How to write compelling brand content #5: The Rule of 3

What do sex, drugs and rock n’ roll and Heinz Baked Beans have in common?

They follow the rule of 3.

The rule of 3 is a principle you can apply to your copy to give it greater impact and make it more memorable.

Many familiar sayings come in threes – mind, body and spirit; faith, hope and charity; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Three is memorable. It lodges in the brain.

Some of the most famous phrases in advertising use the rule of 3:

Your Flexible Friend

That’s Asda Price

Just Do It.

Beanz Meanz Heinz.

rule of 3 in copywriting

Not all memorable taglines are three words long, but three is an optimum number to create a lasting impression.

Why is this rule of three so effective? It comes down to the human brain and how we process information.

Pattern recognition: how the rule of 3 works

Our brains look for patterns and systems to help us make sense of the world around us. This is pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition is a complex cognitive process in which the human brain discovers patterns and determines what they mean.

We do it every day. You might look up at the stars and identify a constellation or recognise the symmetry in leaf patterns on a tree. But this brain function also serves a useful purpose. Identifying patterns helps us determine probabilities and predict outcomes.

The brain stores information and makes connections between stuff it remembers and things it perceives in the present. It sees patterns in these memories and perceptions.

Patterns require a number or sequence of items. Three is the smallest number you need to form a pattern in your mind.

When you write content for your audience, they’ll read it and make certain associations based on your choice of words and sentences.

Applying the rule of three can help your ideas lodge more firmly in your readers’ minds.

Once you identify the rule of 3, it’s hard to ignore it. You can see it in a wide variety of writing, from fairy stories to literature, political speeches to marketing campaigns.

Three Little Pigs and other stories

The rule of three applies to storytelling:

  • The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol all follow narratives that contain sequences of three
  • In the Bible, there’s the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and the Three Wise Men who visit the infant Jesus
  • Many stories feature three main protagonists, such as the Harry Potter books (Harry, Ron and Hermione).
3 little pigs story

Applying the rule of 3 in persuasive speech

The rule of three is highly effective in rhetoric – using persuasive language to move an audience:

  • “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”
  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”
  • “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

A sequence of three gives people a relatable pattern they can follow. It makes ideas hit home and helps the audience retain them for longer.

Delivering the perfect punchline

In comedy, the rule of 3 is also known as the triple.

It works like this. The comedian tells a joke that has three elements.

The first two of these elements are the set-up and the build-up. The second follows logically from the first, creating a narrative the audience can follow easily.

But the third element is the one that delivers the punchline because it upends what has gone before it.

Example:

When you die you see a light at the end of the tunnel. When my father dies, he’ll see the light, move towards it… then switch it off to save electricity.

The first item establishes the pattern. The second item reinforces it. The third item gives it an unexpected twist.

First you engage the audience, then you surprise them, giving your punchline impact.

Writing techniques using the rule of three

Here are three ways to create compelling copy using the rule of three.

1. Basic three-part structure

The basic structure of a written piece of copy is a beginning, middle and end:

  • Set-up (beginning) – introduce your subject, establish the concept you’re discussing or the argument you’re making
  • Body (middle) – the main part of your piece, where you add colour and detail, expand on your ideas and take the reader on a journey
  • Conclusion (end) – the summation of all you’ve discussed, including the main points you want the reader to take away with them.

2. Memorable sentences

Use groups of three words parallel in length or form. This is known as a tricolon.

A tricolon is a rhetorical device to make words and phrases more memorable.

It can involve the simple repetition of one word:

Location, location, location.

Or a repeated word pattern:

“My fellow citizens, I stand here today humbled by the task before usgrateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.” (Barack Obama)

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Winston Churchill).

3. Three-in-one concepts

You can make three independent words work together consecutively to convey a single concept more powerfully and memorably.

This figure of speech is known as hendiatris. It adds emphasis to sentences and contributes to memorable taglines and sayings:

  • A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.
  • Hands, face, space.
  • Sun, sea and sand.
rule of 3

How to ensure your copy competes successfully

Three is a recurring motif in memorable writing. It’s not a hard and fast rule – you don’t have to follow the rule of 3 – but there are plenty of examples demonstrating its effectiveness.

Content must compete and to compete it needs to make an impression on its readers.

Following the rule of three is one way of helping your content make a stronger impression but it’s not the ONLY way.

Want to know more about creating compelling copy? Get in touch, or book a free, no-obligation discovery call.