TEDxTuesdays, a weekly-ish 'zine about TED-style messaging.

TEDxTuesdays: Insights from... The TED Talk Whisperer (14nov23)

Published 6 months ago • 8 min read

TRIPLE ADVANTAGE: The Pattern, Psychology & Power Behind the Rule of 3.

The Rule of 3 stands as a timeless and powerful principle. Appied throughout history, it saturates our culture.

Whether you are telling a story, designing a marketing campaign, or crafting a speech, harnessing the true power of a “triple” can significantly enhance your message's impact and memorability.

What’s more, recognizing the psychology and application of the Rule of 3 (Ro3) can benefit your next story, tagline, and message.

The Appeal of a Triple Series.

Dr. Steven Feinberg, the world’s leading neurostrategist, asserts: “Our brain is a pattern recognition engine. It is the original dot-connector. We use it to predict what is going to happen and what causes things to happen.”

He is spot on — and the most elemental pattern we seek (our default) is the 1-2-3 series.

Note that “pattern” is the operative word here. It is interesting to consider that 3 is the minimum sequence required to form a pattern. A pattern isn’t 1 item; neither is a pattern made of 2. A 1-2 of the same item could be idiosyncratic or just luck, a coincidence. But add a 3rd and a true minimalist pattern is formed.

Chunking and Short-Term Memory.

Why is this?

The Ro3 is rooted in the way the human brain processes information. It recognizes that we are much more likely to remember a series — of numbers, items, words, names — when it is presented in batches.

This phenomenon, often referred to as "chunking," occurs because the brain naturally organizes information into smaller groups, making it easier to process and retain. (Think of area codes and seven-digit telephone numbers with their 3, 3, and 4 groupings.)

The concept has long been studied in the context of working memory and long-term memory. Our minds and memories are simply less efficient when considering quantities larger than 3. Try 4 and we’ll perform OK, though it is still a bit much to recall.

Actually, neuroscience tells us that patterns of 5 are about the farthest edge of our short-term memory. (We’re simply not going to recall 8, 18, and 28 things.) Yet, tap 3 and our brains latch on like Velcro. Hence, the appeal, stickiness, and spreadability of a triple.

(See what I just did there?)

The Science Supporting the Rule of 3.

All that said, it is important to note that the Rule of 3 (or thirds, triples etc.) is not yet a proven science. Direct research on the concept has yet to be conducted. Rather, adjacent research is applicable here, offering insights.

There are clearly aligned neuroscience research sets that support chunking — a niche of study closely related to the Ro3. Indeed a trio (naturally) of tangential peer reviewed studies strongly point to the theory’s validity. They include:

George A. Miller’s 1956 article in The Journal of Psychological Review that proposed the principle of chunking. Miller’s work at Princeton University indicated that the human brain can hold a handful of items in working memory at a time. But this capacity could be increased by grouping items into meaningful "chunks."

Fifty years later, Johannes Burge, Wilson S. Geisler, and Bartlett W. Mel expanded on Miller’s findings in The Journal Neuron (2008). In that study, researchers used fMRI to examine brain activity during a visual search task. The researchers found that the brain processed information more efficiently when it was presented in groups of 3. Larger or smaller groupings suggested inefficiencies.

Finally, in 2012, Timothy J. Buschman, Randall C. O'Reilly, and Anthony D. Wagner published complementary findings in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate how the brain processes information presented in different chunk sizes. They found that information presented in groups of 3 elicited a specific neural response that suggested a natural preference.

So we can see that chunking studies offer conclusions of value when considering the Ro3. Our short-term memories perform at their best when grappling with 5 or fewer items, and 3 is our sweet spot for retaining and sharing ideas.

3 in Storytelling.

In storytelling, the Rule of 3 often takes the form of 3 characters, events, and challenges. Childhood stories rely on the rule's simplicity to create memorable narratives. (Ask Aladin how many wishes you’re allowed!)

These patterns are so deeply ingrained in our childhood norms that they immediately resonate with audiences, creating a sense of completeness and satisfaction that makes the story more compelling and memorable.

Consider these enduring tales:

1. The 3 Musketeers
2. The 3 Little Pigs
3. The 3 Wise Men

The same patterns can be found in family classics like A Christmas Carol. (How many ghosts tormented Scrooge?) And the Ro3 continues into adult literature, including famous works by Shakespeare. His plays often feature 3 witches, apparitions, or prophecies.

Hollywood films are similarly aligned with blockbuster titles ranging from spaghetti Westerns (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) to 3-word titles (The Lion King). And this says nothing about the dominance of 3-act structures, trifecta throughlines, and countless scripting triples.

This deliberate use of the Ro3 adds depth and complexity to narratives while keeping them accessible to broad audiences.

3 in Marketing.

One common application of the Rule of 3 in marketing is the use of slogans and taglines. Think of famous examples like De Beers and the diamond company’s “Two Months Salary” campaign. It normalized a man spending a large amount on engagement rings.

Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Harland Sanders coined the phrase “Finger Lickin’ Good” in the 1950s. He wanted to emphasize the idea that the food is so savory that customers naturally licked their fingers after eating it.

Finally, Nike’s "Just Do It" slogan emerged in 1988 conveying a powerful message of action, determination, and achievement. Debuting in a television ad, it quickly transformed into a cultural phenomenon adapted for various sports, events, and cultural moments.

Beyond 3-word slogans and taglines, marketers make use of the Ro3 in presenting options. For instance, when offering product bundles, it is common to offer basic, standard, and premium options (e.g., bronze, silver, gold). This classic approach is known to simplify the decision-making process for consumers and increase the likelihood of a purchase.

