As someone who has spent their life obsessed with writing, numbers and mathematics have always seemed a bit alien—if not downright scary—to me.
But, despite my fear of algebra, calculus, and all things arithmetical, there's one number whose magic I cannot deny.
Say hello to the digit that every writer should have on-hand at all times: the number three.
Often referred to as the 'rule of three' or 'tricolon', the rhetorical device of bundling words, phrases or sentences into groups of three for more memorability and impact has been around for centuries. From Julius Caesar ("I came, I saw, I conquered") to the Declaration of Independence ("Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"), this grammatical cheat code has the ability to make ideas jump off the page and straight into the mind of the reader.
Many scholars have tried to work out exactly why the rule of three is so effective, but it essentially comes down to this: words, phrases or sentences grouped into three just feel right.
It also adds a sense of authority and confidence to a statement, which is why it's so beloved of politicians ("Of the people, by the people, for the people", "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.")
In fact, it's such a strong rhetorical device that it still works when repeating the same idea three times in a row ("location, location, location", "education, education, education").
So, we know the rule of three has popped up in speeches, plays, and historic documents. But does the number three's magical properties carry over into copywriting?
Yes, yes, and yes again.
First up, there's the three-word strapline.
Whether it's Nike with 'Just do it', Audi with 'Vorsprung durch Technik', or Tesco with 'Every little helps', using three little words can make your brand sound like a really big deal. In fact, according to Creative Review, seven of the top 20 slogans of all time are three-word lines.
Of course, the rule of three doesn't just work for three words grouped together in a sentence—it can also help to communicate an idea or process in a simple, memorable way. It's why we always remember to 'stop, look, and listen', and it's why we'll never forget that 'a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play'.
And it gets even better.
Because the rule of three feels so natural when we hear it, you can sprinkle it generously all over your copy and it won't overpower the message. Unlike rhetorical devices like alliteration and anaphora, with the rule of three you can just keep going and going (and going?).
So, next time you want a bit of copy that really sticks in the reader's memory, consider fetching the magical number three from your toolbox. It's proven to work, it lifts the words from the page, and it's as easy as one, two, three.
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