctively respond to each? Which options draw you in and which wear you out?

  1. Our 8-step re-entry plan following Covid. or, Our 2 Guiding Convictions to shape post Covid re-entry

  2. The eleven operating values that govern our financial practices. or, The three governing practices that protect our financial values.

  3. Fourteen stages to our corporate re-envisioning plan. or, Three questions we will answer to determine our next chapter.

Ok, you get. it.

And, no, this is not an absolutely inviolable rule.

Sometimes we actually have a game-plan that cannot be reduced to fewer than four or five or six fundamentals. If that’s the case, so be it.

You need to know that in order for people to hold a longer list in their active memory and align their behavior around it, your communication challenge has escalated ten-fold. You are going to have to find ways to make it memorable. You will have to make the whole list something you talk about all the time. You are going to need to make people feel like you are a broken record. Because… The longer your list, the fewer points people will normally remember.

In a world where less is more. Focus your communication on no more than three things people need to remember and put into practice and you will accomplish more.

But, it’s not easy.

Thanks to Charles Deluvio for sharing his photo on Unsplash.

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