3 in Public Speaking.

One of the most common ways presenters leverage the Ro3 is through the structure of a speech. A well-designed address often consists of a 3-act structure with 3 main points, each supported by 3 subpoints.

This organization provides an intuitive roadmap for the audience and makes it easier for them to follow and retain the information presented.

In many cases, the Ro3 goes a step further with an entire message summed up with a throughline incorporating a triple: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Naturally it follows that the Ro3 finds expression on the TED stages worldwide. TEDsters apply the principle in numerous ways.

Consider these ever-popular listicle talk titles with millions of views:

“3 warp-speed architecture tales”
by Bjarke Ingels (TEDGlobal in 2009)
“3 ways to fix a broken news industry”
by Lara Setrakian (TEDNYC in 2017)
“3 ways to upgrade democracy”
by Max Rashbrooke (TEDxAuckland in 2019)

Indeed, nearly every year of TED since its dawn on YouTube in 2006 boasts examples of the same.

Then there’s the more subtle application of the Ro3: talks with a big idea that expands through 3 key points. For example, let’s briefly examine Dr. Robert Waldinger’s 45-million view TOP 10 TEDx TALK, (What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness).

In discussing findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which explores happiness and well-being, Waldinger asserts one overarching idea: "The good life is built with good relationships."

He goes on to highlight 3 key points that undergird this assertion:

1. Social connections are really good for us.
2. Close, quality relationships matter.
3. Investing in relationships pays off.

The Rule of 3 Is Your Triple Advantage!

The Rule of 3 is pervasive. From classical children’s literature to movies; marketing campaigns to taglines; public speaking to advocacy, it saturates our lives.

We understand this to be tied to neurological and sociological realities that leave our brains yearning for triplets. The Ro3 offers a connecting, compelling, and propelling tool for persuasion.

The Rule of 3 is your triple advantage!

DEVIN D. MARKS is known as The TED Talk Whisperer. His firm, CONNECT to COMPEL, has served 100s of TED, TEDx, and TED-Style speakers. The result: 100s of millions of views. His team helps leaders, just like you, catalyze ideas.

You can reach Devin at 617.804.6020, or DM him here.

Let the world LIVE your message!™

TEDxANYWHERE. 3 TEDx Events Seeking Speakers.

There's always a bevy of TEDx events bubbling with deadline announcements. But when it comes to quality productions worth applying to, there's a select few. Why aren't they all fair game? One phrase: Volunteer Run Events.

There is a wide range of event production quality (or lack thereof) in the volunteer-led TEDx world. Not all events are created equal. (More here on TEDx event selection.)

Suffice it to say, these 3 are worth investing (and risking) 3-6 months of your time as a hopeful speaker.

1. TEDxRoxbury

Deadline: Nov. 30, 2023
Event: May 2024

2. TEDxBillings

Deadline: Nov. 30, 2023
Event: Nov. TBA, 2024

3. TEDxPortsmouth

Deadline: Dec. 1, 2023
Event: May 10, 2024

P.S. Read each event's rules closely. Some welcome outside-speakers (i.e., not local to the venue); some have stringent zip code rules (e.g., "must live or work within a 30-mile radius"). And remember, relationships often drive decisions, so play the Kevin Bacon 6 Degrees of Separation rules apply.


Susan Callender and I met years ago, while I was working with speakers at one of my first TEDx events.

She was a stand-out delight to engage with in rehearsals and in hallways. And certainly, her ideas were well worth spreading!

Years later, we reconnected on her podcast — one of my first guest appearances, actually. And so I’m celebrating this throwback interview and on The Soft Power Podcast with a double dose of appreciation!

Click here to listen to episode #32.

And if you want to learn more about Susan Callender services helping introverts and leaders alike achieve social confidence, click here to learn more of her important work.

ADVERTISEMENT: What Are You Thinking About This Thursday?

Ever wish you had time to deeply think?

To pause — read a book, enjoy a conversation, write a letter?

Why not join a likeminded tribe on Thursdays and enjoy a bit of all that?

Each Thursday, THINKER THURSDAYS™ participants block out a portion of their day to read a book, connect with a deeper mind over lunch, and reflect on paper about the same.

1. READ. Crack open a real book. (None of that iPad e-Book nonsense.) We’re talking real, dog-eared pages. Make real margin notes: ask questions, add insights, argue. Save it on something called a book shelf… for generations.

2. CONNECT. Have a conversation over a long lunch. (Not a rushed half-hour grab-and-go.) We’re talking about that eye-to-eye and passion-connecting breaking of bread. iPhones off. A quiet (or virtual) corner. Listen. Share.

3. REFLECT. Take pen-in-hand. (Not a stylus or digital sticky note.) We’re talking writing cursive on a real piece of paper. Better yet, use an archive-friendly notebook. Pass it on to your kid one day. Reflect. Dream.

The result: perspective and serendipities—among two!

Hope you can join in on the #ThinkerThursdays fun.

P.S. A list of frequently asked questions can be found here.

Let the world LIVE your message!™

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TEDxTuesdays, a weekly-ish 'zine about TED-style messaging.

From... The TED Talk Whisperer, DEVIN

I help niche execs, experts and authors master the TED stage and "short talk" messaging style. (TEDx clients enjoying views in the many, Many, MANY millions.) LET THE WORLD LIVE YOUR MESSAGE!™ #tedtalks #tedx #tedstyle #publicspeaking #speechwriting #pitches #presentations #messaging #branding #publicrelations #events #conferences

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